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Remember Opium War atrocities

October 30th, 2013 · No Comments

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Vancouver Sun October 28, 2013
Remember Opium War atrocities
Exhibition on Forbidden City should highlight the historical context of our
relationship with China
By Stephen Hume

Let’s hope the Vancouver Art Gallery’s visiting display next year of
treasures from the Forbidden City will cause patrons to think about the
historical context of our relationship with China.

Will it address the connection of one of Canada’s founding political icons
to the abomination that caused one of the great cultural atrocities in
world history? The hero was Lord Elgin.

His reforms as governorgeneral from 1847 to 1854 brought responsible
government and laid the foundation necessary sary for confederation in
1867. Worthy deeds, all.

The abomination was the Opium War. It occurred when a British government in
thrall to greedy merchants saw a way to end a trade imbalance caused by its
citizens’ addiction to tea and Chinese citizens’ indifference to British
merchandise. Opium grown in India could be sold to equally greedy merchants
in China, who would grow a market of addicts. Chinese merchants would buy
opium with silver. The British would use the silver to pay for Chinese tea.
This drug trade boomed.

Opium exports to China exploded from a few chests a year for medicinal
purposes to thousands of tons. British tea deficits became an opium surplus.

Tea clippers raced back and forth with high value cargo.

We romanticize this tea trade.

Thermopylae, home port Victoria, and Cutty Sark, a name now adorning a
Scotch whisky label, gallantly raced across the Pacific. The slimy details
of what paid for their cargoes are left in the bilge of history.

Government-approved opium factories erupted like toadstools. There were 15
in Victoria. And more in Vancouver where one of the biggest was a local
Chinese enterprise.

Alas, when the Qing emperor’s government confronted the dwindling of its
silver reserves and the ravaged throngs of addicts – and sought to stop the
pernicious trade by seizing opium stocks, British merchants demanded
protection for markets and merchandise.

In defence of free enterprise, the Royal Navy enforced merchants’ rights to
sell opium to the Chinese.

William Gladstone, a future British prime minister, and Karl Marx,
political philosopher, denounced this. Gladstone said it would disgrace
Britain forever. Marx predicted it would cause China to regard the West as
a malign conspiracy.

Marx proved more prescient than Gladstone. China’s Communist revolution
seized upon the perception of national humiliation at the hands of arrogant
Europeans as a propaganda tool for national unity and as evidence of the
West’s implacable malice and moral decadence – attitudes that fester in the
political bedrock of an awakening economic powerhouse that will outstrip
the U.S.

The First Opium War, or the First Anglo-Chinese War – nobody calls it the
First World Drug Dealers’ War – followed between 1839 and 1842. British
military technology prevailed. China was forced to pay reparations for
disrupting the drug trade.

In 1856, Imperial Chinese authorities impounded a vessel for piracy. The
pirate flew the Union Jack. Tension mounted. Talks failed. The Royal Navy
ruthlessly bombarded ports. A shore battery fired back, damaging a British
squadron. France, Russia and the United States joined in invading China to
crush the incipient threat to democracy.

The Second Opium War was marked by brutality on both sides. Europeans were
gleefully merciless in butchering poorly-led, illequipped, sometimes near
medieval Chinese troops. In one encounter, the ratio of slain was about
1,000 to one. Among Chinese offences: the duplicitous imprisonment, torture
and execution of 20 Europeans and Indians when a flag of truce was accepted
then violated. The victims included diplomats and a reporter for The Times
of London.

Enter Lord Elgin. Following his Canadian assignment, he served as Special
Envoy to China. Now he was sent back to prosecute a satisfactory conclusion
to the Second Opium War.

The cultural atrocity?

To punish the Chinese emperor for his mandarins’ atrocity against the
prisoners, in 1860, Lord Elgin ordered the emperor’s summer palace burned.
It was a millenniaold complex of gardens, pavilions, pagodas, art
galleries, museums and Imperial libraries that covered about 200 square

It might have been worse. He was going to burn the Forbidden City but was
persuaded not to by Russian and French diplomats. Instead, Lord Elgin
ordered a barbarous orgy of destruction at the Summer Palace. Irreplaceable
treasures were looted. What soldiers couldn’t steal, they smashed or
burned, including thousand-yearold literary and historic manuscripts and
archival documents, prints, tapestries, monumental bronze and stone
sculptures and wonderfully ornate buildings like the Pavilion of the Spirit
of Literature.

Here’s one vivid description of Lord Elgin’s revenge from historian Julia
Lowell’s book, The Opium War: “Soldiers began running around in a temporary
delirium of indiscriminate looting; objects too heavy to be removed were
simply destroyed. The camp was a sea of the empire’s best silks, with army
cross-dressers dancing around in the gorgeous embroidered gowns of the
emperor’s concubines.”

Please remember that apocalyptic orgy and who set it off when you admire
those magnificent examples of silk garments during the Forbidden City

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