In late February 1793, the Hindostan, an East India Company ship, came to anchor off the coastal town of Anyer on the island of Java in current-day Indonesia. Outside the Dutch fort at Anyer, there was a small plaque commemorating Charles Allan Cathcart, the former British ambassador to China. Cathcart had died five years earlier, just off the coast of Sumatra, and so his embassy never even reached its destination. The anchored Hindostan was waiting for the arrival of the current British ambassador to China, George Macartney.
Macartney was en route on the HMS Lion, a sixty-four-gun ship that had set off with the Hindostan from England in September 1792. Despite having the same appointment, Macartney was a very different man from Cathcart. He wasn’t born a noble, only gaining aristocratic titles later in life. When Cathcart got his appointment, he was only twenty-eight. Macartney had his first foreign posting at a similar age, representing Britain at the Russian court. But he was now fifty-five and a long and illustrious career trailed behind him.
Macartney had even been the governor of Madras for a few years in the early 1780s. Cathcart had been in India during that time as well and had fought at the Battle of Cuddalore, which marked the beginning of the Second Anglo-Mysore War. Macartney, to some extent, negotiated the end of that war.
Macartney’s right-hand man George Staunton would become a baronet for his contribution to the peace negotiations. Now, in 1793, Staunton accompanied Macartney on this fateful embassy to China. He was the official ambassadorial replacement in case Macartney went the same way as Cathcart and died on the way.
After his tenure at Madras was over, Macartney was offered the position of governor general of Bengal and he turned it down. He wanted to go back to England. But within a few years, here he was again, at the other end of the world, on a vital mission for king and country.
The mission was to officially wish the Chinese emperor a happy eighty-third birthday on behalf of King George III of England. And, alongside that little birthday greeting, Macartney was to negotiate the small matter of free (or at least freer) trade between Britain and China. Currently, the British were limited to one port: the city of Canton (now known as Guangzhou). British traders were not allowed to land anywhere else in China and they chafed at this forced bottleneck.
The Chinese had their reasons, of course. They had learned what Europeans were doing elsewhere in the world and had no plans of becoming another colony.
This expedition was trying to change their minds and so no expense was spared. It employed almost a hundred people and cost around £78,000 – which would be around Rs 90 crores today. But the East India Company had agreed to sponsor all of it. They knew the fortunes to be made if the embassy went well.
Even back then, in the eighteenth century, many in England saw China as “the most extensive market in the world”. It only had to open (or be opened) for business. To impress the emperor with British science and manufacturing, Macartney had brought a fortune in gifts. Cathcart’s embassy had carried gifts but Macartney’s embassy overflowed with offerings – more than six times as valuable as Cathcart’s cargo.
When they reached China, the Macartney embassy got special permission to land close to Peking on account of their gifts being so delicate. Ninety wagons, forty barrows, 200 horses and 3000 workers were used to carry all of the various objects into the capital city of the Chinese empire. There were telescopes and barometers, clocks and hot-air balloons, swords and pistols, textiles and stationery.
The largest and most elaborate present for the emperor was a planetarium, built in Germany but embellished in England, which cost more than £1200 – more than Rs 1 crore in today’s terms. This elaborate glass-encased machine contained a celestial globe that purported to show the Milky Way as well as separate mechanisms for the orbits of Earth, Jupiter and Saturn.
It had three clocks that displayed various scriptural schedules that proudly proclaimed the end of time (and the world) was coming in 1836! One notable item that Macartney didn’t take was an example of the recently invented steam engine because he felt it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. A strange decision when he was packing such a complicated oddity as this planetarium.
But the Chinese ruler, the Qianlong emperor, was not impressed. When the British walked through his palace, they found it full of clocks, machines and other automata that the Chinese court had accumulated through the years, mostly from other European nations.
The British were hoping to dazzle the Chinese with their engineering and technology but the Chinese were far from dazzled. The emperor did indeed have a fascination for clockwork automata but it was a fascination that had been regularly indulged. And from there, things got worse. As Macartney was led to the emperor, court etiquette was explained to him – but as orders were translated, confusion broke out.
Words were slung back and forth. The exchange grew heated. Macartney was to prostrate himself with his forehead touching the floor as was traditional when meeting the emperor – but the gentleman refused. As far as he was concerned, he did not kowtow to his own king; how could he do so for a foreign emperor! Historians aren’t sure how the impasse of etiquette was finally negotiated.
Chinese sources tend to say he eventually kowtowed while British sources tend to deny it. What we do know is that in the end, the Qianlong emperor refused all of the requests made. The embassy was a complete failure. The emperor was emphatic that China had no need for British goods. Within a few months, Macartney was forced to get back on his ship and sail sadly back to England.
This was a disaster for Britain. They needed this trade deal more than the casual reader might imagine. The country was heading towards an economic flashpoint, what we refer to now as a balance of payments crisis, where imports were so much higher than exports that the country was literally running out of physical money to pay for their purchases. At the centre of this economic tornado was the humble, calming cup of tea.
For most of history, the Chinese mainland monopolised the cultivation of Camellia sinensis, more commonly known as tea. In most languages, the word for tea either starts with a “t” sound or a “ch” sound (as in “chai”) depending on whether it first arrived there by land or sea, that is, from the western or eastern part of China respectively.
When the English first discovered tea, they fell in love with it. It became a national obsession, and there seemed to be no end to the British citizenry’s capacity to consume this exciting new beverage. At its peak, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the duty on tea accounted for 10 per cent of Britain’s total revenue – an extraordinary situation. To put it in context, in 2018, the total receipts from taxing corporations came to 9 per cent of the country’s revenue!
But the only way to get tea was from China. And as had been made clear, the Chinese had no particular interest in British manufacturing goods or their cloth. So even as tea imports to Britain surged, there was nothing they could sell to China that could balance the equation. China would only accept silver – the equivalent of asking for cold, hard cash.
But as the eighteenth century drew on, the British empire’s treasury was looking bare; they were running out of silver. They didn’t have enough cold, hard cash to pay for their tea habit. It became imperative for them to find something the Chinese wanted as much as they, the British, wanted tea.
Simultaneously, the British had another problem: their new colony in India wasn’t as profitable as they had hoped it would be. Ever since the battles of Plassey and Buxar in the mid eighteenth century, the British had shifted from controlling a network of trading posts in India to becoming an imperial power. They governed land and raised money through taxes. It was the era of Company Raj.
But as imperial wars to conquer more and more land (so they could earn more and more money) dragged on, they found they were spending an increasing share of their newly gotten money on the wars themselves. They needed a new way to make money off this hard-won colony.
And then, somewhere in the mechanical mind of the British empire, a cog clicked and fell into place. Two problems became one solution. They put their colony to work to produce something that the Chinese would buy even if they didn’t want it: opium.
Opium, the sticky gum harvested from the poppy plant, is a powerful narcotic. You can drink it, eat it, smoke it. It gets you high – and it is addictive. After a while, it becomes hard to stop using it. And there is nothing better for a seller than a product you can’t stop buying. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British transformed entire farming economies in Bengal and Bihar into opium-producing machines. And their agents smuggled the drug illegally into China, exchanging it for tea.
Suddenly, the balance of trade leaned the other way. Silver started flowing back out of China into British hands. Slowly, this new equation solidified into a stable system: the Great Opium Triangle. To paraphrase the historian Tan Chung: the Chinese got opium, the British got tea, and the Indians got colonialism.
It was a neat formulation that belied what was really going on: the British were enabling the longest-running drug deal in the history of the world. They were knowingly getting millions of people addicted for profit, not just in China, but in India as well. Even as they passed laws against opium at home, they produced it in India and sold it in China.
At its peak, opium was the third-highest source of revenue for the British in India, after land and salt. This makes the Honourable East India Company a drug cartel masquerading as a joint stock corporation masquerading as a government. The British Raj in the nineteenth century was a narco-state – a country sustained by trade in an illegal drug.
This book is the story of opium and its place in history. This is a story about the banality of evil, the birth of megacorporations, and the foundation of empires.
Excerpted with permission from Opium Inc: How A Global Drug Trade Funded the British Empire, Thomas Manuel, HarperCollins.