China Chapter XVII - The First Foreign War

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Chapter XVII - The First Foreign War

AT the very time that the Emperor Taoukwang, by the dismissal of the Portuguese astronomers at Pekin and by his general indifference to the foreign question, was showing that no concessions were to be expected from him, an unknown legislature at a remote distance from his capital was decreeing, in complete indifference to the susceptibilities of the occupant of the Dragon Throne, that trade with China might be pursued by any English subject. Up to the year 1834 trade with China had, by the royal charter, remained the monopoly of the East India Company; but when the charter was renewed in that year for a further period of twenty years, it was shorn of the last of its commercial privileges, and an immediate change became perceptible in the situation at Canton, which was the principal seat of the foreign trade. The withdrawal of the monopoly was dictated solely by English, and not Chinese, considerations. Far from facilitating trade with the Chinese, it tended to hinder and prevent its developing; for the Chinese officials had no objection to foreigners coming to Canton, and buying or selling articles of commerce, so long as they derived personal profit from the trade, and so long as the laws of the empire were not disputed or violated. The servants of the East India Company were content to adapt themselves to this view, and they might have carried on relations with the Hong merchants for an indefinite period, and without any more serious collision than occasional interruptions. Had the monopoly been renewed things would have been left in precisely the same position as when intercourse was first established, and trade might have continued within its old restricted limits. But the abolition of the monopoly and the opening of the trade created quite a new situation, and by intensifying the opposition of the Chinese government, paved the way to the only practicable solution of the question of foreign intercourse with China, which was that, however reluctantly she should consent to take her place in the family of nations.

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The Chinese were not left long in doubt as to the significance of this change. In December, 1833, a royal commission was issued appointing Lord Napier chief superintendent of trade with China, and two assistants under him, of whom one was Sir John Davis. The Chinese had to some extent contributed to this appointment, the Hoppo at Canton having written that "in case of the dissolution of the Company it was incumbent on the British government to appoint a chief to come to Canton for the general management of commercial dealings, and to prevent affairs from going to confusion." But in this message the Hoppo seems to have expressed his own view rather than that of the Pekin government or the Canton viceroy; and certainly none of the Chinese were prepared to find substituted for "a chief of commercial dealings" an important commissioner clothed with all the authority of the British ruler. How very different was the idea formed of this functionary by the Chinese and English may be gathered from their official views of his work. What the Chinese thought has been told in the words of the Hoppo. Lord Palmerston was more precise from his point of view. His instruction to Lord Napier read, "Your lordship will announce your arrival at Canton by letter to the viceroy. In addition to the duty of protecting and fostering the trade at Canton, it will be one of your principal objects to ascertain whether it may not be practicable to extend that trade to other parts of the Chinese dominions. It is obvious that, with a view to the attainment of this object, the establishment of direct communication with the imperial court at Pekin would be most desirable." The two points of radical disagreement between these views were that the Chinese wished to deal with an official who thought exclusively of trade, whereas Lord Napier's task was not less diplomatic than commercial; and, secondly, that they expected him to carry on his business with...

(The entire section is 14,098 words.)