4

To Stop Is Dangerous, to Recede, Ruin

The Far East and Afghanistan

In September 1839 Sir James Stephen remarked that he had “been living for the last six months in a tornado.”1 Not only was he struggling with the creation of British New Zealand, against his better judgement, but he was beset by storms elsewhere in the Empire. Aden was annexed in January and Sind became a protectorate in February. Trouble was brewing in Gibraltar, Malta, the Ionian Islands, the Cape, Ceylon, Jamaica, Canada and Australia. War threatened in Burma and there were fears of a clash with France in the Persian Gulf. That danger was compounded by a crisis in the Levant resulting from Egypt’s rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, now the “sick man of Europe.” Furthermore, two conflicts were already in train. Britain was engaged in the opening skirmishes of the Opium War against China, designed to prise open the most populous market on earth. And the First Afghan War had begun, its purpose being to keep the Russian Bear at bay and to intimidate the Himalayan tribes. “It was felt,” according to an article in the Asiatic Journal, “that the security of our Empire would be irrevocably compromised whenever we were obliged, like the Empire of Rome in its decline, to buy off the barbarians on our frontier.”2

Defence invariably meant attack. By a curious paradox the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign, the nadir of enthusiasm for colonies and dependencies, saw what one of her subjects called the greatest advances and conquests since the days of Julius Caesar.3During this period the British Empire grew on average by 100,000 square miles a year, almost the same rate of expansion as that in the late nineteenth century, usually reckoned the golden age of territorial aggrandisement. True, the forward policy was by no means consistent. Britain’s Empire was won as it would be lost, in a haphazard, piecemeal fashion. Serious setbacks occurred, notably the Indian Mutiny, which seemed harbingers of imperial doom. Moreover, well-placed observers believed that the enlargement process was unsustainable as well as undesirable. Stephen himself wrote in 1843: “We are recklessly increasing and dispersing our colonial Empire in all directions and creating a demand for naval and military force which there is no means of meeting, except by weakening that force where its presence is most needed.” For all the shrewdness of this analysis, though, a huge and heterogeneous Empire was coming into being, the like of which the world had never seen. Compared to this tangled motley, Rome wove a seamless web.

The British Empire was such a gallimaufry that some authorities say it never really existed at all. It was acquired by conquest, settlement, cession and in a bewildering variety of other ways: Bombay was part of a royal dowry; Freetown was purchased by a band of English philanthropists; most of Hong Kong was leased; Cyprus was held on licence; the New Hebrides were part of an Anglo-French “condominium.” The Empire had no legal coherence: Englishmen carried their own law with them to settler colonies; but Roman-Dutch law was retained in the Cape, Ceylon and British Guiana; varieties of French law prevailed in Lower Canada, St. Lucia, Mauritius and the Seychelles; Trinidad had Spanish law, Heligoland Danish law, Malta the Maltese Code; Cyprus clung to old Turkish law even when Istanbul reformed it. Nor was there judicial impartiality. Naturally “all men are equal before the law” but, wrote one Colonial Secretary unblushingly, it was a mistake to suppose that “you can treat Chinese as if they were English.”4 The Colonial Office had no monopoly of power in the Empire and could at any time be overruled by the Admiralty, the War Office, the India Office, the Board of Trade, the Foreign Office or the Treasury. The last of these departments often had the final word, though its efforts to impose “stringent economy” were not always successful—when the Treasury tried literally to cut the Colonial Office’s use of stationery, it penned a crushing riposte: “No gentleman writes to another on half a sheet of paper.”5 In practice, too, the man on the spot might prove more powerful than his theoretical masters at home. It has even been argued that the Empire was not so much pushed out from the centre as pulled out from the extremities, because there were so many cases of “the metropolitan dog being wagged by its colonial tail.”6 A particularly rabid example occurred in 1848 when, entirely on his own initiative, the half-mad Sir Harry Smith annexed “British Kaffraria,” a huge region south of the Drakensberg Mountains, placing his foot on the neck of the Xhosa ruler and proclaiming, “I am your Paramount Chief, and the Kaffirs are my dogs!”7 To emphasise the point he blew up a wagon packed with explosives in front of two thousand tribesmen.

Local administrations were sometimes as eccentric as local proconsuls. In different ways Canada, Australia and New Zealand virtually ran their own affairs. The East India Company nominally ruled the subcontinent and held economic sway between Cape Town and Cape Horn. It was “the strangest of all governments,” said Macaulay, but it was “designed for the strangest of all empires.”8 For India also contained about 560 princely states, whose rajahs were often “advised” by British Residents. And its subordinate presidencies had additional responsibilities: for example, Bombay supervised Aden and the British Agency in Zanzibar; Bengal held sway from Peshawar to Rangoon. Other chartered companies would gain fiefdoms in Borneo, Nigeria and Rhodesia. “Crown colonies,” obtained by war, treaty or occupation, such as British Guiana, Trinidad, the Falkland Islands, Malta, the Cape, and Ceylon, were directed more or less despotically by a British Governor. Protectorates, such as the Gold Coast, Uganda, East Africa and assorted Pacific Islands, represented a halfway stage between alliance and sovereignty, though even the Colonial Office did “not quite know what this means.”9 Tristan da Cunha, though it was administered by missionaries, had no form of government whatever.

Britain exerted a still vaguer dominion, thanks to its commercial and naval strength, over satellite states in South America, Asia and elsewhere. The Mediterranean, as earlier noted, was virtually a British lake. From 1814 until 1846 the Consul-General at Tripoli, Colonel Hanmer Warrington, was “to all intents and purposes the Pasha’s Foreign Secretary.”10 Hailed as “the Great Elchi” (ambassador) in the Sultan’s court at Constantinople, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe exercised nearly despotic authority between 1841 and 1857, dispensing his own law and having his own gaoler.11 Even the United States was drawn into the British orbit during the nineteenth century: “We are part, and a great part,” wrote the New York Times, “of the Greater Britain which seems so plainly destined to dominate this planet.”12 But though some historians have described the tenuous association of client countries as Britain’s “informal empire,”13 it was less a nexus of power than a sphere of influence. Its strength varied according to circumstances and often Britain exercised no more than a phantom hegemony. More substantial were direct forms of control, whether imposed by sweating consuls on the Niger, by the hereditary white rajahs of Sarawak or by the naval captains who commanded Ascension Island, which the Admiralty denominated a ship—a “stone frigate.”14 This was, in short, an empire of anomalies.

Nevertheless it was an empire. It acknowledged the supremacy of the British Crown in the Westminster parliament. And its purpose was to promote the nation’s real interests on which, said Lord Palmerston, the sun never set. Britain was essentially interested in political advantage and commercial gain, which in turn enhanced strength and growth. Power and wealth were the warp and woof of empire. But the worldwide mesh was so loose that if any strand broke, Britons often thought, the whole fabric might unravel. Consequently empire-builders were always inclined to advance. They hankered to thrust out a bastion here, to nip off a salient there, to seize the initiative somewhere else. Like Sir Charles Metcalfe, they echoed Clive’s dictum: “To stop is dangerous, to recede, ruin.”15

Of course, they had high-minded justifications aplenty for imperial expansion. Christianity and civilisation followed the Union Jack, since on the long march to improve the world Britain had plainly been chosen to take the lead. Awed by the unparalleled grandeur of the country’s imperial situation in 1843, Blackwood’s Magazine believed that “Great Britain is destined by Almighty God to be the instrument for effecting his sublime hidden purposes with reference to humanity.”16 True, cynics like Sir William Molesworth said that people who talked of promoting humanity at the expense of barbarism generally meant “shells, congreve rockets and grapeshot, the burning and destruction of native towns and the wholesale massacre of their inhabitants.”17 But although such criticisms sometimes came painfully close to the mark, few doubted that the nation’s destiny was bound up with the gospel of progress. Even radicals hostile to imperialism, such as Cobden and Goldwin Smith, did not want to dismantle the Empire. And politicians who deplored its trouble and cost believed that it was essential to the greatness of Britain. A significant colonial loss would “diminish our importance in the world,” said Lord John Russell, “& the vultures would soon gather together to despoil us of other parts of our Empire, or to offer insults to us which we could not bear.”18 No one could bear them less than Lord Palmerston, the greatest champion of an aggressive foreign policy during the first half of the Victorian age. Sharing Macaulay’s view that “To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages,”19 Palmerston was keener to foster commerce than to acquire territory. But sometimes one enterprise involved the other. Whatever the case he had an infallible guide: “the interest of England is the Polar star.”20

Palmerston, a Regency buck who dominated most early Victorian governments and remained Prime Minister for much of the decade before his death in 1865, was known in his youth as Lord Cupid. This was a tribute to an amorous disposition not always kept within the bounds of decency. In 1837 he attempted to seduce—perhaps even to rape—one of the ladies-in-waiting at Windsor Castle, which got him into serious trouble with the virgin Queen. The monarch also took exception to the high-handed way in which Palmerston conducted foreign affairs. A Whig grandee with populist leanings, he resisted royal interference, antagonised Prince Albert and advised the sovereign to confine her international correspondence to family gossip. Palmerston was equally brusque with his cabinet colleagues, who were often appalled by the violence of his language and the rashness of his behaviour. As Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne began many sentences in his letters to the Foreign Secretary with the words “For God’s sake don’t…”21 The British electorate, though, enjoyed “Lord Pumicestone’s” abrasive way with alien potentates. Among others he insulted the Pope, who so prized temporal rule, Palmerston suggested, that he “would not open the gates of Paradise” unless he could “make some little hell on earth.”22 Palmerston also caused offence by permitting military bands to play in parks on Sundays; churchmen complained that he “treated Heaven like a foreign power.”23 Incurably frivolous, he was also immensely industrious and boisterously patriotic. Punch said that he never slept, though occasionally “he rests his head on a loaded cannon.”24

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, author of The Last Days of Pompeii, described Palmerston as “mamma England’s spoilt child”:25 when he had a tantrum and smashed all the crockery, the mother proudly remarked on his high spirits. Jaunty, debonair and eupeptic, Palmerston combined patrician disdain for popular clamour and abuse with a raffish aptitude for playing to the gallery of public opinion. This he personified as “the man with the umbrella on top of the omnibus.” He added that public opinion was “more powerful than a charge of cavalry or the thunder of artillery.”26Palmerston was never more loudly applauded than when he bullied Greece into compensating an Iberian Jew called Don Pacífico, who claimed British citizenship because he had been born in Gibraltar, for damage done to his property in Athens during anti-Semitic riots. Concluding a bravura parliamentary defence of his gunboat diplomacy in 1850, Palmerston memorably pronounced that “as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity when he could say Civis Romanus sum: so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.”27

Less well known is Macaulay’s Commons peroration, which anticipated Palmerston’s by a decade and also celebrated his country’s achievement in making “the name of Englishman as much respected as ever had been the name of Roman citizen.”28 Macaulay, then Secretary at War, was attempting to justify Britain’s policy towards China. This led to the Opium War (1839–42), a characteristic example of Palmerstonian pugnacity which resulted in a small addition of territory and a large accession of influence to the British Empire. The purpose of the war, according to the opposition, was to protect British dealers in an illicit drug that was demoralising countless Chinese. In his reply to Macaulay, the young W. E. Gladstone said that England had been respected because its flag had always flown over the “cause of justice,” whereas a war in defence of this “infamous contraband traffic” covered the entire country in disgrace.29 He even suggested that since the Chinese had no armaments capable of expelling their foes they might reasonably resort to poisoning British wells. Palmerston exploited this gaffe in his own speech, adding that it was not his country’s task to preserve “the morals of the Chinese people, who were disposed to buy what other people were disposed to sell them.”30But it was right to preserve the legitimate business and lawful property of British merchants in Canton. The extension of commerce, the Foreign Secretary believed, was tantamount to the promotion of civilisation. From the perspective of Peking, the reverse was true. This was the contentious issue between the callow British Empire and the venerable Celestial Empire. A sublime irony lay at the heart of their long struggle: each empire thought the other utterly barbarous.

China, where Confucius taught philosophy when Rome was a village, where gunpowder was invented when Europe was in the Dark Ages, where Kublai Khan reigned over the largest empire ever seen when Edward I was wrestling with a disunited kingdom, now seemed to Britons hopelessly backward. It had been admired in the West as late as the Enlightenment period, when the fashion for chinoiserie was at its height. But subsequently it was condemned for its continental insularity, its Great Wall mentality. The Middle Kingdom had rebuffed every British overture since the first diplomatic mission, led by Lord Macartney, in 1793. In accounts of that famous embassy the Chinese appeared as infinitely polite and graciously hospitable Yahoos who spat on the carpet and openly searched themselves for vermin, which they then ate with relish. They had failed to appreciate the value of English gifts presented to the suave, ruthless, octogenarian Emperor Qianlong: the coach was never used because the Son of Heaven could not sit lower than his driver; the mechanical planetarium was dismissed as a stupid toy; the map of the world was rejected on the grounds that China was too small and not in the middle.*6 Claiming the globe, the “inscrutable Celestials”31 were insufferably condescending towards the bignosed, red-faced, tight-clothed “barbarians.” Macartney and Lord Amherst, who followed him to the Forbidden City in 1816, clearly did not know how to behave for they refused to kowtow to His Imperial Majesty. Such uncouth visitors could not grasp that the Middle Kingdom, which held sway from the Caspian Sea to the Ryukyu Islands, from Lake Baikal to the gulfs of Bengal and Siam, was “the only Civilisation under Heaven.”32 Mutual misunderstanding aggravated interracial contempt. The British were disgusted by the Chinese diet, which included snakes, tortoises, dogs, cats, bats, new-born rats (known as “honey peepers”) and raw monkey brains, but believed that they would readily buy tweed. The Chinese thought the British looked like devils, stank like corpses and probably had webbed feet. They also reckoned that a ban on the export of rhubarb from Canton could bring England to a halt via an epidemic of constipation.

Canton was the only seaway into the Emperor Tao-Kuang’s sublimely self-sufficient universe. Foreigners were not even allowed to enter the city itself. Likened to merchants trying to do business in London but “placed in close confinement” at Wapping,33 they were virtually imprisoned in a small, squalid factory ghetto set between Canton’s granite walls and the Pearl River. This broad waterway was as busy as the Thames below London Bridge. It was “a floating world”34 of hatched sampans, rakish lorchas (schooners), oval-roofed houseboats, barbers’ skiffs, barrel-hulled lighters, beflagged mandarins’ barges and red-and-black, single-masted, mat-sailed junks, with ramshackle poops, wooden anchors, rattan rigging and bows painted with enormous eyes to scare off sea serpents. On its forty-mile journey from Canton to the sea, the river wound through grey mud flats and green paddy fields, dividing into a maze of shallow channels. An early one was “Lob Lob Creek,” from which silk-robed prostitutes would glide in gorgeously decorated “flower boats” to “satisfy the carnal appetites”35 of foreign sailors, a transaction controlled by mandarins who took their usual “squeeze” of the profits. A few miles downstream, off Whampoa Island, the larger merchantmen moored. Among them were the fat-bellied, thousandton argosies of the East India Company with their black-and-white checkerboard colours and their red-and-white-striped flags flying over a forest of masts, struts and spars, as they disgorged cargoes of cotton, wool, tin, lead and silver, as well as watches, jewelled musical boxes and other clockwork curios known as “sing-songs.” Finally, the main stream of the delta flowed between fortified headlands known as the Bocca Tigris, the tiger’s jaws, before emptying into a vast estuary guarded by the Portuguese enclave of Macao and the rocky sentinel of Hong Kong. Bottled up in the single port of Canton, with its humid malarial summers and its damp rheumatic winters, exposed to restrictions, exactions and humiliations, British merchants were constantly at odds with their hosts. And by spitting, hooting and gesturing, the local people made it quite clear that they loathed, derided and despised the “foreign devils” (Fan Qui).

Matters grew worse when the East India Company lost its monopoly to trade with China in 1834. Private traffickers, beating the monsoons in fast, new, three-masted clippers, said to be the finest boats in the world,36 began to transport unprecedented amounts of opium from India. They were generally anxious to avoid smuggling themselves. So off China’s coast they transferred the mango-wood chests (forty thousand of them by 1840, each packed with forty brown, human-head-sized cakes of opium) to narrow, streamlined craft known as “scrambling dragons” or “fast crabs.”37 These had three masts as well as fifty or sixty oars and sailed so swiftly, despite heavy armaments and iron nets designed to protect them from cannonballs, that they were said to have “glued-on wings.”38 They were crewed by Tanka boat people described as “vermin on land, veritable dragons afloat.”39 The Chinese purchased opium from the British with silver, the very same metal which the British paid to the Chinese for their own addictive drug—tea. This had become “a necessity of life”40 in Britain, where thirty million pounds of tea were consumed each year at a cost of over £2 million. So the balance of trade in bullion, which had tilted heavily towards China before the 1830s, now swung in favour of the British. In the words of a contemporary pamphlet, this enabled India

to increase ten-fold its consumption of British Manufactures…to support the vast fabric of British dominion in the East…and, by the operations of exchange and remittances in Teas and other Chinese produce, to pour an abundant revenue into the British Exchequer and benefit the British Nation to the extent of six millions annually.41

Tea duties provided a tenth of the national revenue, enough to finance half the Royal Navy. The British were, moreover, stimulated by congou and bohea while the Chinese were poisoned by the poppy.

It is true that opium, known as a soporific to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, had many properties. As well as being an anodyne it could act as an aphrodisiac, prolonging erection and ejaculation. It could also excite the imagination of those who, like Thomas De Quincey, plunged into the “abyss of divine enjoyment.”42 Certainly the British, who allowed opium to be sold freely at home, made light of the drug. They said that Peking’s complaints about its corrupting effects were spurious, concealing fears about gains in British power and losses of Chinese silver—“the idol of their real worship.”43 Englishmen favourably compared the effect of opium on the Chinese to that of gin on their own countrymen. Some even claimed that it carried out the valuable “mission of soothing John Chinaman into a temporary forgetfulness” of the evils that beset him, “deluding his soul with visions of a Paradise where the puppy-dogs and rats run about roasted; where the birds’ nests are all edible…and the women all [have] short feet.”44 This was humbug. Burke had rightly condemned the opium trade, which he called a “smuggling adventure,” as “the great Disgrace of the British character in India.45 And Dr. Arnold of Rugby said that forcing the drug on China was “a national sin of the greatest possible magnitude.”46

It usually had disastrous effects on smokers. They suffered from indigestion, emaciation and lassitude. Their skin turned sallow, their teeth blackened and their minds decayed. Eventually they became “walking skeletons.”47 Moreover, there was no escape from addiction without the “writhing, throbbing, palpitating, shattered” feelings that De Quincey experienced.48 The Emperor Tao-Kuang (Heavenly Rectitude) feared that his realm would be impoverished and his subjects stupefied by the drug. Senior court eunuchs had succumbed to it, as had sections of the army, which proved incapable of fighting. The entire administration of the Celestial Empire was being corrupted since mandarins, if not addicts themselves, exerted such a huge “squeeze” that they were essentially in league with the drug traffickers. For over a century emperors had been trying to suppress opium smoking. In 1839 Tao-Kuang sent a new commissioner to Canton, Lin Tse-Hsu, to solve the problem once and for all. Short and stout, with a thick black moustache and a long thin beard, Lin announced his intentions in a letter (not delivered) to Queen Victoria. “The vice has spread far and wide,” he wrote, and “we mean to cut off this harmful drug for ever.” To acknowledge the superhuman power of the Son of Heaven, the Queen “must” at once forbid its manufacture throughout the British Empire.49

Lin followed up this missive by executing more Chinese addicts and by besieging the trading factories in Canton. He forced the Fan Qui, including the American “flowery flag devils,” to surrender twenty thousand cases of opium worth £2 million, over a third of which belonged to the leading British hong (firm) Jardine, Matheson & Co. The so-called “foreign mud” was dissolved in lime pits. And the merchants fled to Macao where, after a “jollification on the Queen’s birthday,” one of them fired off guns which damaged a Chinese war junk and “created a great sensation.”50 They then decamped to Hong Kong, but the resumption of opium trafficking caused further friction in the Pearl River estuary. It culminated in two engagements between a 28-gun frigate of the Royal Navy and junks of the Chinese battle fleet, several of which were sunk. Lin reported a glorious victory to the Emperor. Palmerston was able to persuade parliament that, despite Gladstone’s moralisings, Britain’s honour was at stake in the defence of free trade. He rejected the notion that this had anything to do with safeguarding the “nefarious traffic”51 in narcotics and historians tend to agree that opium was the occasion rather than the cause of the war. Yet Palmerston was disingenuous in his arguments and extravagant in his demands for compensation to British drug dealers. They lobbied him relentlessly and were “quite confident”52 of his acquiescence despite his canny refrain, “My ears are open but my lips are sealed.”53

Palmerston knew perfectly well that a victory for free trade would increase the opium trade, which accounted for 40 per cent of India’s exports and was “the largest commerce of the time in any single commodity.”54 Indeed, the sale of that commodity, which he urged the Chinese to legalise, helped to pay for the war. It turned out to be a demonstration of Britain’s overwhelming technological superiority. In particular, China met its Nemesis. This was an iron paddle steamer, the first one to round the Cape, on what had been an epic voyage. It fired shells and Congreve rockets, and though its flat bottom attracted more barnacles than the Colonial Office, the 630-ton Nemesis could tow men-of-war up rivers to wreak havoc deep inside the Celestial Empire. Commissioner Lin said that the wheeled “devil ship” used “the heads of flames to drive machines, cruising very fast.”55 Some of his countrymen thought that it was powered by windmills or oxen and they actually developed their own paddle wheelers which were propelled by coolies inside the hulls turning treadles. Otherwise the Chinese relied on magic charms, gruesome masks, bows and arrows, ancient matchlocks, rusty cannon and monkeys with fireworks strapped to their backs which were supposed, when hurled aboard British vessels, to explode their powder magazines.

Inevitably, therefore, the British won a series of crushing victories. When the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842, they were able to extort a colossal indemnity, including compensation for the destroyed opium, and commercial privileges in five ports, among them Canton and Shanghai. They also got sovereignty over Hong Kong (Fragrant Water). After some dithering the London government decided that this barren island was worth keeping as “an exception to ordinary rules.” It was occupied, said James Stephen, “not with a view to Colonization, but for Diplomatic, Commercial and Military purposes.”56 Its Governor was well placed to watch and to penetrate China. Its harbour would make it a naval base second only to Singapore. As early as 1842, sixty-foot-wide roads were being built round the island. Houses, stores, brothels, gambling dens and opium booths were multiplying. An immense Chinese bazaar was in business. Despite typhoons, fires and malaria so murderous that the smart residential area of Happy Valley was quickly “converted into a cemetery,”57 the new crown colony at once surpassed Macao, whose shopkeepers fled thither “like rats from a falling house.”58 Hong Kong promised to become, “next to Calcutta, the most important commercial town this side [of] the Cape.”59Punch prophesied that its merchants would soon have “the Emperor of China clothed in a Manchester shirt, and…his court handling Sheffield knives and forks.”

The drug trade also followed the flag. The first substantial stone building in Hong Kong was Jardine, Matheson’s opium godown, and within a decade the entire island was “a kind of bonded warehouse…for the opium trade.”60 This remained illegal as far as China was concerned, which secretly gratified Alexander Matheson. As he told his Bombay supplier Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, lawful competition would cut the profits they themselves made from the traffic: “The more difficulties attend it, the better for you and us. We shall always find ways and means to carry it on in spite of every obstacle.”61 The first Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Henry Pottinger, abetted the strategy of these unscrupulous taipans (great managers). Matheson further wrote:

Pottinger has published a most fiery proclamation against smuggling, but I believe it is like Chinese edicts, meaning nothing and only intended for the edification, or rather gratification, of the Saints [i.e. Evangelicals] in England. Sir Henry never meant to act on it, & no doubt privately considers it a good joke. It will, however, deter many parties from speculating in the drug, which will be so far well.62

From start to finish, in fact, Hong Kong’s role was shrouded in official hypocrisy. Britons liked to say that the colony was a “vantage point from which the Anglo-Saxon race has to work out its divine mission of promoting the civilisation of Europe in the East.” Sometimes spiritual and temporal endeavours were conveniently associated, and given added grandeur by reference to Rome. A brass plate on the foundation stone of St. John’s Cathedral said that it was laid by the Governor, Sir John Davis, “bedecked with proconsular dignity, on the fifth day of the Ides of March in the tenth year of Queen Victoria, A.D 1847.”63

Some people thought that by acquiring Hong Kong Britain had cut a notch “in China as a woodsman notches a tree, to mark it for felling at a convenient opportunity.”64 Indeed, toppling the Son of Heaven from the Dragon Throne and enrolling the Chinese masses in Britain’s service became perennial Victorian fantasies. For if yellow auxiliaries were to reinforce brown, the white Empire could rule the world. So visionary imperialists, Kipling among them, called for the conquest of China. Without doubt it seemed ripe for the chop. Plainly the Celestial Empire was in a state of terminal decline, with a decadent leadership, a moribund bureaucracy and a stagnant culture. China was afflicted by overpopulation, vicious landlordism and incipient bankruptcy. It was plagued by natural catastrophes such as the flooding of the Yellow River, “China’s Sorrow.” It was ravaged by lethal convulsions such as the Taiping rebellion (1850–64), which killed more people than would the First World War. However, Palmerston wanted to exploit China not to precipitate its downfall which, he maintained, was by no means inevitable. The habit of identifying an ancient monarchy with “an old tree, or an old man,” said Palmerston, was “an abuse of metaphors.” To think that a nation would decay and die like an organism was an “utterly unphilosophical mistake.”65 China might seem to be the Far Eastern equivalent of Turkey, the sick man of Asia; but it was in fact a state that could be mechanically renovated. Commercial intercourse would restore and improve the Manchu Empire, as well as benefiting Britain. When the Chinese continued to be uncooperative Palmerston hoped to make them see reason with what he called the “argumentum Baculinum”—the argument of the stick.66

He got his chance in 1856 when the Canton authorities seized a British-registered lorcha called the Arrow “in open day in a crowded anchorage”67 and imprisoned its Chinese crew. Probably they were smugglers or pirates, but their arrest prompted a characteristic outburst of belligerence from the Prime Minister, now too lightly dismissed as “an old painted pantaloon” with false teeth and dyed whiskers: “An insolent barbarian, wielding authority at Canton, has violated the British flag, broken the engagement of treaties, offered rewards for the heads of British subjects in that part of China and planned their destruction by murder, assassination and poison.”68 Sporadic hostilities followed (interrupted by the Indian Mutiny) and in 1860 a military expedition was sent to Peking. It included French forces and it was even supported by the supposedly neutral Americans—although critical of British imperialism, the United States took aggressive advantage of China’s open door. With the help of new breech-loading Armstrong guns, the door was knocked off its hinges. The Chinese put up strong resistance, which was rewarded by corresponding carnage. Women were raped and men were ritually humiliated: their queues (long pigtails) were cut off and they were made to kowtow. When the Emperor’s forces tortured and murdered prisoners, the British retaliated by burning down his Summer Palace. Its destruction reminded a French officer of “le sac de Rome.”69

No doubt white soldiers indulged in an orgy of looting worthy of Visigoths or Huns. But the Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan, Garden of Perfect Brightness) was actually less like Rome than like Versailles. It was a monument not to the Sun King but to the Brother of the Sun, an oriental divinity who eclipsed all other monarchs on earth. The Emperor’s favourite palace, set in a park girdled with five miles of granite and containing a thousand bridges, was a proclamation of his majesty. It was a willow-pattern paradise of rockeries and waterfalls, terraces and temples, cedar groves and lotus-blossom lakes, jewelled pavilions and golden pagodas. It was an art gallery, a fantastic theatre, “an imperial museum.”70 Victor Hugo described the Summer Palace as a wonder of the world:

Build a dream of marble, of jade and bronze and porcelain; cover it with precious stones; make it a sanctuary, a harem, a citadel; fill it with gods and monsters; varnish it, enamel it, gild it, adorn it…add gardens and ponds, fountains of water and foam, swans, ibises, and peacocks, a dazzling cavern of the human imagination.71

The sight of this Aladdin’s cave seemed to drive the troops into a frenzy.

Body and soul, wrote Colonel Garnet Wolseley, they became “absorbed in one pursuit, which was plunder, plunder.”72 They swarmed through massive red gates guarded by gigantic yellow lions (untouched because no one realised that they were made of gold). They swept aside the few eunuchs left by the Emperor Hien-Feng, who had fled to Jehol. They broke into the marble-floored Audience Hall, streamed through the maze of courts filled with bonsai pines, fairy grottoes, purling brooks, zigzag bridges and scented parterres, and plunged into the treasure chambers. And they emerged laden with pearls, rubies, sapphires, silks, satins and furs. They carried off ivory fans, coral screens, sable cloaks, filigree necklaces, gold clocks, crystal chandeliers, vases inlaid with bloodstone and cornelian, silver sing-songs (there were four thousand musical boxes) and priceless art objects of all sorts. They stripped the private apartments, Frenchmen with riotous abandon, the English more methodically (retrieving in the process some of Macartney’s neglected gifts, including the planetarium). They even stole Pekinese dogs, sacred to royalty, one of which was eventually presented to Queen Victoria, who called it Looty.

The Fan Qui did not stop at looting. They smashed furniture, ripped paintings, threw mirrors out of windows, took pot shots at bronze unicorns, capered about in imperial yellow robes, daubed moustaches on the faces of priceless statues. As Gibbon wrote about the fall of Constantinople, “the rapine of an hour is more productive than the industry of years.”73 Yet the head of the British mission, Lord Elgin, who directed the looting from the Hall of Probity, decided that only by burning the Summer Palace could he punish Hien-Feng personally. Elgin’s father had despoiled the Parthenon of its marbles and news of the son’s desecration caused widespread outrage in Europe. For Victor Hugo and others, British pretensions to being the standard-bearers of civilisation went up in the smoke of the Summer Palace.*7 Its gigantic funeral pyre, which shrouded Peking in a pall of ash and foreshadowed the doom of the Celestial Empire, merely confirmed Hien-Feng’s subjects in their opinion of the barbarians. However, as their whole history showed, the Chinese were adept at appeasing and assimilating savage invaders. So they came to terms, opening up the interior of their country to foreigners, legalising the opium trade and permitting diplomats from abroad to reside at Peking. The Dragon lay down with the Lion. “We might annex the Empire, if we were in the humor to take a second India in hand,”74 wrote Elgin contemplatively. But one India was sufficient. Palmerston wanted nothing more than a stable and commercially accommodating Manchu Empire. That way, indeed, as Alexander Matheson proposed, “China would be another India to us, while the enormous civil and military expenditure incurred in the latter would be saved in the former.”75 Meanwhile, it was enough that the brutal Tartars had been taught a lesson, though it might have been even more effective, the Prime Minister thought, if another palace had also been burned. Still, he was “quite enchanted”76 by Elgin’s conflagration. In the Prime Minister’s view it was not an act of vandalism but another “exemplary drubbing.”77 It was a demonstration of might for all the world to see, such as Rome had visited on Carthage.

So John Bull established a hold over that third of humanity he was pleased to call “John Chinaman.” Hong Kong was not yet of much value. It was now safer as a result of the acquisition of Kowloon, but its tiny white population was vulnerable to the thousands of Chinese who migrated there from the mainland, many of them pirates, outlaws, Triad gangsters and opium smugglers. The town of Victoria, a sea-side straggle set in a precipitous amphitheatre of hills, remained a backwater. One disenchanted British official likened the island’s green highlands to “decayed Stilton cheese,” while the tors across the water presented “the appearance of a negro streaked with leprosy.”78 Even Alexander Matheson had lost faith in Hong Kong as a colony: “It only adds immensely to our expenses, without adding in the least to the amount of our business.” The island might be worth something as a military base, he thought, but as a commercial centre it was much less profitable than the treaty ports, especially those “great Emporiums of the Trade,”79 Canton and Shanghai. Here small international communities, including Frenchmen, Americans and others, who enjoyed the extra-territorial privileges which Britain had won, existed in a strange, artificial, quasi-colonial state.

Shanghai soon overtook Canton as the most important of these hybrid settlements and expatriates lost no time in creating the usual appurtenances of empire: clubs, churches, Masonic lodges, race courses, tennis courts and public gardens. “Shanghailanders” did themselves proud. They were cosseted by a host of servants, whom they often kicked or cuffed. Many acquired Chinese mistresses, a fertile source of English-speaking girls being the Diocesan Native Female Training School at Hong Kong. Shanghailanders also indulged their appetite for food. They would

begin dinner with rich soup, and a glass of sherry; then one or two side dishes with champagne; then some beef, mutton, or fowls and bacon, with more champagne, or beer; then rice and curry and ham; afterwards game; then pudding, pastry, jelly, custard, or blancmange, and more champagne; then cheese and salad, and bread and butter, and a glass of port wine; then in many cases, oranges, figs, raisins, and walnuts…with two or three glasses of claret or some other wine.80

Those who survived this regimen usually tried to preserve their health by taking violent exercise. Many physicians prescribed riding. So Shanghailanders galloped furiously through countryside fertilised with the city’s night soil and, as an English diplomat wrote, sacrificed “their noses to their livers.”81

The Chinese resented the behaviour and even the presence of these overbearing intruders. The sometime tributaries bearing gifts were now traders extorting profits—new recruits heeded the traditional advice “to keep the Sabbath and anything you can lay your hands on.”82 Xenophobia was endemic on both sides and the Fan Qui lived in a “chronic state of petty war with the natives.”83 British consuls tried to keep the peace. They were assisted by Cantonese compradors, shroffs, crimps and clerks with a knowledge of pidgin English. (Pidgin meant “business”: a bishop, for example, was charmingly called a “No. 1 Heaven Pigeon.”)84 But it was hard to quell Chinese fury over, say, the British and American business of transporting coolies to work overseas, which bore a marked resemblance to the slave trade. Moreover Britain’s representatives were beholden to the opium dealers, who carried their mails, cashed their bills and did them other favours. The drug corrupted everything it touched, including the consuls, whose salaries were subsidised by the government of India in return for their services to the traffic. Still, taking advantage of China’s weakness, the British generally won the initiative and seldom lost face. They continued to sell opium until soon after The Hague Convention banned its export in 1912, though Lord Crewe, who supposed that “the Indian drug differs from the Chinese as ’75 Margaux differs from Australian claret,” could not “avoid an unholy regret that the traffic is doomed.”85 Britons even infiltrated the Emperor’s own administration. For example, the maritime customs service, superintended from 1863 until 1906 by Sir Robert Hart, became “a chief financial pillar of the Chinese government.”86 Dictatorial yet diplomatic, Hart worked meticulously while living sumptuously—he kept his own band in Peking. Eventually he accumulated further responsibilities, from overseeing lighthouses to controlling the post office. Equally masterful during the 1920s was the British Consul-General, Sir Sidney Barton, who became “practically the autocrat of Shanghai.”87

Yet such parasitic micro-colonies as the treaty ports had only a tenuous grip on the vast cuticle of China. Their host was a slumbering giant and they were soon shaken off when he awoke. After the fall of the Manchus in the early twentieth century, Nationalist China stirred and began to flex its muscles. Although racked by internal disorders, it took advantage of the fact that oriental technology was catching up with occidental and that the British Empire was too stretched, between the world wars, to back up prestige with power. Of course, the capitalist colony of Hong Kong survived for longer than the treaty ports, thanks to the symbiotic relationship it established with the Communist mainland. But the Chinese did not need Karl Marx to tell them that imperialism was based on exploitation. Just as Rome had, in Seneca’s words, “exacted tribute from all Britain,”88 so Britain had taken ruthless advantage of China. The Opium War, the sacking of the Summer Palace and the “unequal treaties” left the Chinese in no doubt about the true nature of the West’s imperial enterprise. Ridding themselves of the bloodsuckers was only a matter of time.

This aspiration found an echo wherever red ink seeped across the map, from the newest conquest to the oldest colony, from Kiplingesque Kabul to Dickensian Dublin. For even at a time when Britain was virtually unchallenged as a world power, the Empire did not advance or stand still without sanguinary setbacks of one kind or another. Victorians anatomised them anxiously, seeking signs of present weakness and future collapse. They found plenty in the two greatest catastrophes of the 1840s. The military defeat in Afghanistan cast doubt on the virility of the imperial race and undermined British iqbal (prestige) throughout the subcontinent, a hopeful augury for Indian mutineers. The great famine in Ireland exposed the hollowness of propaganda about the blessings of British rule and spread implacable hostility towards the Empire, borne on a flood tide of emigration, all over the globe and particularly to the United States of America.

The First Afghan War (1838–42) was an opening gambit in the “Great Game,”89 which lasted for more than a century. The stakes were high—control of the North-West Frontier of India. On its security, said Lord Curzon, rested “the domination of the world.”90Russia was the principal opponent in this craggy contest and Tsar Nicholas I, the reactionary “Gendarme of Europe,” seemed to be playing for keeps in Central Asia. He conducted diplomatic intrigues with Pathans and Persians, and exerted military pressure from the Caucasus to the Gulf. India could only be invaded from the north and Britons began to fear that the Tsar was another Alexander the Great. The approach of the Cossack seemed more menacing because the loyalty of the sepoy was doubtful. On the map, moreover, the Himalayas scarcely looked to be the earth’s mightiest natural rampart. When Lord Ellenborough, who would succeed Lord Auckland as Governor-General of India in 1842, read a scare-mongering account of a possible invasion route from the Oxus to the Indus, he exclaimed, “the thing is not only practicable but easy, unless we determine to act as an Asiatic Power.”91Palmerston was willing. And Melbourne agreed with him that “Afghanistan must be ours or Russia’s.”92 So the government pushed forward with Auckland’s scheme to replace the Amir of Kabul, Dost Mahomed, with a puppet ruler, Shah Suja. An invasion force achieved this coup in 1839, but the British, not to mention subsequent intruders, ignored the Duke of Wellington’s warning that when the military difficulties are over in Afghanistan the real difficulties begin. Like Armenia between the empires of Parthia and Rome, as the writer Sir Alfred Lyall observed, Afghanistan learned to play off one powerful neighbour against another in a perpetual struggle to resist foreign ascendancy.

It was soon evident that Shah Suja, “an obstinate, proud, wrong-headed man,” could only survive inside a ring of British bayonets. Thus the army of occupation became the common enemy of Afghan tribesmen who, in the absence of an alien foe, devoted their energies to fighting one another. “We and our King are extremely distasteful to the country,” wrote an English subaltern. “We are not tyrants enough to be feared and have done little to be respected by a semi-barbarous country.”93 Its people were, a Scottish officer later declared, “a race of tigers.”94 Now they stalked their prey amid the labyrinth of narrow, sordid alleys flanked by flat-roofed, mud-brick houses that was Kabul. Every male among its sixty thousand inhabitants possessed “a sword and shield, a dagger, a pistol or a musketoon.”95 They insulted, assaulted and then murdered foreign infidels, their most prominent victim being the British envoy Sir William Macnaghten. He was struck down during negotiations with Dost Mahomed’s vengeful son Akbar Khan, whose face, as he did the deed, twisted into a grimace “of the most diabolical ferocity.”96 Parts of Macnaghten’s dismembered body were paraded through the streets while his torso was hung on a meat hook in the Great Bazaar. Yet the British garrison, whose officers had raced, skated, fished, played cricket, pursued Afghan women and jumped their horses over the cantonment wall instead of fortifying their position and foraging for supplies, did not retaliate. Instead, under the command of General William Elphinstone, an ailing incompetent who had last seen shots fired in anger at Waterloo, they beat the most disastrous retreat in British military history.

On 6 January 1842 a column of 4,500 fighting men (mostly sepoys) and 12,000 camp followers set off on the ninety-mile march through the mountains. Their goal was Jalalabad, held by General Sale in “the soldierlike spirit of an English gentleman” which was (according to The Times) as proud as “the noble spirit of an old Roman.”97 Deep snow hampered the progress of Elphinstone’s force, as did an immense baggage train. One regiment had required two camels to transport its stock of cigars to Kabul and British subalterns, who might have as many as forty servants each, would as soon have left behind their swords and pistols as march without “their dressing-cases, their perfumes, Windsor soap and eau-de-Cologne.”98 Here was loot on the hoof and the Afghans tore at it like wolves harrying a flock of sheep. They cut down stragglers, drove off pack animals, ransacked bullock carts. At dusk on the first day Elphinstone’s van had only gone six miles and his rearguard was still leaving the cantonment, which the Afghans burned to the ground. In the intense cold that night some sepoys, bivouacking in the open, made fires of their caps and equipment. Others woke up so badly frost-bitten that their legs looked like charred logs. One Englishwoman saw “men taking off their boots, and their whole feet with them.”99 Everywhere the weakest perished. “Firing from the enemy recommenced at sunrise,” recorded Captain William Anderson in his unpublished journal. “Our people had become such a mass of confusion as I never witnessed—our own servants and followers plundering the camp in every direction while the officers were exerting themselves to get the troops out of the chaos.”100

By the time Elphinstone’s column struggled as far as the Koord-Kabul pass, narrow, precipitous, five miles long and threaded by an icy torrent that had to be crossed and recrossed twenty-eight times, it was a frozen, famished rabble. Caught in “the jaws of this terrible defile,”101 it proved easy meat for Ghilzai and Ghazee marksmen perched on the rocky heights. Their long-barrelled matchlocks (jezails) were more accurate and had a longer range than English muskets, and they poured a devastating fire on their foes. The gorge became choked with corpses. Elphinstone tried to bribe his way out and Akbar Khan did take a few Britons into protective custody—wounded officers, women and children. But local chiefs said that they did not want gold: “nothing but blood could satisfy them.” Among the white remnant, wrote Anderson, “despair with its usual extremes of passiveness and frenzy now prevailed.”102 The Afghans barricaded the next major pass and massacred the rest of the British array. A single European, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, reached safety—on 13 January. He was wounded in several places and an Afghan knife had sliced a wafer of bone from his skull; it would have been worse, Brydon recorded, had he not had “a portion of Blackwood’s magazine in my forage cap.”103 As his dying pony carried its blood-stained burden towards the walls of Jalalabad, a “shudder ran through the garrison.” Brydon, depicted in Lady Elizabeth Butler’s well-known painting of the scene, a vivid image of the Empire in extremis,looked like “a messenger of death.”104

Brydon’s news shocked Britons as much as tidings of the Parthian victory at Carrhae had shocked Romans “in the very acmé of their power.”105 The foundations of the British Empire seemed to tremble. The Afghans were undisciplined, disunited and backward, yet they had “utterly overwhelmed” a strong “force of civilised men.”106 They had inflicted, to quote Blackwood’s Magazine itself, an “almost irreparable injury on the British nation—an almost indelible stain on the British character.”107 Some felt no anxiety, while others were actually reassured by the classical analogy. Dr. Arnold said that it would be now as it had been when the Romans were defeated in Spain: “the next year another consul and new legions go out.”108 Macaulay also remained confident though, mindful of the Empire’s Muslim millions, he acknowledged that “a great Mahometan success could not but fall like a spark upon tinder and act on the freemasonry of Islamism from Morocco to Coromandel.”109 The Duke of Wellington was also staunch, though he thought that every “Moslem heart from Pekin to Constantinople” would vibrate at the thought of European ladies being in the hands of Akbar Khan (who actually treated the prisoners quite well). However, Wellington did contemplate “the loss of this great Empire” and to save it from “Ruin and Disgrace” he advised withdrawal from the Himalayan wilderness. So, shaken by the financial as well as the human cost, Britain climbed down from the roof of the world. Lord Ellenborough accepted Dost Mahomed’s restoration (Shah Suja having been murdered) and proclaimed that the Indian government was content “with the limits nature appears to have assigned to its empire.”110

However, Britain could not leave as a worsted power and Ellenborough did sanction a brief punitive expedition to Kabul. It rescued British prisoners, destroyed the magnificent arcaded bazaar where Macnaghten’s mangled body had been exhibited, pillaged on a spectacular scale and committed many “horrible murders.”111 In fact its “licensed assassins,”112 as the future Field-Marshal Neville Chamberlain called the British soldiers, meted out enough retributive butchery to redeem present honour and ensure future enmity. Not satisfied with a show of force, Ellenborough also tried to wipe out the Afghan humiliation with a display of pomp. The Governor-General fancied himself as Aurangzeb, putting on such airs that Wellington reckoned he ought to sit on his throne “in a strait-waistcoat.”113 And at Ferozepore Ellenborough celebrated the army’s return from Afghanistan with a grand pageant designed to appeal to the oriental imagination, which was thought to be peculiarly susceptible to such manifestations. It was much ridiculed in the West, not least because everything went wrong: “The troops were to march beneath a triumphal arch and between double lines of gilded and salaaming elephants, but the arch was a gaudy and tottering structure, and the ill-tutored elephants forgot to salaam and ran away.”114 Equally inept was Ellenborough’s return of the sandalwood gates, supposedly carried off by the Afghans eight hundred years earlier, to the temple of Somnath. His bombastic announcement of their restoration offended Muslims, while Hindus regarded the gates, which turned out to be made of deal, as polluted by contact with Islam. However, Ellenborough possessed not just a “Napoleonic” style115 but territorial designs to match.

Having been repulsed in the hills, he resolved to advance on the plains. In this endeavour, one critic remarked, he resembled “a bully who has been kicked in the street and goes home to beat his wife in revenge.”116 But Ellenborough believed that British power in India was now “in a state of constant peril”117 and that only aggressive measures could preserve it. So in 1843 he sent General Sir Charles Napier up the Indus, lifeline of the north-west region and jugular vein of the rich, independent province of Sind. Napier was the archetype of flamboyant imperial heroes such as Nicholson, Gordon, T. E. Lawrence, Wingate, Thesiger. He was chivalric, eccentric, splenetic, ascetic and sadistic. Vain as a peacock and brave as a lion, Napier had a “beak like an eagle and a beard like a Cashmere goat.” From topeed and bespectacled head to booted and spurred feet, he bore the scars of a lifetime’s adventure among bullets, bayonets, sabres and shrapnel. He loved women and horses—his favourite charger, Red Rover, shared his tent on hot-weather campaigns and attended at his deathbed. Napier was no respecter of persons. He openly vilified the East India Company’s directors at “Leadenhead Street,”118 “godfearing scoundrels” who filled India with a “Galaxy of Donkeys.” He dismissed Lord Ripon as “an idiotic fellow.”119 And he later quarrelled with Lord Dalhousie, who likened him to a vineyard on a volcano—he would have been “gay and genial but for the perpetual flames bursting out and blasting” all that was good in him.120

However, Napier revered Wellington and admired Ellenborough. The latter encouraged his piratical inclinations and Napier cherished no illusions about his new commission. In his diary he memorably acknowledged, “We have no right to seize Scinde; yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful, humane piece of rascality it will be.”121 This was because the British would do more good and less mischief to the people than did their present rulers, the Amirs: “Not that we ever did good from ‘liberality’ or ‘generosity’ but simply because we can squeeze more money out of rich Sindeans, than out of poor Sindeans! And if damming up the Indus and drowning the whole race of Sindeans would give us more money still, we should dam the Indus accordingly.”122

Napier succeeded against overwhelming odds, thanks to discipline, trickery, ferocity and a sublime faith in “that Mysterious Power which has ruled my destiny.”123 Visualising himself as another Moses in the desert, he placed at the head of his Camel Corps an elephant bearing a flag by day and a lantern by night. But Napier’s famous punning message in Latin, “Peccavi” (I have sinned), expressed the truth of the matter—even though it was apocryphal, originating as a joke in Punch.124 As his sometime subordinate Major James Outram confirmed, the acquisition of Sind was “positive robbery.”125 The Edinburgh Review agreed. The British had behaved like conquerors bent on founding “an empire more secure than that of the Caesars.” But they had stored up so much hatred that the tribesmen “would eagerly join the standard of any new invading power for the sake of getting rid of us.”126 In fact the seizure of Sind was part of a dialectical process often (though not invariably) repeated throughout imperial history: a defeat at the hands of “natives” would provoke a belligerent British response, which in turn sowed the seeds of further discord and ultimate alienation.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!