Britain Invented Narco-Diplomacy

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by Xan Holbrook

In the words of Vito Corleone, Drugs are a dirty business. Who can disagree, even when spoken by a pretentious hood?

What isn’t so well appreciated is the way in which drugs and political power are so closely interlinked. The often-parroted Marxist misquote about faith is a bit of a non-statement. Why bother with Religion to dope people, when Opium is already readily available? 

The manufacture and distribution of narcotics has been a staple behind the scenes of modern realpolitik and trade, despite all official claims to the contrary, and has been so for hundreds of years.

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Before crowds of red-capped morons chanted about building a wall, before NATO troops were ordered to take time out of counter-insurgency operations to burn Afghanistan’s only cash crop, before troops seized the Panama Canal under the guise of regime change, before CIA spy planes guided Colombian soldiers to Pablo Escobar’s hideout, before Oliver North ran his own private treasury in the White House Basement, before the crack epidemic amid Reagan’s obsession with folktales like the Welfare Queen, before the Nixonian effort to declare war on an abstract noun, and all the other embarrassments.

Take comfort from this, dear reader: whatever depths the Executive Branch plumb in abject stupidity, crusty attitudes and sheer callousness, Britain did it first. And in acrobatic style.

Here’s a brief history of the First Opium War (yes, there were two of these).

Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1792.

As European powers and traders expanded all over the world, and some of the old colonies broke free in the Americas, trade became the principal battleground of the age. Raw material – either in short supply or jealously guarded by the old diplomacy of Europe – had to come from somewhere and, where there’s gold, there’s a rush.

After a different argument over tea and taxes left Britain broke and without the Thirteen Colonies, the Nation of Commerce began struggling to make headway. The one saving grace of Britain was its maritime might, a state of affairs that continued until the Second World War. It allowed Britain to ‘explore’ its options more thoroughly, although there remained one glaring problem.

Despite the East India Company’s continued militarized profiteering in India, the cotton markets of America and Egypt were powerful competitors, and the profit margins were too narrow. Furthermore, the vast, untapped market of China lay next door. 

The Chinese administration, like that of Japan, restricted trade to certain ports, which in time reduced to only one – Canton. For Britain, Tea was no longer some leaves in water that made your day slightly less crap – the government coffers depended on it. British demand for tea – an itch that commanded up to 5% of the average household income – and silk outweighed the Chinese demand for silver, and the trade deficit grew. Diplomatic fuck-up after diplomatic fuck-up exacerbated relations between the two powers.

Yet, in many of India’s varied climes, the opium poppy grew on a vast scale. Despite a nationwide ban, opium sold well in China and the Indian strains were infinitely stronger than what was domestically available. To directly export the drug would spell disaster for the whole operation, and probably lead to international consequences, so the East India Company –  the hilariously mustachioed, musket-wielding great-grand uncle of Weyland-Yutani – set up shop in Calcutta and sent out an open invitation for anyone who wanted to buy.

By 1835, the EIC sold over three million pounds of opium to China per year, and that figure only began growing. In a move worthy of the wet dreams of Jeffrey Skilling, the British Government withdrew the monopoly that the East India Company had on the trade, and other companies got in on the act. Exports went up, prices went down and, by the end of the decade, the amount sold almost totaled six million pounds.

As money flowed out of China and into the pockets of the assholes next door, and leaving social disarray back home, the Qing Government was understandably unamused by all this. In 1838, their representative, Lin Zexhu, set about arresting smugglers and closing the dens. In a move more symbolic than anything else, he demanded that the western traders in Canton give up their stock. When they gave him the runaround, he had soldiers lay siege to their stores. After their surrender, Lin ordered the destruction of 20,283 chests and 200 sacks of opium. He did this by either burying them in lime, or by dumping them into the harbor.

The British superintendent, Charles Elliot, promised that the British Government would pay for any losses in trade. The British Government reacted like the good-natured, reasonable human beings they weren’t and the call for direct action began. In a separate incident, British sailors got drunk and battered a Chinese man to death. Elliot invited Lin to witness trial proceedings on his boat, which Lin declined. He sentenced the men to hard labour, and Lin went home, contented in the knowledge that, despite their differences, Britain was a trading partner to respect and admire…

Only kidding, he stopped selling them food and poisoned their water sources.

Shortly after this, following a skirmish over food at Kowloon, it all kicked off.

To say the rest of the war was one-sided is a bit like saying the occupation of Iraq was a mild misstep. Experienced soldiers, equipped with modern weapons and ironclad ships, made short work of the Chinese defenses of earthworks and war junks. 4000 Chinese sailors and soldiers died as opposed to the British number of 69.

As a result, not only did the British resume trade in Canton, but in Ningbo, Amoy, Fuzhou and Shanghai. The natural harbors of Hong Kong, which had sheltered expelled British troops before war began properly, were also ceded to the British. Not only this, but the treaty granted foreigners of all backgrounds to extraterritorial privileges, relegating Chinese to second-class citizens in their own ports.

All because the British loved selling drugs.

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