Hong Kong in the mid to late 1800s after England took over
Eastern and Western trade conflicts culminate during the Opium Wars.
Modern Day Hong Kong
Every superpower in history has had a dark side – you could argue that it’s a prerequisite – but history, written by the victors as it is, tends to emphasize the glory days more than the dark ones. Ask any college student what they know about the French Revolution, and most will have some knowledge of what happened and how it shaped the modern world, but ask the same students what they know about the Opium Wars, and I doubt many will have heard of them. Yet the Opium Wars between China and the British Empire played a meaningful role in how China, now a superpower, relates to the Western world, both economically and politically.
I grew up in Hong Kong, a place known to most of the Western world as a tourist destination, a glittering marketplace of luxury goods and exotic dining. But the island has a dark past. It was ceded to England as a British Crown Colony as the result of the First Opium War, which ended with the Nanking Treaty of 1842. Kowloon and the New Territories were leased from China for ninety-nine years in 1898, and on a rainy July 1, 1997, all of Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories were returned to China, ending an era that the Chinese referred to as one hundred years of shame. As a modern-day superpower, China is making it clear to the world that it will not be bullied by a foreign power ever again.
The term “Opium War” already implies that it had to do with drugs, but how did a military conflict take place over an illegal drug? There are history books written about the two Opium Wars, but the general public is woefully uninformed about the causes and outcomes of these wars.
Opium storage ships or floating godowns at Canton (Guangzhou) harbor, late 19th century (photo credit: Granger, NYC–All rights reserved)
I wanted to write a historical novel about this conflict between England, the superpower of that time, and China, the world’s most populated country (over four hundred million people in the 1840s). England wanted Chinese luxury goods such as porcelain and silk, and the British were addicted to tea, importing millions of tons per year. But China would only take silver in trade, which would have bankrupted the British treasury. So what did England do? It decided to sell opium to China for Chinese silver and then use that silver to buy those coveted Chinese products. After twelve million Chinese citizens became addicted to the drug, disrupting the social order and corrupting government officials at every level, the emperor acted to halt the trade.
The main characters in this novel are fictional, but I also incorporated real historical figures and events to tell the story. If the lines are blurred and the reader is engaged, then I will have succeeded in sharing the history of the First Opium War without the reader having to crack a history book. I certainly welcome readers to explore the subject further to get a true historical perspective, and I have included a list of excellent resources at the end of my book.
I took some liberties to simplify the many complex details that a history book would have included to keep the reader interested, so I apologize in advance to those with a passion for strict accuracy. My goal is to tell a story that is powerfully relevant to our times, when opioid addiction is once again in the headlines. England was an institutionalized drug pusher in the nineteenth century, supporting smugglers and sending the Royal Navy (the best in the world at that time) to attack China to protect “free trade.” Illegal opium imports to China more than doubled after the First Opium War, with the full knowledge and support of the British Empire.
It has been a longtime ambition of mine to write about the Opium Wars. Growing up in Hong Kong, I witnessed the remnants of its effects more than one hundred years later: rickshaw pullers, coolies, ordinary people, all strung out in public; families destroyed by addiction; and the robust drug trade that fueled the so-called Triad gangsters who took over the opium and heroin trade. I have witnessed firsthand how certain “colonial masters” in Hong Kong treat their “Chinese subjects”; I have experienced racism, arrogance, and the pompous behavior of British colonial secretaries who felt they owned Hong Kong. Those attitudes have changed in recent decades as local business tycoons have taken over Hong Kong’s economy, especially since the handover of Hong Kong back to China. For many years these experiences colored my beliefs about the British. It was not until I visited the United Kingdom in the 1990s that I realized that most British folks are indeed “gentlemen and gentle ladies” – sincere, down to earth, and quite civil.
Opium addict – 19th century
My view of the opium trade also changed as I began my research for this book. Of course it was morally unjustified and completely wrong for England to use opium to trade for Chinese merchandise, but the environment of runaway corruption, poor government policies, ignorance, and fear of the outside world in Imperial China played a key role in making it possible for England to get into the opium trade in such a big way. The Imperial Court did not welcome Westerners – or any outsiders – let alone trade with them, unless it was for something China needed, and China didn’t need anything from England, or so its people thought. China certainly could have used an upgrade to its ships and weaponry from the navy that made the British Empire an unparalleled global superpower, but the Chinese were too proud to accept foreign technology.
The Imperial Court despised the “white foreign devils” because they didn’t understand them. Many of these early Westerners were in China to spread a religion that centered around one deity and his son who saved the world—a belief that threatened the Imperial Court, as the emperor was anointed by the heavens to rule the world. Everyone in China lived under rules set forth by key philosophers: Confucius, Lao-Tzu, and Mengzi, to name a few. The only acceptable religions were Buddhism and Taoism. The Imperial Court did not want outside forces meddling with the best management tool they had for a large and diverse population with a long history of rebellion.
History is more than academic theories—it is the stories of real people affected by events put in motion by other real people. I hope that by the end of my book, you, the reader, come away with an understanding of how and why the Opium Wars took place and are intrigued by both the fiction and the history. I’d like to leave you with the words of Thomas Arnold, a British educator and historian, written on March 18, 1840. Thanks for reading!
Let Knowledge Be Our Guide,
“This war with China…really seems to me so wicked as to be a national sin of the greatest possible magnitude, and it distresses me very deeply. Cannot anything be done by petition or otherwise to awaken men’s minds to the dreadful guilt we are incurring? I really do not remember, in any history, of a war undertaken with such combined injustice and baseness. Ordinary wars of conquest are to me far less wicked than to go to war in order to maintain smuggling, and that smuggling consisting in the introduction of a demoralizing drug, which the government of China wishes to keep out, and which we, for the lucre of gain, want to introduce by force; and in this quarrel are going to burn and slay in the pride of our supposed superiority.”
Thomas Arnold, English educator and historian
March 18, 1840