Presiding over the southern China trading world of An Insular Possession is the mighty British Empire, a rigid and notorious taskmaster of the native Chinese. In the century previous to the time of the novel, the Chinese wielded a precarious upper hand over the British: The empire’s gluttonous demand for tea indebted it to these chief suppliers of the commodity, and it paid in pounds of silver. The solution to Great Britain’s damaged economy lay in creating a viable trading commodity. The Empire turned to its largest colony, India, sent its laborers into the poppy fields and, subsequently, by increments and stealth induced in the Chinese an opium addiction that surpassed even the British taste for tea. In short order, England found itself not only breaking even on the trade but also filching enough silver from the Chinese to operate the government in India. As the novel begins, however, the trading network is in another stage of transition. The native bristles under the heavy hand of the foreigner, yet must be fed by it; the foreigner tightens the grip on his vicious monopoly before it dissipates.
The struggle for dominance embroils combatants and bystanders alike, most notably the American traders of the Meridian Company in Canton. Yet in the midst of the turmoil, the Americans declare their own innocence and even a higher calling. Trading precious silver for innocuous silks and porcelain, they disdain the illicit opium trade and pride themselves as harbingers of culture bent on drawing China into the greater world of civilized nations. The bravado and the sanctimony of this upstart country is epitomized by Walter Eastman, a brash twenty-four-year-old senior clerk and dilettante painter, and Gideon Chase, a junior clerk of seventeen and willing protege of his idol, Eastman. While the Chinese suffer, Eastman and Chase pass idle days drinking fine bottles of claret and amusing themselves with a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) on the neighboring peninsula of Macao, the social mecca where wives and children are comfortably billeted. Their weighty culture is never wasted on the Chinese, and their concern for the natives is, similarly, a passive,...
(The entire section is 902 words.)