Monday, 27 December 2021

Merchants of War and Peace - by Song-Chuan Chen - Summary of Arguments

Song-Chuan Chen's Merchants of War and Peace is a fine piece of historical research which explores the origin of the arguments that ultimately would be used in lobbying the Whig Government and would persuade Palmerston to send the military force that launched the First Opium War (1839-42).

Chen's thesis is that the pro- and anti- war arguments originated in the Merchant communities in the 'factories' of Canton. The 'Warlike' party (which included James Matheson and William Jardine) worked out their arguments in the Canton Register; these were opposed by the 'Pacific' party whose mouthpiece was the Canton Press. 

According to Chen, the case for war distilled down to an argument for free trade: namely that the Qing dynasty's policy of giving Canton a monopoly on external trade was protectionist, and that the only way that this was likely to change was by the British military imposing change by force. 

An important aspect of this argument was the development of a narrative that China was isolationist, which stood in stark contrast to the traditional view of China (originally propagated by Jesuits during the Ming Dynasty - 1368-1644) was that China was a 'peaceable' nation. The Warlike party were able to draw on the failed Macartney (1793) and Amherst (1816) embassies to the Qing court as evidence that China was anti-commercial and insular. Shifting public opinion from viewing China as 'Peaceable' to being 'Isolationist' was key to the Warlike narrative - and its impact has carried into the C21.

Other arguments which focused on the lack of respect for the British were secondary (e.g., whether or not the Chinese term yi should be translated as 'foreigner' or 'barbarian'; or whether Chinese officials disrespected Britain by turning their back on the portrait of the King, or by rejecting British officials). 

Chen argues that one important factor to the ultimate success of the warlike party was that the Canton merchants had up-to-date detailed knowledge of China, including being able to make a detailed evaluation of its military capability.

Chen points out that the approach of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to foreigners was driven by internal politics: namely that the Manchu rulers feared that foreigners would side with the Han majority in a civil war. Their foreign policy was to put in place 'soft borders' to distance foreigners and thus to protect their position. The use of the term yi  was part of this distancing; as was the establishment of 'five rules' of the 'Canton system' which outlined the rigorous conditions for foreign merchants in 1757 (See pp.46-47). 

Chen draws attention to the role that the Canton merchants played in negotiating this monopoly, which reduced the number of foreign trading ports from four (Canton, Amoy, Ningbo and Shanghai) to one (Canton).

"From the Imperial perspective, the Canton system assuaged the political security fears of the Manchurian and Chinese ruling classes and, at the same time, allowed them to extract profits from the Canton maritime trade." (p.159)

On the other hand, the Pacific Party adopted a laissez-faire approach, believing in the power of commerce and that China had the right to conduct is own policy as it wished and that the British who traded in Canton should submit to the rules of the Chinese (p.34-5).

Chen's research traces how these arguments that were circulating in Canton became the key arguments in the lobbying of the British Whig Government throughout the 1830s. He cross-references the cases made in the Canton Register with the arguments that subsequently were used in the English press and in pamphlets published. Chen echoes other scholars in arguing that the tide of opinion in Parliament and wider British society began to shift in the second half the decade culminating in Palmerston's decision in 1839. 

Chen rejects the arguments of  Glenn Malancon (Britain's China Policy and the Opium Crisis 2003) that Palmerston reached the war decision on his own prior to meeting Jardine on 27th September 1839, arguing that Jardine played a key role in supplying "military intelligence, war strategy and the demands for treaty negotiation" (p.120). The correlation of the battle plan, the subsequent terms of the Treaty of Nanking and that the cabinet took the war decision just three days after the Jardine-Palmerston meeting, for Chen are too coincidental for Jardine not to have be instrumental in getting Parmerston over the line.

Chen's final analysis is that the conflict that arose in the 1830s in Canton was fundamentally the battle between the old 'profit order' by which the 'Canton system' looked after the interests of the Qing ruling dynasty, the Chinese high officials and the Canton merchants; and a new 'profit order' which looked after the interests of the the British - both Government and merchants (traders and English manufacturers). For Chen, the ultimate reason for the  Opium War came down to money:

"Profit order was central to the Chinese-British encounter in Canton, which during the hundred years from the mid-eighteenth century was arguably the most dynamic wealth-creating port in the maritime trading world." (p.159)

Note: This is not a great starting point if you want a general book on the Opium War. It is is an excellent piece of historical research, engaging with primary source material, but it is not for anyone new to this period of history.

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