What did I know about the opium wars between China and Britain in the 1800’s? Basically nothing. So what happened? India had opium. The East India trading company of Britain discovered a market for the stuff in neighbouring China. They flooded that country with opium, destroying the lives of millions of Chinese people.
Britain’s moral conscience was assuaged for decades by means of flimsy justifications:
China supplied Britain with tea, the British paid a pretty penny for this import. The opium trade served as a financial recoupment strategy for all their expense in extracting the tea from China. On the books, this was a tidy, incredibly lucrative trade that benefited Britain greatly and made its traders incredibly rich. By the mid 1800’s 1/6th of Britain’s GDP was tied to this trade.
Finally, the emperor of China had enough. Trade would be fine he said, however, the opium trade would not. The traders lobbied the British parliament. They said that the Chinese were being unreasonable, that they were corrupt, that the traders’ lives were in danger. As they petitioned the halls of power, they were careful not to get into the horrific details of the opium trade. Britain had a conscience, and if it was pricked, it would be bad for business. So the traders emphasized how China was a threat to British sovereignty. Their protests worked. Britain sent an army, vastly superior to China’s. China was forced to capitulate or be completely destroyed. The surrender made it possible for the trade to continue according to British terms solely. Over time, the British came to see China’s point regarding opium. However, they embraced a don’t-see, don’t-tell perspective, so the vice continued its devastating rampage largely unhindered.
It is in this context that E.V. Thompson writes his fiction. Luke is the good British trader who doesn’t deal in opium – he is the British trader who breaks convention and marries a Chinese woman. He is the British trader who takes the time to actually learn the language and culture of the Chinese. What does his “non-colonizing” stance get him? Pain and suffering and death to all his loved ones. Despite the difficulties, Luke remains true to his principles but is increasingly disgusted with the whole mess. After a decade or so in China, Luke retires at age 30 as an incredibly wealthy man. He moves back to England and secures a seat in parliament spending the rest of his life advocating for a better trade system between England and China.
What are my key takeaways?