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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Sep 5, 2022

Last time we spoke, the Qing dynasty had enjoyed the first half of the 18th century with relative ease and prosperity, however the end half and emergence of the 19th century would not be so fruitful. The White Lotus Rebellion of 1794-1804 took root during one of the most corrupt ridden times in Chinese history. One of China’s most corrupt figures and one of the richest men in history, Heshen was executed by the new Jiaqing Emperor. Then the Jiaqing Emperor had to quell the White Lotus menace which cost the empire a possible 100 million taels of silver. Despite being successful, the White Lotus rebellion would spread a seed of destruction for the Qing dynasty that would grow overtime and bloom into multiple revolts and rebellions. Now we look to another aspect of China during the early 19th century, its struggle against the looming threat of western greed. 


This episode is the A West meets East story


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on the history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.


#11 The West meets East failure


Now while the last podcast highlighted the corruption of Heshen and his long lasting effect on the Qing dynasty during the late half of the 18th century, I intentionally avoided speaking about something. That something was the envoys sent by Britain to China to open up trade relations. The rationale was that I wanted to highlight why the White Lotus came to be and the British envoy stories would have derailed it, but in actuality, the corruption, White Lotus rebellion and British envoys all simultaneously play a very important role in the downfall of the Qing Dynasty.

So let us go back in time a bit to begin what is quite honestly the emergence of one of the largest drug cartel stories of all time. 


Lord George Macartney was a well seasoned diplomat with an extensive resume and a reputation for getting things done. He had that classic story of being raised in poverty, but rising to the top. He began his career as a barrister in England before entering the foreign service. He was no aristocrat, came from no significant family, thus earned his way through merit. His skills and intellect eventually landed him the appointment as an envoy to the Qing Dynasty to establish a British embassy in China. Up to this point in his life, everything he did was a success, but China would prove to be a hard nut to crack. In 1764 Macartney was knighted at the young age of 27 and sent as an envoy to russia. It was a rather scandalous rumor that he was sent as the envoy not merely for his skills and intellect, but because of his good looks as it was believed it would sway the Empress, Catherine the Great to the interests of Britain. After 3 years in Russia, Sir Macartney returned with the Empress's good affection, symbolized in a gem-studded snuff box. This bolstered Macartney into the social circles of the elites and by 1767 he was elected to Parliament and soon appointed the Chief Secretary of Ireland. After some years of service within the United Kingdom, Macartney sought out more adventure and took up a post as governor of the Caribbean Islands in the West Indies. He was soon awarded with the title of Bron and in 1780 received the appointment as governor of Madras India. He worked that office 6 years and became a viscount. Then in 1793 he sailed for one of the most illusive and exotic lands, that of China.


Viscount Macartney was given a simple orders from George III: establish a British embassy in the capital and get permission for British ships to dock at ports besides Canton. Now you might be asking, whats the problem with Canton? Nothing, except for foreign barbarians it was the only port of access for all of China at this time. For those who have never heard of this, the Canton System which began in 1757 was a trade system of the Qing dynasty. The Qianlong Emperor faced numerous problems when he inherited the empire, one being the threat of foreign trade. While trade obviously is a beneficial thing, it can sometimes cause harm, as such the Qing dynasty had some worries about trade with foreign lands. For one thing, the intrusion of missionaries had caused some pretty brutal conflicts in China. After this Emperor Qianlong ordered his court to make some changes to foreign trade to thus stop more conflicts from occurring. He bottled necked all foreign trade to go through Canton and they were to deal exclusively with a group known as the Cohong merchants. The Cohong were granted a monopoly over the foreign trade, but were also the primary representative link between the Qing government and the outside world. There were strings attached of course, the Cohong merchants were to take on full responsibility for any foreign persons connected with a foreign ship that did trade. The Cohong were of course expected to pay taxes to the Qing government for all the trade being done, but by far and large they were able to control how they would levy such taxes. A perfect recipe for corruption. 


A event occured known as the Flint Affair, a situation in which a Englishman named James Flint serving the East India Company was repeatedly warned to remain in Canton, but in 1755 he went against the Qing administrative warnings and tried to establish trade in some ports in Zhejiang. He was caught and deported to Macau where he was imprisoned for a few years. The situation prompted Emperor Qianlong to enact 5 measures against the foreign barbarians who wished to trade.

1) Trade by foreign barbarians in Canton is prohibited during the winter.

2) Foreign barbarians coming to the city must reside in the foreign factories under the supervision and control of the Cohong.

3) Chinese citizens are barred from borrowing capital from foreign barbarians and from employment by them.

4) Chinese citizens must not attempt to gain information on the current market situation from foreign barbarians

5) Inbound foreign barbarian vessels must anchor in the Whampoa Roads and await inspection by the authorities


Trade with China was beginning to really boom, but it was being frustrated into the bottleneck of Canton. The British were very eager to open up more trade with China and Macartney had instructions to offer something to the Chinese to open up trade. He could offer to end the importation of opium from British held India, something that was officially illegal in the Qing dynasty, but in reality the Qing could not stop the illicit smuggling of it into China. 


On the morning of september 26, 1792 the HMS Lion a 64 gun ship of the line, cast off for China. When Macarney landed on the coast of China, all of his retinue and baggage were transferred to Chinese junks by the order of Emperor Qianlong before he was allowed to travel up the Bei He River enroute for Peking. His ship had a large sign tacked to its mast by the Qing officials with large black letters reading “tribute from the red barbarians”. Remember at this time in history, China was basically the pinnacle of civilization at least from its viewpoint. China had felt superior to the rest of the world for quite some time. Gunpowder, paper currency, eyeglasses and the printing press all were developed in China long before the west had acquired such things. As such the emperor of China did not receive ambassadors per say, as exchanging emissaries would denote equal rank amongst nations, for which China had no equal. Those who did come as emissaries were treated as tribute bearers and identified as foreign barbarians. From the perspective of the Chinese, foreign barbarians did not come to negotiate or make dealings, they came as subjects to pay homage and tribute. 


Macartney believed he was bringing gifts from one sovereign nation to another, but the Qing considered him to be a vassal paying tribute. The gifts he brought were the best of British technology: telescopes, brass howitzers, globes, clocks, musical instruments and an entire hot air balloon complete with a balloonist. That one always puzzled me by the way, did that mean the balloonist was just going to be some sort of lifetime servant? In all Macartney brought over 600 gifts for Emperor Qianlong and this all required an astonishing 99 wagons, 40 wheelbarrows drawn by over 200 horses and 3000 people. Macartney was instructed to display the gifts at the Emperor's summer palace before he would be given any chance at seeing Emperor Qianlong. The Qing court apparently were not that impressed with most of the gifts, though they did admire the wood pottery and were particularly interested when Macartney ignited sulfur matches. Unfortunately the hot air balloon never got a chance to take off. The viceroy of Pechili told Macartney that he would not be meeting the emperor in his palace, but in a yurt outside the Imperial hunting lodge in Rehe of the tartary lands. They would pass through the great wall and Macartney was astonished by it stating it to be “the most stupendous work of human hands, probably greater in extent than all of the other forts in the world put together. Its construction was a sign of not only a very powerful empire, but a very wise and virtuous nation”. They traveled into Manchuria until they reached the Emperor’s summer quarters on september 8th. The journey had nearly taken a year since they departed England in 1792 and the success or failure of the embassy would be decided in the matter of just mere days. They stopped a mile from the imperial summer residence to make themselves presentable. 


Macartney had prepared a colorful and grandiose outfit for the occasion as described by his valet “A suite of spotted mulberry velvet, with a diamond star, and his ribbon, over which he wore the full habit of the order of the Bath, with the hat and the plume of feathers, which form a part of it”. So try to imagine a man dressed up like a peacock, certainly it was going to leave an impression, which is what he wanted. The entourage formed a makeshift parade formation with as much British pomp that could be mustered. The British soldiers and cavalry led the way on foot followed by servants, musicians, scientists and other gentry. The parade arrived at 10am to their designated quarters, with no one at all to greet them. Macartney was bewildered, he had expected this famed Manchu man named Heshen to meet them. However Heshen was nowhere to be found, Macartney deduced he must be delayed for some reason and so they all simply waited. 6 hours passed by as they all stood there in formation waiting with no sign of an imperial official, thus they lost heart and went into the assigned residence to eat. In the end Macartney was forced to go find Heshen himself, quite an uncomfortable start to the venture. Over the course of several days the mountain of British gifts were exchanged. They presented things such as rugs to the Emperors representatives and in turn were given luxurious fabrics such as silk, jade, porcelain, lacquerware and large quantities of the finest tea, oh tea will play quite a role in all of this rest assured. The British tried to awe them with the products of their science, but soon were realizing something was not right. 


You see this entire process was confused. For the British they were trying to impress the Chinese to gain the ability to negotiate for more advantageous policies in the future, IE: gain the approval to open a permanent embassy in the capital. But for the Chinese the situation was literally just trade, they were trading goods they assumed the British would want to take home and sell. Nations like Vietnam and Korea would regularly come to pay tribute to the emperor for his approval which legitimized their governments. They came and performed the famous “kow tow” before the Emperor. For those who don’t know the “kow tow” is a ritual of 9 kneeling bows to the ground in 3 sets of 3 in the direction of the emperor. The envoys from places like Vietnam or Korea did this readily as their nations were official tributaries to China and thus the Emperor was the overarching figure for their nations as well as their own emperors. But when Macartney showed up he knew nothing of this entire process. Initially Macartney did not even realize he was supposed to prostrate himself before emperor and when this was explained to him he was unwilling to do it. Because despite the great admiration he had for the Qing Empire, he thought he was an envoy between 2 equal and sovereign nations, he assumed the King of England was on equal footing with Emperor Qianlong. Macartney had never done anything like the kow tow for his own king why should he for a foreign king?


So Macartney expected what he considered a mere ceremony to be waved off and submitted a request for that to be so, which he alleged later he received approval for. But when he arrived at Jehol, Heshen denied ever seeing this request and insisted Macartney must perform the kow two before the emperor. Qing officials at the scene assured Macartney that it was just “a mere exterior and unmeaning ceremony” urging him on. Things began to get messy, Macartney said he would kow tow readily if a Qing official would do the same before a portrait he had brought of King George III. No Qing official would do it, so Macartney tried to compromise, what if he simply bent the knee and head once before Emperor Qianlong. To Mccartneys relief the proposal was accepted. A few more days went by, then on September 14th he was informed he could meet the emperor.


Macartney got into his peacock suit and his entourage marched behind Macartney who was carried on a litter until they made it to the Emperor's ceremonial tent. Macartney entered, carrying a jeweled encrusted golden box containing a letter from King George III. In his own account, Macartney stated he knelt on one knee as agreed and presented the emperor the box and the emperor did not seem in the slightest to have made any commotion about the ritual not being performed. Macartney said “Emperor Qianlong’s eyes were full and clear and his countenance was open, despite the dark and gloomy demeanor we had expected to find”. Do not forget as I mentioned in the previous episode, at this point in time the Emperor was its pretty safe to say, very senile. The letter from George III was translated into Chinese carefully by European missionaries who made sure to take out any potentially offensive references, like for example anything about chrisianity. The letter spoke about how Emperor Qianlong “should live and rule for 10s of thousands of years and the word China was elevated one line above the rest of the text whenever it appeared and the name of the emperor was elevated 3 lines above the rest. The letters translation thus had been done in such a way it really did not conform to the letter between 2 equals anymore. Meanwhile while Emperor Qianlong read this, Macartney was simply awed by the tent they were in. In his words “the tapestries, carpets and rich draperies and lanterns were disposed with such harmony, the colors so artfully varied. It was as if he was inside a painting. The commanding feature of the ceremony was the calm dignity that sober pomp of asiatic greatness, which European refinements have not yet attained”. Macartney also went on to mention that he was also not the only envoy present in the tent. There were 6 Muslim enovys from tributary states near the Caspian sea an a Hindu envoy from Burma and they had allow performed the kow tow. 


Emperor Qianlong asked Heshen if any of the English could speak Chinese and the son of British diplomat George Staunton stepped forward. The 12 year old boy named George stepped towards the throne and according to his diary “I spoke some Chinese words to him and thanked him for the presents”. Emperor Qianlong was apparently charmed by this and took a purse from his own waist to give to him as a token of his esteem. That little boy became the first Englishman after James Flint to cross the wall of language between Britain and China and it would shape his life after. After the meeting, Macartney and his entourage were allowed to stay in Jehol for a few days and were fortunate enough to partake in the emperor's birthday banquet. On September 21st, disaster struck when a member of Macartney's entourage died, a gunner named Reid. It was the day before their departure date and apparently Reid had eaten 40 apples for breakfast, which I have to say is one of the most bizarre rationales for a death I've ever heard. Regardless, the Qing assumed off the bat the man died of some contagious disease and urged them all to leave with haste. 


Meanwhile in Peking, the Balloonist/scientist Mr Dinwiddie had been busy prepared all the scientific instruments for demonstrations awaiting Emperor Qianlong’s return from Jehol at the end of september. He had begun filling a grand hall of the imperial palace outside the city of Beijing with globes, clocks, telescopes, the air pump for the balloon and such. He had signed a contract basically stating he could never return home and would be stuck as a foreigner in a small part of Beijing. Regardless he got everything ready for the emperor's visit. When the emperor came on October the 1st he showed no particular emotion as he toured the hall according to Dinwiddie. Upon looking through a telescope for roughly 2 minutes the emperor alleged stated “it was good enough to amuse children” and simply left. Heshen and other Qing officials came to see the wonders and showed a bit more interest. Unfortunately the hot air balloon demonstration was to be the grand finale in the course of a few days but never came to fruition, because all of a sudden on October the 6th the Emperor ordered all the British to leave. Everything was hastily packed up and every man by October 7th was being pushed out as the embassy mission was sent away from Peking. Once on the road out of Peking it dawned upon them all the embassy mission was a failure. As one British servant put it “we entered Peking like paupers; we remained in it like prisoners; and we quitted it like vagrants”


Macartney had no idea how much he had offended the emperor with his negotiations. Back on september 10th, 4 days before they met the Emperor, Qianlong was always fuming mad about the English ambassadors dragging of the feet about the kow tow. In fact at that time Emperor Qianlong simply told his officials he would keep the promise to have the meetings, but as far as he was concerned they best be gone afterwards. Qianlong prior had planned to have them stay a long time to enjoy the sights of Jehol but “given the presumption and self important display by the English ambassador, they should be sent from Jehol immediately after the banquet, given 2 days to get to Peking to pack up their belongs and go. When foreigners who come seeking audience with me are sincere and submissive then I always treat them with kindness. But if they come in arrogance they get nothing”. On October 3rd, just a few days before they were ordered out, Macartney received the official response to King George III’s letter, unfortunately it was in Chinese and he was unable to translate it for some time. It stated that the request for the British ambassador to remain at the capital was not consistent with the customs of the empire and therefore could not be allowed. And here is the kicker in regards to trade and the gifts he said “I accepted the gifts not because I wanted them, but merely, as tokens of your own affectionate regard for me. In truth the greatness and splendor of the Chinese empire have spread its fame far and wide, and as foreign nations, from a thousand parts of the world, crowd hither over mountains and seas, to pay us their homage and bring us the rarest and most precious offerings, what is it that we can want here? Strange and costly objects do not interest me. We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your countries manufactures”. Oomphf there was a second little part after that went “we have never needed trade with foreign countries to give us anything we lacked. Tea, porcelain and silk are essential needs for countries like England that do not have such things and out of grace the dynasty had long permitted foreign merchants to come to Canton to purchase these goods. To satisfy your needs and to allow you to benefit from our surplus. England is but one of many countries that comes to trade in Canton and if we were to give Britain special treatment, then we would have to give it to all the others as well”.


Macartney was furious and wrote extensively enroute back home. “Can they be ignorant, that a couple of English frigates would be an overmatch for the whole naval force of their empire, that in half a summer they could totally destroy the navigation of their coasts and reduce the inhabitants of the maritime provinces, who subsist chiefly on fish, to absolute famine? We could destroy the Tiger’s mouth forts guarding the river passage to Canton with just half a dozen boardsides and annihilate the Canton trade that employs millions of Chinese”. Yet despite all his military bravado talk, if Britain were at this time to make any aggression against China it would immediately result in them shutting down their trade. If that was allowed to happen both the economies of Britain and British held India would suffer tremendous economic damage. Thus Macartney knew the best course of action was to be patient and try try and try again.


So the Macartney mission ended in embarrassment. Macartney would tell those back in Britain “The empire of China is an old crazy first-rate man of war, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant offers has contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past; and to overawe their neighbors, merely by her bulk and appearance. She may perhaps not sink outright, she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed in pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom”. Very dark and ominous words indeed. Prior to Macartney’s report those had this perception of China to be the model of stable and virtuous government. But Macartney ranted that “the tyranny of a handful of Tartars over more than 300 millions of Chinese. And those Chinese subjects would not suffer the odium of a foreign yoke for much longer. A revolution was coming”. Macartney would elaborate further on what he believed to be the socio-political situation in China. “I often perceived the ground to be hollow under a vast superstructure and in trees of the most stately and flourishing appearance I discovered symptoms of speedy decay. The huge population of Han Chinese were just recovering blows that had stunned them they are awaking from the political stupor they had been thrown into by the Tartar impression, and begin to feel their native energie revive. A slight collision might elicit fire from the flint, and spread the flames of revolt from one extremity of China to the other. I should not be surprised if its dislocation or dismemberment were to take place before my own dissolution”. Please take note this is all coming from a bitterly anger man who, yes traveled the country for months, but he had not seen the interior of China. He could not speak or read the language and knew nothing of the culture. And yet he was almost 100% prophetic in what would occur. 


Now as I went into with the past episode, the Qianlong Emperor was very old and going senile. When Macartney met with him, Qianlong had just turned 82 and had ruled for over 58 years an incredible reign. And despite the show the emperor had put on about never needing western trade, in reality he was deeply fascinated by western inventions. He cherished his collection of 70 British clocks and wrote poems about them and about western telescopes. Likewise he kept multiple western art pieces and employed many westerners in his court. Above all else he understood the value of China’s foreign trade at Canton, because a significant portion of the tariff income fed his imperial household. The canton trade was also a primary source of silver import of which China was the largest importer of silver since the 1600s. Foreigners came and were forced to trade with silver if they wanted tea or porcelain. Tea, Tea is the crucial component of this story.


In 1664 King Charles II received 2 lbs of black, strange smelling leaves from China. Less than half a century later, tea became Britain's beverage of choice with an annual consumption of 12 million pounds per year. By 1785, Britain was importing 15 million lbs of tea per year from China. The people of Britain were literally addicted China’s tea, which might I add is a mild stimulant. More so the British government became economically dependent on tea and the Exchequer levied a 100 percent import tax upon it whoa. Although China purchased some British goods like clocks, it was nothing compared to the British need for tea. Between 1710 to 1759 the imbalance of trade was enormous, literally draining Britain of its silver, because that was after all the only form of payment China accepted. During this time, Britain paid 26 million in silver to China, but sold only 9 million in goods. 


Now lets talk a bit more about how this trade was being down in Canton. It was the East India Company who was given a monopoly over the tea trade in China. I mentioned the Cohong or sometimes called simply Hong merchants. They were directly in charge of the Canton trade, holding a monopoly over it. All western trade had to come through them, if you were a foreign ship, your cargo had to be guaranteed by a Hong merchant before it could sail up river to port Canton. Only a Hong merchant could rent you a warehouse or arrange for you any and all purchases for tea, silk and such. Personal relationships were thus key and having a friendship with any Hong merchant was immensely valuable. Hong merchants were accountable for the conduct of all foreing personnel. If some foreigner got drunk and beat up a local, the Hong merchant was held responsible, and this did in fact happen often. The Hong merchants were a small group, typically no more than a dozen any given time. As you can imagine with such a small group controlling the full trade between China and western nations, the opportunities for both sides merchants to become abundantly rich was enormous. However there was a ton of risk for the Hong since they took all the risk. Regardless the Hong merchants were some of the richest men in China, but they also went bankrupt regularly. Why was this, well because of their access to capital it made them primary targets for other government officials to squeeze. 


You see despite their monopoly on the trade, the Hong merchants were almost always in a precarious situation. Their appointment and finance was done via the Hoppo. Also the social status of merchants within traditional confucianism was very low and the Hong merchants were at the mercy of other Qing officials. This led the Hong merchants to be forced to pay numerous bribes to said officials. More often than naught to get an appointment as a Hong came with a literal downpayment for the officials who got you the job! The Hong merchants were squeezed left right and center by countless officials in a pecking system built upon corruption and greed. 


The senior superintendent of foreign trade at Canton was a Imperial customs commissioner known to the westerners as the “hoppo”. The hoppo reported directly to the board of revenue in Beijing and it was the Hoppo who was responsible for ensuring a proper flow of tariff income back to Beijing. The position of Hoppo was one of the greatest opportunities to get filthy rich.  

Before the White Lotus rebellion the Qing silver surplus was a whopping 70 million taels, but over the course of the war it is estimated the Qing treasury would pay something like 100 million taels in silver. Then came another disaster. 


The Napoleonic wars had a tremendous impact on the world, not limited to just the war itself. As the war grinding on, Britain was pressed for funds to finance its war against France and this led them to squeeze the East India Company harder. The British government began raising its tax on the company’s tea in 1795, then again in 1802 where it reached 50%, then again in 1806 to a whopping 96% and by 1819 it would be 100%. The growing British tax on the company’s tea led it to become a possible 1/10th of Britain's national revenue. As you can imagine with those numbers, the importance of maintaining the trade with Canton became a matter of national interest. 


While the Qing dynasty spent millions of taels mobilizing armies to quell the white lotus rebellion, the British likewise spent millions during its war against france. Britain would spend around 12 times more than its previous 22 year war with France and ran up a monstrous national debt. By the time Napoleon was defeated, Britain had doubled the size of the royal navy and it was the most powerful maritime force in the world. Britain acquired more territories to expand its enormous empire. By 1820 the British Empire would control roughly a quarter of the world's population, almost rivaling China. The emperor of China, Jiaqing was forced to slash the budgets of things such as the military after the internal rebellion was over. In expectation for an era of peace for the empire, the emperor effectively had to mortgage the future improvement of China’s military to simply stabilize the country.


Now Britain's tea fix needed to be met, but its silver was depleted. The Napoleonic war and the American revolution had drained Britain of its silver reserve, how was Britain going to get the tea? The British needed to find something the Chinese were willing to pay for in silver and the British would find what that in Opium. The British were not the first importers of Opium into China. Arab merchants had been selling opium cultivated in what is modern day turkey since the middle ages. It was primarily used for medicinal purposes, such as being used as a constipation drug to stop diarrhea, quite a useful thing to have to fight off dysentery which reeks its ugly head during times of conflict. In 1659 the East India Company began to export it in limited quantities from Bengal India. The East India Company had a monopoly over the trade with India and tried to prevent the business of opium importing to China since it was illegal and could interfere with the company's legitimate trade. However to get tea required silver and when the silver began to dry up the East India Company’s tolerance for the illicit business began to loosen. 


In 1782 the East India Company turned its eyes away and allowed the export of 3450 chests of opium. Each chest for reference weighed around 170 lbs, about the size of a small footlocker. 2 ships carried the illegal cargo and enroute 1 of them was captured by the French with the other arrived in Macao. The Chinese merchants refused to purchase the illegal contraband until the price was dropped to 210$ per chest. To break even the British needed to sell a chest at around 500$, it was a complete disaster. The British merchants ended up dumping most of their cargo at a loss in Malaysia for a price of around 340$. There were no eager buyers for opium in China in 1782 and this showcases the lack of users or better said addicts. Nonetheless the Qing government made a decree in 1799 condemning the illicit trade “foreigners obviously derive the most solid profits and advantages, but that our countrymen should pursue this destructive and ensnaring vice is indeed odious and deplorable”. The East India Company proclaimed it was forbidding British ships to carry the illicit cargo, because remember they had to make sure the Canton market remained open to britain. Yet this did not stop the East India company from selling opium within India to independent British and Indian merchants who in turn might smuggle the drugs into China. Its not the East India company after all and the company could see no other way to acquire silver to buy the tea Britain needed. 


In 1773 opium earned the company 39,000 pounds, in 1793 opium earned them 250,000 pounds. The idea was working and the trade imbalance was soon shifting. By 1806 to 1809 China would pay out 7 million in silver for opium. During the first 2 decades of the 19th century opium addiction grew in China at a slow pace. The East India Company kept the price of the illicit substance artificially high, which meant only the upper class in China could afford it. The East India Company was doing its best not to antagonize the Qing government, IE: not rubbing their nose in the illicit trade, thus it did not increase imports and lower prices. Around 5000 chests were being sold per year and this stabilized the trade imbalance between Britain and China, no longer was Britain simply losing its silver to China, nor was China being depleted dry. 


Then a technological innovation in Britain completely shattered the equilibrium. The invention of the steam engine in the previous century resulted in the mechanized production of cotton. Soon England had flooded the market with mass produced textiles and the surplus of this found its way to a very eager Indian market. Those merchants paid for the product in cash, but how do you think they got the cash? Bingo opium cultivation and with it the need to sell more of it. So as a result more and more opium began to flood into China, but it still had to go through the bottleneck of Canton. 


Problems began to occur which affected the Canton trade. The Napoleonic wars began to send ripples throughout the world and one place that was affected was Macao in 1808. The British in Canton heard rumors that France was sending troops to occupy Macao. The British wanted to preemptively respond and sent a naval fleet under Rear Admiral William Drury in September of 1808. Drury sent a letter informing the Portuguese governor at Macao that he intended to occupy the city to which the governor refused him and began to appeal to the Chinese governor general for protection. On september 21st Drury landing 300 marines who quickly seized the shore batteries at Macao with no resistance being made by the Portuguese. However the Chinese governor general ordered a shutdown of the British trade in Canton, uh oh. The East India company had to pull full cargo ships out immediately and abandon their factory in Canton. Drury in response brought an additional 700 marines from India to occupy Macao. The Chinese governor general warned Drury if they did not withdraw, the fleet and all British residents in Macao would be cut off from food supplies. Drury panicked, he had not intended to start a war, nor were his orders remotely authorized to do so!


When Emperor Jiaqing got news of the British invasion of Macao he was furious to say the least. Emperor Jiaqing issued an edict to the governor general in Canton “such a brutal eruption at Macao indicates an affrontery without limit. To invoke such a pretext is to freely insult the Chinese Empire. It is important in any case to raise considerable troops, attack the foreigners, and exterminate them. In this way, they will understand that the seas of China are forbidden to them!”. So the governor general ordered 8000 troops at Canton to man the coastal forts in the vicinity in preparation for war. Drury got the news of this and knew the Canton trade could be shut off for good stating “it would exclude the English forever, from the most advantageous monopoly it possesses in the Universe”. So Admiral Drury backed down, refusing to risk war with China. Drury took the marines out, but left some ships in the hope trade in Canton would soon be restored. And thus 6 days later the Qing governor general restored trade in Canton, phew crisis averted.


Another rather unusual conflict occured when a British christian missionary named Thomas Manning attempted to enter into China by land. Manning had tried asking the Hoppo for permission to visit Beijing as a scientist envoy but it was refused as the Emperor had plenty of western scientists at his disposal. The frustrated Manning then began to climb aboard East India company ships going around Vietnam, to see if he could find a way to sneak into China via Vietnam roads. This did not pan out so he struck out at another place to get into China, Tibet. Manning went to Tibet pretending to be a Buddhist lama from India and would you believe it he got an audience with the Dalai Lama on december 17 of 1811. He climbed hundreds of steps and met with the Dalai Lama whom he described “His face was, I thought, poetically and effectively beautiful. He was of a gay and cheerful disposition; his beautiful mouth perpetually unbending into a graceful smile, which illuminated his whole countenance. Sometimes, particularly when he had looked at me, his smile almost approached a gentle laugh”. After meeting the Dalai Lama, Manning hoped to be granted permission to make the 1500 mile journey to Beijing, but this would not occur. In the holy city of Lhasa he was apprehended by the local Qing officials and quasi imprisoned until Emperor Jiaqing could be informed and send orders as to what to do. Orders finally came in February of 1812 to deport Manning and raise border security in response to this incursion. 


Then in 1813 problems reeked their ugly head yet again for British-Chinese relations. The Emperor had reduced the number of Hong merchants that the British were allowed to do business with. The larger issue at hand was the War of 1812 which brought with it conflict between Britain and American ships around the waters of Canton. At this time the Americans were second only to the British in the size of their commerce in Canton. The US lacked cruisers to convoy their merchant ships and thus began arming the merchants ships into privateers. The US ships also tried to simply avoid the British by not landing at the same time intervals, but all of this would not avoid conflict. In march of 1814 the British frigate Doris captured a 300 ton American privateer, the USS Hunter and took her to Macao as a prize. 2 months later the Doris hunted down the USS Russel up the Pearl River near the Whampia anchorage just a few miles shy of Whampoa city. They fired upon another while another US ships the Sphynx was boarded and captured. More raids continued from both sides and the conflict greatly angered the Chinese authorities. Eventually the Qing governor general cut off supplies and suspended trade with both nations demanding they behave themselves. 


The British merchants in Canton complained they had nothing to do with the Royal Navy, but the Chinese authorities would not hear it. Some minor conflicts occured in Canton and the British felt they had been wronged. The East India Company began to demand the British government send an embassy to remedy the entire situation. So Britain answered the plea and sent another embassy mission in 1816. Lord William Pitt Amherst, Earl Amherst of Arracan was born in 1773 in Bath. His father was General William Amherst and his uncle was Field Marshall Sir Jeffrey Amherst who had a distinguished military career including being the governor general of British north America after defeating Nouvelle France in 1760. Little Williams mother died and the widowed father would take care of William and his sister for awhile until in 1781 when he also died. William would end up living with his uncle in the Amherst estate in Montreal where I happen to live near. William would eventually go to oxford and became an accomplished linguist learning several languages. Eventually he landed a job as ambassador to Sicily and by the end of the Napleonic wars he was made a Privy Councillor. He proved to be able enough and was soon sent as Ambassador with Plenipotentiary to negotiate with the Qing Dynasty in 1816. 


The China Amherst encountered in 1816 was very different compared to the one Lord Macrtney had visited. The Emperor was Jiaqing, the dynasty had quelled the White Lotus Rebellion, quite a few smaller revolts and had a real problem with pirates along the coast. Emperor Jiaqing had a loose hold over the empire and was not about to let some foreign power further threaten it. 


Amherst was a bit of an odd choice to lead the mission. He was considered a dull, but well mannered man who was not very talented in public speaking. Neither brilliant nor particularly handsome, just hailed from an excellent family. Amherst brought with him 2 familiar faces, the former little boy who had courageously spoken to Emperor Qianlong, George Staunton, who was now an adult. George had been working for the East India Company in Canton and had mastered the Chinese language and learnt much of its culture. The second ws Thomas Manning after his great Tibet adventure. Amherst’s departure would be 6 months after the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in June of 1815. Thus Amherst would be coming to China to inform them that the nearly continuous warfare between Britain and France for the past 22 years had finally come to an end. Amherst was instructed to make it clear to the Chinese that Great Britain was now the unrivaled dominant military power in Europe. The Amherst mission also was to remedy the Canton situation, but the perspective from Britain was quite off. They thought Emperor Jiaqing knew relatively not much about the ongoings in places like Canton, and if they simply came and complained about mistreatment that he would just offhand discipline the officials in Canton and place the British in a better position.The Emperor however was hardly oblivious to the ongoings in Canton, in fact he was paying a ton of attention to it. The Emperor had ordered investigation into the Canton situation over the past few years Emperor Jiaqing was particularly taking an interest into George Staunton who he viewed as a potential trouble maker in China, because the man had vast knowledge now of the language and culture and might induce more westerners to do the same. For certain the emperor was not pleased at all to find out Thomas Manning was coming as he had deported him and it was to be presumed Manning should never step foot back in China ever again. So the entourage was already doomed to fail.


As the entourage made their way, Amherst reported that the Qing dynasty seemed to have declined significantly compared to what Macartney had reported long ago. The entourage had learnt of the White Lotus rebellion and how suppressing it nearly bankrupt the Qing government. The entourage became rather bold and instead of waiting at the island of Chusan, Amherst ships, accompanied by 2 East India Company surveying vessels divided themselves into task forces and went to work dropping the embassy team off  at the White River. Soon some of the vessels began to explore the river networks going as far north to where the Great Wall meets the coast of Manchuria, sailed around the Liaodong Peninsula and parts of the Yalu river, very bold moves. They also took notes of the villages, populations and geology of their ventures. They particularly noted down the lack of military installations. 


Both the Amherst mission and the Qing court intended to use the Macartney mission as a precedent, but neither communicated how they should go about it. What really loomed over the entire affair was the issue of the Kow Tow. Now Amherst was coming into this with less radical requests than Macartney. They were not asking for a permanent ambassador at the capital, nor the opening of new ports. They just wanted some kind of provision for direct communication between the East India Company staff in Canton and a high ranking official in Beijing in order to circumvent the troubles they had been having with the Hoppo and governor general of canton. They also wanted to be allowed to do business with others aside from the Hong merchants. Officials from Beijing met with Amherst as soon as the British ships anchored at the mouth of the white river in early august. They escorted him along the way, but also asked him to Kowtow in front of a piece of yellow silk that represented the emperor. They wanted to see that the man understood how to do the kowtow. Amherst was given instructions from the British government simply to do what he thinks best in the situation of the kow towing issue, but to make sure the mission was a success. Thus the first time he was asked to do it he refused and stated that since Macartney did not kow tow why should he. The Qing officials were confused and said as far as they knew Macartney did kow tow to the emperor in 1793. Then they reminded Amherst the Emperor Jiaqing was present in 1793 and would have seen it occur, best he kow tow as well. George Staunton told Amherst they were mistaken and that he never saw Macartney kow tow. As you can imagine it was now a case of Emperor Jiaqing’s word against Staunton, a man the emperor did not like. Amherst was in a bad situation, so he simply stated he would do the kow tow when the time came, but stressed he would do it on one knee and not two. He tried to compromise by offering to kiss the emperors hand which utterly disgusted the Qing officials. The highest ranking Qing official escorting the foreigners was Heshitai, brother in law to Emperor Jaiqing. He told Amherst he had to bow on both knees or he would be expelled from the capital without audience.


The entourage made it just a mile outside Beijing where crowds of spectators began assembling on the sides of the roads to see their approach. They made their way to the eastern gate at night and the massive walls astounded them. They road in springless wooden carts, a quite uncomfortable ride at that. Amherst was told his audience would take place immediately and in fact he was actually late for it. Amherst panicked he was not ready, he was fatigued and unkept, his baggage had not even arrived yet which held his coronation robes for the occasion. He did not even have the letter from the prince regent to be given to the Emperor! Heshitai told him he had to go now, but Amherst refused. Amherst demanded they be given time to clean up, gather their baggage and rest. Heshitai eventually got another Qing official to grab hold of Amherst and dragged him to see the emperor. 


It is here we get many conflicting stories about what goes down. In a classical one it is said, the Qing officials grab Amherst in the middle of the night when he is disoriented and try to force him to kow tow in a private room, hoping the half asleep man would just do it. Apparently Staunton grabs Amherst by the elbow before he can do the deed and they suddenly leave the place before seeing the emperor. A lot of unanswered questions to be sure.

In another story the try to get Amherst to go see the emperor, but he simply refuses and him and his entourage basically fight their way out of their lodgings and leave on the evening of November 13. Regardless what is important to know is the British entourage and Emperor Jiaqing have no idea whats going on at all, they are both at the mercy of reports from the middle men, IE:  the escort officials like Heshitai.


During the slow journey back south to Canton, one of their ships, the Alceste had bombarded a Chinese fort guarding the Tiger’s Mouth river entrance to Canton! Dozens of shots were fired and it is said 47 Chinese soldiers were killed. The Alceste had returned from surveying the Pearl river when the captain Murray Maxwell requested permission to sail up to the Whampoa anchorage so it could make repairs on the ship before picking up Amherst’s entourage on their way back. Maxwell alleges he was taunted by the Qing representative to the governor general who told him that Amherst had been sent away from the capital without an audience. Murray Maxwell was thus denied permission to go to the Whampoa anchorage and was forced to wait on an outlying island. After a week of waiting, Maxwell had had it and decided to force up the river without permission. As soon as the Alceste began sailing it was confronted by a Chinese fleet and soon a fire fight. The Alceste began blasting away the Chinese coastal defenses, working her way up the river channel to get to Whampoa anchorage. 


Both the British entourage and Emperor Jiaqing were mystified as to what happened. The Emperor sent his personal doctor to see to Amherst whom he had assumed must be very sick for missing the meeting only to find out the man was perfectly healthy. After some investigation the Emperor realized the entire debacle was the fault of the escorting officials, above all Heshitai! It turns out the Emperor had been lied to by the escorting officials and fed false reports. The British blamed the emperor for the entire misadventure. The Emperor was livid by everything, but there was a saving grace to the embarrassment on his nation's part, the embarrassment of the Alceste ordeal. When the Alceste made it to Whampoa the governor generals welcomed the ship as if nothing had ever happened. The Emperor sent conciliatory edicts and gifts for the King of England. The Emperor also sent a letter to the king, but he had written it before his investigation of all the matters and thus wrote that he blamed Amherst for the entire ordeal.


The mission was a catastrophe. Trade would continue unaffected, but now both nations had been humiliated. Now the Chinese would look with more suspicion at the British and the British hopes for extending trade outside the canton system were dashed. As quite a fitting end to the entire ordeal, the Alceste which was carrying Amherst and his retinue back to England slammed into a rock and sank. England's response to the Amherst mission was disappointment. The entire situation aided one group of people in Britain, those who sought to abolish the East India Company’s monopoly over the China trade. One major critic of the Amherst mission was Napoleon Bonaparte exiled on Saint Helena in 1817. He thought it was ridiculous that such an ordeal came about because the British fretted over kow towing. But he ended his statements with this “It would be the worst thing you have done for a number of years, to go to war with an immense empire like China, what might happen if the dragon, as it were, should be awakened? You would doubtless, at first, succeed…but you would teach them their own strength. They would be compelled to adopt measures to defend themselves against you; they would consider, and say, ‘we must try to make ourselves equal to this nation. Why should we suffer a people, so far away, to do as they please to us? We must build ships, we must put guns into them, we must render ourselves equal to them.’ They would get artificers, and ship builders, from France, and America, and even from London; they would build a fleet,and, in the course of time, defeat you.” 


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The attempts at opening up more trade with China were disastrous and embarrassing for Britain. She needed her tea fix, but her silver reserves were depleted and thus the East India Company began to deal in opium. How could this possibly all go wrong?