First Opium War – Trade Deficits and the Macartney Embassy – Extra History – #1

First Opium War – Trade Deficits and the Macartney Embassy – Extra History – #1


In 1792. Britain has just come out of a war that’s cost it
not only much of its national treasury, but also one of its most lucrative
overseas colonies: North America. The empire needs
new sources of revenue, new opportunities
for trade, and there’s one clear possibility: China. *Intro theme plays* By the end of the 18th century,
the world had become a much smaller place, with European traders
traveling the globe to feed the hungry markets
of the industrializing West. Wars were fought all over the planet to secure exotic goods
or the raw materials needed to power new economies
of the rising European empires. But China still remained aloof. Demand for Chinese goods was high. Silk, porcelain, and especially tea were
coveted by buyers back in Europe. But the Chinese emperors saw
all these foreign traders as a potentially
destabilizing influence. And, as they had done
throughout Chinese history, placed strict controls
on foreign trade. Specifically, they limited trade
to just a few ports. Traders weren’t allowed
to set foot in the empire except at a handful of cities
designated for that purpose. And all trade had to go through
a trade monopoly known as the Hong, who could tax and regulate
foreign trade as they saw fit. By the middle of the 18th century,
this was taken further, and all foreign trade
was restricted to a single port: Canton. This drove resentment
among the European traders, who saw limitless opportunity for profit if they could just
get their hands on it. And those Europeans trading in China were, in some ways,
a self-selecting group. If you’re going to make your living transporting goods thousands
of miles from your home, you probably believe
in the inherent value of unrestricted trade, which meant that these rules
did not sit well with the Europeans, and piracy and smuggling began to rise. Even within the official channels of trade, merchants began to strain
at these limitations. Eventually, an employee
of the Honorable East India Company, the militarized trade organization responsible
for British affairs in India, pushed by, what he saw,
as abuses of corrupt officials and undue restrictions
on free trade, decided that it was time to openly break
the rules that the Chinese imposed. He left Canton
and took his grievances upriver (literally and figuratively), wanting to be heard
by someone in the Chinese hierarchy who was outside the Hong, outside the monopoly
set up in Canton. And here’s where divides
of culture come in. Because it’s possible
that he wasn’t acting in a way that he saw as malicious
or even inappropriate. In fact,
he may have been acting in a way that he thought of as perfectly reasonable,
were he in England. But he wasn’t in England. And the arrogance of this traitor
just deciding that his complaint should be elevated
to imperial court, rather than going through
the proper authorities, was unbelievable to the Chinese. More than that, it put
into question whether these Europeans would stay in one port at all, or even obey Chinese law. And so, further restrictions
were put into place. Trade was clamped down
on even more. But European demands
for Chinese goods, especially English demands
for their newfound love of black tea, continued to grow. Which brings us
back to 1792. By this point,
the British were importing tens of millions of pounds
of tea every year. Within two decades, import duties on tea
would account for 10 percent of the government’s
entire revenue. Tea was one of the major drivers
of the economy. Tea was so essential
to the British world, that the Canton system
was simply no longer acceptable. And more than that,
the British were now running an enormous trade deficit
with the Chinese. Millions of pounds of silver were flowing out
of the British Empire and into China. On top of that,
recent European struggles had cut them off from the silver mines
of South America, and costly foreign wars
had left the treasury dry. Even the Honorable East India Company
was broke, incurring a huge debt
to finance their military conquests of parts of India. The British Empire,
for all of its power and wealth, for all its global might
and territory in every region of the globe, simply did not have
the raw currency it needed to continue paying
for its tea habit. So, the British decided
that it was time to finally send
an official diplomatic mission to China. No more traders,
merchants, or pirates. This was going
to be a real envoy, from one monarch
to another, to talk about opening up trade. After some consideration,
it was decided that the first Earl of Macartney, a seasoned colonial governor,
should lead the mission. His aims were simple: end the Canton system, establish a permanent embassy (or at least get a permanent British representative
in the imperial court), and, if possible, secure the grant
of a small island off the coast of China where British merchants
could operate under British,
rather than Chinese, law. So they packed
the hold of a ship with clocks and telescopes,
and even carriages to be presented to the Chinese Emperor, and began their trip. They sailed east,
around the Cape of Good Hope, with only one minor detour
when the trade winds pushed them all the way
to Rio de Janeiro. At last though,
they arrived in China. They immediately asked
to dock at a port much closer
to Beijing than Canton. This was considered bad form
by the Chinese, but representatives
of the East India Company explained that they had expensive gits
for the emperor on board, and didn’t want any of them to get ruined
in a long overland journey. So, the Chinese acquiesced. They and their goods were ferried up
the Grand Canal to Beijing, and here they assembled their gifts, and prepared for the last leg
of their journey: over the Great Wall,
and to the emperor’s summer palace at Jehol. Here, they finally
met the emperor. And…
trouble began immediately. Because,
in the presence of the emperor, it was expected
that everyone “kowtow,” or kneel and bow
so low that their head touched the floor. And Macartney,
being a seasoned British governor and gentleman, hailing from,
what he believed, was the most powerful
and civilized nation in the world, with, as he saw it,
the most divine monarch, and, not only the right,
but the duty to spread the British way
around the globe, refused to do so. After all, if he wasn’t going to touch
his head to the floor for King George, he certainly wasn’t going
to do it here. So, after some wrangling
and protestations, he proposed a counter-solution. He would perform the kowtow, so long as every time it was done, a Chinese official of equal rank would kowtow
to a picture of George III. This was, of course,
ludicrous to the Chinese, as, after all, they were from the most powerful
and civilized nation in the world, with the most divine monarch, and who was this barbarian
to try to put his king on anything like
the emperor’s level? Seriously? But even without the kowtow issue
truly resolved, with Macartney merely genuflecting
in the end, as he would to King George. the meeting went forward. Macartney showed off
the marvels of British science, although mostly the flashier
and less practical kind, and presented them
to the emperor. And here too,
signals got crossed, because the Chinese court took this
as a tribute mission. After all, all gift-giving missions
to the emperor are tribute missions. What else would it be? And yet the British thought that they were demonstrating
all the reasons that China would benefit from opening up
trade with them. So, in the end,
Macartney was dismissed without the emperor agreeing
to a single one of the goals he set out to achieve. And the emperor
sent one of the most gloriously,
imperially snarky letters ever penned to King George, thanking him for his tribute, which, though neither he nor
the Chinese actually wanted it, he would graciously
accept out of respect for how far George had sent people just to pay him tribute. But no, China didn’t need baubles or knickknacks
from England, thank you. Trade would remain the way it was. So Britain was left
with a massive trade deficit. The East India Company
was 28 million pounds in debt as a result of their war in India, and the royal coffers
were nearly dry. They needed to find some product
the Chinese wanted, and then they did: opium. *outro theme plays*

100 Comments on "First Opium War – Trade Deficits and the Macartney Embassy – Extra History – #1"


  1. At the beginning you said the British lost north America but only the 13 colonies were lost. The British still had Canada in 1792.

    Reply

  2. Somebody: Ay British empire.
    British Empire: Yes?
    Somebody: Wanna hear a joke?
    British Empire: Sure.
    Somebody: Setting sun.
    British Empire: I dont get it.
    Somebody: I know you wont

    Reply

  3. To restore relations with China Britain and France should return all relics stolen from yuanmingyuan. and assist with reconstruction of some heritage sites.

    Reply

  4. Becoming a drug dealer to get drugs to fuel your addiction? Seems legit I guess.

    Reply

  5. money lead the war everywhere, and now us trade war with chinese again. history repeat its self.

    Reply

  6. So the British tricked the Chinese into developing a crippling opium addiction, after they themselves developed a crippling tea addiction.
    … More reasonable than I thought, actually.

    Reply

  7. Somethings never change eh? Yet so many bits are complaining about so called foreign invaders today.

    Reply

  8. Actually, we Chinese really thank British for this Opium war. It is only after Opium war that modernization, industrialization and capitalism began to develop in China. Not a bad thing in long term.

    Reply

  9. Seriously how can you say East India company was honorable they exploited India for generations!

    Reply

  10. 18th century: OMG THIS WAS MADE IN CHINA HOW MAGNIFICENT!!!!!!!
    Now days: why is everything made in China??

    Reply

  11. England has been one of the most criminal nations in the world, slave traders (from Africa), drug dealers (in China), pirates (against Spain), genocides (american natives in USA), etc, etc….

    Reply

  12. I'm usually never on the side of the British but I can definetly see where they are coming from. They need to so something so their economy doesn't kick the bucket and China is not willing to come their way even a step.

    And the "I Kowtow if you Kowtow" deal is actually perfectly reasonable in my opinion.

    Reply

  13. so the british empire fought a war to get another people addicted to herion? wow talk about ruthless and racist!

    Reply

  14. Atleast chinese had common sense to resist and ward off foreign invaders that came in form of traders unlike some countries

    Reply

  15. British Empire: Would you like Opium?
    China: what are my option
    British empire: Yes or… Yes

    Reply

  16. If the chinese had been at least half as smart as the japanese in acknowledging their obvious cultural and technological inferiority, none of this would have happened.

    Reply

  17. The Chinese learned well from history and made sure the century of humiliation never happened again and now are one of the superpowers of the world and the biggest proponets of global free trade while the americans and europeans are pursuing protectionist and isolationist policies, very ironic

    Reply

  18. britain has just come out of a war that cost it most of its wait whats that noise? MURICA FUCK YEAH

    Reply

  19. They burn down our palace and invaded china, hongkong and Macao was taken away from china, my great grandfather left China because nothing left in china, I'm now in Malaysia, this is the west even now.

    Reply

  20. You know why there's soo many treasure of china in western museums now? Ask the League of nation who invaded china after the opium war.

    Reply

  21. maybe it was initially the goal of the Chinese to drug the Brittain first with tea leaves, but they never thought they would drink it instead of smoking it..

    Reply

  22. Ireland shouldn’t be in the geographical picture of the British empire. Don’t want to be associated with drug dealers.. and tyrannical bullies

    Reply

  23. They talk about the Medellin Cartel or the Sinaloa Cartel as being one of the greatest drug cartels the world has ever seen, they are just amateurs compared to the British Empire Cartel

    Reply

  24. People have personal responsibility in this. If nobody wanted opium then HM could never have sold it to the barbarians. HM was only fulfilling a demand.

    Reply

  25. Main problem in this war is misunderstand and culture shock
    Both side came from different backgrounds and perspective

    Reply

  26. So, basically, Britain fought a war with China, in order to force it to buy their opium all in the name of free trade?
    Take a moment to think about the moral ramifications of that!

    Reply

  27. Chinese got Brits hooked on a useless drug caffeine in tea, Brits responded by getting them hooked on opium. Boston Tea Party. Never considered how State sponsored drug pushing was so prevalent – probably because the notion has been officially repressed.Will think twice about all these coffee shops all over the place now.

    Reply

  28. I think people often fail to realize that in England opium was seen as a medicinal product for health, and so the East India Company's actions are not a malignant as they might at first seem.

    Reply

  29. America was not a lucrative colony it was very costly and most of the british elites were glad to see the back of it. There is a reason the british never invested much into the american war of independence…. there were far more profitable places in the world that needed the british attention

    Reply

  30. That's why i hate that tiny island uk.. More than half of the world problems are caused by Uk, the loyal lapdog of USA

    Reply

  31. These Hong Kong protestors should learn this before they do all the stupid acts! Slaves to UK for centuries!

    Reply

  32. The letter, translated entirely… its greatly offensive, if anyone ask… he uses kind words, but calls the king and every occidental barbaric.
    https://china.usc.edu/emperor-qianlong-letter-george-iii-1793#targetText=Emperor%20Qianlong%3A%20Letter%20to%20George%20III%2C%201793,by%20Chinese%20Emperor%20Qianlong%20(b.&targetText=1799)%20to%20King%20George%20III,1738%2C%20d.

    Reply

  33. British : Arrive at china
    British : "Tea."
    China : O k .
    China : Proceeds to grab trade regulations
    British : That's gonna be good with crumpets.

    British : Wait, lad.
    British : Trade regulations aren't tea.
    China : oh shi-
    British : Proceeds to invade china and take hong kong
    C O L O N I Z E D

    gebaseerd op voc voor idioten
    –ga er na kijken

    Reply

  34. And people are constantly talking about how America loves oil, but Britain literally became drug dealers to fuel their tea addiction

    Reply

  35. Because of this china always have a bitter taste in their heart for Westerners, and now they want vengeance

    Reply

  36. oh and tea, its all about silver. Chinese accepted only silver in payment… no damn railways, factories, silk mills or other such stuff.

    Britain meanwhile ran their economy on gold essentialy forcing them to buy silver from.. yeah the spaniards.. and feed catholicism (yikes!!)

    Reply

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