Teapots, Opium Pipes, Guns: From The Canton Trade To Opium War, 1700-1842

John E. Wills Jr.

IN 1793 GEORGE LORD MACARTNEY, ambassador of His Majesty George III to the Qianlong Emperor of Great Qing, was received in a splendid ceremony at the imperial Mountain Estate for Avoiding the Heat (Bishu shanzhuang) at Rehe, present-day Chengde, about a hundred miles northeast of Beijing, The ambassador was impressed by his imperial host, a fine, alert, straight-backed old gentleman, but not by his empire, which Macartney described—nautical metaphor coming naturally to a Briton of his time—as:

an old, crazy, first rate man of war, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat for these one hundred and fifty years past…. but whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command upon deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may perhaps not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom. [Wills 1994, 232]

In 1839 war broke out between Great Britain and Great Qing. It is referred to as the Opium War, and in most ways it was about opium, but it was also part of a major effort to compel China to open itself to the forces of “progress”—nationstate diplomacy, free trade, Christianity. Some Qing troops fought to the last man, and there were some first signs of popular resistance to foreign aggression, but superior guns and steamships produced a military rout and an enforced settlement in the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), changing the terms of trade, opening four more ports in addition to Guangzhou, and beginning the enmeshment of China in a growing web of treaty-made foreign power that would not be folly broken until the Communist victory of 1949.

Was Lord Macartney prophetic? Did the Opium War represent the fatal shipwreck of an antiquated system? The Qing Empire was under great strain by the time of the Opium War, but this was in many ways the result of growth, and the empire had no shortage of able officials working hard to reform basic components—the examinations, the salt monopoly, the Grand Canal—of a system that ruled in peace over a quarter of humanity. We will not ignore the strains, but we should begin by noticing that by the 1840s the Qing were confronting for the first time the results of unprecedented developments, “revolutions,” in the North Atlantic world. The steamships used by the British in the Opium War represented the first time the Qing Empire had faced the new forms of power unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. The empire-building, war-making British state, forged in a very long century of war and near-war with France (1689—1815), was as unprecedented as the steamship in its ability to deliver violence at a very great distance. Over the course of a century of foreign domination and humiliation, from 1842 to 1949, the secrets of industrialization would be easier for the Chinese to learn than those of nation building.

The objects and images illustrated in this volume, and in collections in North America, Europe, and China, tell an even more complicated tale involving a number of “consumer revolutions.” The story of the Industrial Revolution has usually been told in terms of processes of production and organization of capital. Historians, however, have come to understand that changes in consumption patterns, “consumer revolutions,” first visible in Great Britain in the 1700s, helped to stimulate and sustain economic growth. In any society before our own, and perhaps even today, there are limits on how many people feel comfortable owning goods that are more than simply useful—more beautiful, more comfortable, of more exotic origin. How many can own such things without suffering the disapproval of their social superiors for their presumption? As number of willing and able consumers increase, widened circles of demand and distribution, fueled in part by advertising, stimulate production and help to sustain economic activity through other uncertainties.

One of the important eighteenth-century masters of demand-creation was Josiah Wedgwood, whose beautiful designs and canny promotions created a nationwide middle-class demand for fine earthenware, not porcelain, not cheap earthenware, not pewter. If you think about it, you can follow these themes of stimulated demand and consumer revolution right on to the Model T, Starbucks, and a global economy precariously dependent on the continued demand of American consumers for things they don’t really need. In this essay we will examine how at least two consumer revolutions, in tea and in opium—interacting in a growing and increasingly connected global economy with large intercontinental flows of silver—contributed to massive changes in the positions of China and the North Atlantic world, especially Great Britain.

This particular set of consumer revolutions began with tea. In 1650 relatively few Europeans had ever had a cup of tea. By 1750 a great many, especially in Great Britain, drank it every day. All the tea drunk in London and Edinburgh, all the tea thrown into Boston Harbor in 17731 was grown in China. The increasing taste for it paralleled and interacted in interesting ways with the growing consumption around the North Atlantic of Indian fabrics, which gave us chintzes, calicoes, and many other Indian names and wares; coffee from the seaport of Mocha in Yemen and later from Java; and sugar, produced by slave labor in Brazil and the West Indies, which was consumed in large quantities with tea or coffee (Wills 1993). For some time coffee retained a sense of its exotic Middle Eastern origins and created a masculine sphere of political argument and business activity in the coffeehouses of London. Tea , eventually became more domestic, more respectable for ladies, and not as much was made of its exotic origins. The ladies’ tea party became so common that it elicited satirical commentary in both England and Holland (see Smith, this volume). By the second half of the eighteenth century, London had several famous tea gardens, where couples and families might stroll in the open and enjoy the music and refreshments in a relatively respectable atmosphere. Drinking tea with milk and sugar produced a good source of reasonably hygienic stimulation and nourishment, which by 1800 was part of the daily routine even of some urban workers.

The British state, always looking for new modes of financing the next war with France, taxed legal tea imports at about 100 percent, quite predictably stimulating a huge and widespread smuggling trade and providing a key source of demand for the tea imports of Amsterdam, Ostend, Copenhagen, and even the hated French. Smuggling made good tea available all around the island, not just through the legal London distribution channel. Competition, expanding supplies, and shifts to cheaper varieties kept prices low and thus made tea accessible We to more and more ordinary people.

All the knitting together of the continents by maritime trade between 1500 and 1800 was small and fragile compared to that of the world of steam, steel, and colonies around which today has been surpassed many times over by the trains and trucks carrying container after container arriving from the Canton Delta and rumbling out of the Port of Los Angeles every day; Early modem growth was nonetheless continuous and irreversible; I estimate that tea exports from China doubled between 1720 and 1740, doubled again from 1740 to 1765, and doubled yet again from 1765 to 1795. The great English East India Company (eic) was a very effective coordinator of purchases, shipping, and sales, but it continually faced competition from other Europeans. Interested in stability in the trade, the English, the Dutch, and others did not expect to get their own way at Canton, and they made the necessary compromises and adjustments in their practices that allowed them to carry on their businesses. Cooperation with Chinese merchants and officials thus often proceeded smoothly for years at a time.

The Chinese side of the trade represents just as great a triumph of organization. The Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty had been brutal in some episodes of their conquest in the mid-16oos, but thereafter they provided good order and tolerable government across their immense realm, where the population farmed and produced and traded fine craft goods in peace. Frontier areas were settled, and the population of the empire doubled between 1700 and 1800, The bureaucracy, however, expanded much more slowly than the population, and was thus stretched thin. Ethnic mistrust between the Manchu rulers and the Han (ethnic “Chinese”) majority, especially the population of the far south, strengthened a wariness, deeply embedded in Chinese traditions of statecraft, of foreign connections that might aid subversion and rebellion. Foreigners could come to stay in the empire, as some Roman Catholic missionaries and some frontier Russians did, but those who came and went would be strictly confined to border outposts like Kiakhta, where the Russians traded, or Guangzhou, the port for the maritime Europeans, which foreigners called Canton (from the local pronunciation of the name of the province, Guangdong). The steady growth of the tea trade was managed within these rules. Although attempts were made, we know of no foreigner who visited the tea-producing areas before the 1850s.

At Guangzhou, Europeans made contracts and advanced silver to big Chinese merchant houses that were approved by the government to engage in foreign trade and that were also responsible for the collection of duties on the trade and for keeping the foreigners under control. During the summer trading season the foreign ships were towed up the Pearl River and anchored at Huangpu (or “Whampoa,” as the name appears in European records of the time), where a small European cemetery may still be seen, a few miles down the river from the city of Guangzhou, Movement between Huangpu and the Guangzhou waterfront was in smaller craft, completely controlled by the Chinese authorities (Van Dyke 2005).

By 1800 some of the big Chinese merchants owned tea plantations and processing facilities in the tea-producing areas, but the coordination and fulfillment of the foreigners, orders was largely accomplished through many small transactions among growers, processors, and merchants (Gardella 1994). The foreign buyers tasted a sample of a particular variety of tea before ordering it, and if the tea delivered did not match the sample, they would reject it and get their money back. There were even cases when tea found unsatisfactory upon arrival in London or Amsterdam was returned to Canton for full refund. As the volume of the trade expanded, the merchants performed prodigies of organization, providing boats equipped with rowers to tow the big Western ships up to Huangpu and furnishing sufficient food, water, and naval crews for their stays in the trading season and their homeward voyages. Drink and sexual pleasure were fairly readily available around the Huangpu anchorage, and of course there were some nasty brawls between French and English sailors, but in general the trade continued to run smoothly as it expanded.

Trading was wound up, and ships full of tea dispatched on the “north monsoon,” starting in November. Thereafter, all foreigners were supposed to leave Guangzhou; some went home on the ships, quite a few wintered in Portuguese Macao, and a few stayed behind in Guangzhou to collect remaining debts.

A little semi-quarantined world of Siino-foreign contact grew up on the Guangzhou waterfront. Each national group had its own “Factory” (i.e., warehouse and residence of commercial agents, or “factors,” production) with its own piece of river frontage and flagpole. Local artists and craftsmen developed a nice business painting this waterfront scene on silk, porcelain, and even fans for sale to the foreigners. On a few streets near the Factories it was possible, in the late 1700s, to buy off the shelf or to custom order items like the elegant fans illustrated in figures 8.2 and 8.3 and the punch bowl in figure 8.4. Also available were paintings of the shops, warehouses, and the orderly procedures of the trade (figs. 8.5a-f, 8.6, 8.7), urban and rural scenes in China, and much more.

Although Chinese artists produced what the foreigner wanted to buy, their images of shops, workshops, and tea warehouses also convey a vivid sense of their own pride in Guangzhou’s large-scale craft and trade activities. Cultural interchange did not run very deep, but it could be cordial. The Chinese were not supposed to teach their language to foreigners, and few of them got further in learning a European language than a “pidgin” of European vocabulary items in Chinese syntax, which was useful for Business but not much more. William Hickey described a pair of banquets in the 1770s in which the foreigners watched the Chinese try to handle knife and fork; the next day the Chinese watched the foreigners try to cat with chopsticks; and the true highlight was a Chinese theatrical in which a Chinese actor appeared as a British ship captain, shouting “Maskee can do! Goddam! Goddam!” to general merriment. Some of the ships at Huangpu had small brass bands, and when they played a number or two at twilight the effect was quite lovely (Hickey 1913-1925 1: 196-232).

Despite such encounters, the situation was by no means a static idyll. The trade grew, and the financial capacities of the licensed Chinese merchants came under great strain. The merchants had to send money up-country to the tea production areas to keep the trade moving, so credit was an essential part of doing business, just as it is today. Qing prohibitions against borrowing from foreigners were unenforceable. Many foreigners, especially the increasing number of British private traders not employed by the East India Company, loaned Chinese merchants money at high interest. When some of the merchants consequently went bankrupt, Chinese officials and other merchants worked very hard to repay the principal owed on these loans but not the constantly compounding interest. Many of the foreign private traders that arrived in China were fresh from the orgy of extortion in the first years of the British political and fiscal control in Bengal where British thugs and their Bengali clients thoroughly corrupted the systems of taxes and transit tolls inherited from the Mughal Empire. They were less inclined to settle for the system of steady, long term relations that had worked so well earlier in the century. Nonetheless, the expansion and adaptation of the system was very impressive.

The porcelain items that foreigners bought from China to use in preparing and drinking tea rarely represented more than 5 percent of their export cargo by value, but the importance of this trade in the history of Chinese-European cultural exchange is immense, and we can learn much from it because so much of it has been preserved. Porcelain does not decay, even when submerged for centuries in Southeast Asian shipwrecks—from which many thousands of pieces have been recovered in the recent past, Europeans had seen and prized a few pieces of porcelain, brought by overland routes, as early as the time of Marco Polo, Chinese kilns also did some custom production for the European market very soon after the coming of the Portuguese, and one example bears the arms of Portugal reproduced upside-down (Le Corbeiller and Frelinghuysen 2003,6). Museums in Europe and the United States contain many pieces of Ming and early Qing blue-and-white ware, sometimes with European metal fittings added. Many more examples are to be seen in seventeenth European still lifes.

The porcelain trade took new dimensions as the tea trade expanded with its settled center at Guangzhou after 1700. This is reflected in the presence of Chinese export porcelain in old merchant or plantation houses—now open to the public—from Massachusetts to Virginia, There are staggering collections of Chinese ceramics at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (see Mudge 1986; Sargent 1991; Le Corbeiller and Frelinghuysen 2003). Both institutions have large matched services for many guests, including sugar bowls, creamers, and other vessels for which there were no Chinese precedents. All the ordering party had to do was to provide a sample of the desired shape in pottery or wood, which would be sent up to the great kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi and very carefully copied. Family coats-of-arms were meticulously reproduced. More than one set of special porcelain was made for the Order of the Cincinnati, the elite society of George Washingtons former officers. One of these contains a splendid punch bowl, decorated on its outside with a marvelously clear copy of a certificate of membership in the Cincinnati, executed by an artisan who cannot have known a word of English (Le Corbeiller and Frelinghuysen 2003,45).

These numerous American examples are exceeded many times over by those in European collections. Rulers procured splendid) matched vases of huge proportions, which were made to order in China, and they filled their palaces with porcelain. Chinese figures and landscapes painted on these pieces found many imitators in the European “chinoiserie” movement, and some of the results were sent back to China and copied yet But in the early 1700s Europeans had discovered the secrets of the manufacture of porcelain and were soon making fine products to the European taste without delay or distortion at Sevres, Meissen, and many other manufactories. Wedgwood’s fine earthenware was setting yet another competing standard of elegance. The moment of chinoiserie and reves chinois was soon past.

The coiitinuing expansion of the tea trade intersected in the late 1700s with another consumer revolution: that of opium. The drug had been taken by mouth since ancient times and produced an addictive sense of euphoria, as well as relief from the internal distresses attendant on bad food and tropical marching* By 1700 or 1750, however, some Southeast Asians, probably in western Java, had come to use a new mode of delivery; heating pure opium over a spirit lamp it started to vaporize and then inhaling the vapors through a specially designed pipe, This practice probably originated in the Middle East or Central Asia, The opiate taken in this manner entered the pulmonary system, as opposed to the digestive, and produced a much sharper spike of opiate level in the blood, acute pleasure, and a much greater addictive potential.

A fair amount of Dutch colonial evidence dating to around 1670 suggests that an additional practice, that of mixing tobacco and opium and lighting the mixture in a pipe, widespread in western Java. If Middle Easterners were mixing tobacco and opium in their water pipes about this time, this could account for the confidence of the Malay/ Indonesian word for the opium-tobacco mixture, madat, with one of the colloquial Arabic words, used in Yemen, fox the water pipe, mada’a. One German employee of the Dutch East India Company in the late 1600s left a very odd description of Javanese mixing opium and tobacco, lighting up a pipe, inhaling the mixture through a mouthful of warter , if not simply confused, this account may represent some awareness of the existence of the Middle Eastern water pipe and an attempt to improvise something analogous to cool the smoke. At some point a small “Chinese water pipe,” just a pipe with a little extra chamber full of water, became very common in China.

Resident Chinese in Java were great tax-collecting, labor-organizing allies of the Dutch dating from the early 1600s. In the late 16oos, we find these same Chinese buying increasing quantities of opium, imported from Bengal. In the 1700s Dutch records yield ample evidence of the increase of opium consumption by Javanese and by resident Chinese across the great island. It stands to reason that some of these Chinese took the habit back to their homeland. Official Chinese concerns about opium imports and their effects on people are recorded as early as the 1720s.

The Chinese opium pipe pictured in figure 8.10 is an elegant and expensive creation, not intended for a poor man but rather meant for a consumer culture where display is of concern. Modern testimony suggests that vaporizing opium requires considerable practice and a high-quality grade of the drug. This was not, therefore, typical end-of-day relaxation for a tin miner or a boat puller. Late nineteenth-century stereopticon photographs of Chinese opium smokers are good examples of a very popular genre: striking images of “Oriental decadence” intended for the European and American markets. Where two female smokers recline facing each other with their pipes, working to get the right result from the spirit lamp between them, we seem to be witnessing a strongly social occasion (fig. 8.1), not the solitary and obsessive withdrawal of some of our images of addiction. In another image (fig. 8.8), Chinese water pipes are clearly visible.

Most of the opium that was sold throughout Southeast Asia and all the way to China was grown and processed in Bengal (see Kolsky, this volume). After it became the dominant power in Bengal, following the Battle of Plassey in 1757, die English East India Company took control of opium production and cultivation; studied carefully the records of opium quotas owed by farmers in various districts to the previous Mughal administration and, unlike the Mughals, made sure the full quotas were collected; and finally asserted its monopoly on opiums trade in 1773, The Company did not carry on its own opium trade in Southeast Asia, and especially not in China, where the trade was illegal and open eic involvement might have interfered with the thriving tea trade. Instead it sold the opium at auction to private “country traders,” the same network of bullyboys, fresh from the pillage of Bengal, who were causing so much trouble in Guangzhou, The preparation, storage, and sale facilities of the Company and the later English government in Bengal suggest a large, efficient operation and a major source of revenue for the Raj.

In the 1800s other colonial administrations—the Dutch in Java, Bali, and the outer islands; the French in Vietnam; and the British at Singapore—would make a government monopoly of the sale of opium a major source, perhaps the major source, of revenue supporting the colonial venture (Trocki 1999). Chinese residents were frequently the major licensees for wholesale and retail sales. On the China coast, away from Guangzhou, wholesale sales to Chinese dealers took place at highly visible rafts or hulks of sailing ships (fig. 8.9). There was very little overt mixing with the legal export of tea from Guangzhou. Nonetheless, it was here that tea and opium joined with silver in the intricate enmeshing of China in a growing global economy. From before 1600, China had ran a positive balance of trade in its relations with Europeans. who wanted to buy first silks and then tea in far greater quantities than they could sell any of their own goods to die Chinese. The opium trade changed all that. The opium importers were paid in silver, deposited their earnings in the treasury of the East India Company in Canton, drawing bills on Calcutta or London, so that the proceeds of the opium trade in fact paid for the continuing growth of tea imports to Europe.

The Qing court issued many prohibitions against the use of and trade in opium, but to little effect. In some remote areas the Chinese began growing their own or importing overland from Burma and Central Asia, but a massive share of total consumption still came by British shipping from Bengal (Bello 2005). A final worry after 1830 was an apparent net outflow of Chinese silver, reversing the positive balance of payments run by the silk and tea trades for the previous two hundred years. That seems to have pushed the Qing into the serious efforts to cut off the trade that led to their cataclysmic defeat in the Opium War of 1839—1842. Many Englishmen were opposed to the opium trade, but in the dominant perspective, the opium issue was trumped by the imperative of forcing the Qing Empire to deal with the Western world on the terms of that worlds multistate diplomatic order.

It seems appropriate to end an essay that has moved from the refined pleasures of tea and porcelain to the darker pleasures of opium with a reminder that India and Southeast Asia were not quiet places in the late 1700s. trade in firearms to warring powers in South India to Burma, the Malay Peninsula, and Siam was dominated by English private traders, The Danes tried to get a share of this market, but the gums they supplied were of very poor quality (Feldbaek 1969, 17—18). In South India, the rise of competing, mobilizing states out of the wreckage of the Mughal Empire ended in the victory of one of those states, the British Raj . Civil wars broke out in Siam in 1767 and in Vietnam in 1773. The gunrunners must have found good markets. In and around the Malay Peninsula, where sales were especially strong, the local power holders found themselves outgunned by the British. By 1790, however, strong new regimes were established in both Siam and Vietnam, closely tied to commercial ports and with a notable presence of Chinese Emigre advisers and administrators. In many cases—think of Somalia today—an excess of guns can make settled government impossible. In Siam and Vietnam, however, the guns were imported through a few ports, and they had to be paid for. They may well have strengthened the new monarchies against less well-connected rivals and thus bolstered the trend toward political centralization. If we end with guns, which were in a way consumer goods for which there was a demand—and with the crosscutting and contradictory effects of the trades in tea, porcelain, opium, and guns on the growing links all around Asia and even to the Americas circa 1800—we will have some sense of the ways that this volume and the exhibition that accompanies it provide food for thought as well as a feast for the eyes.

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