Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Conscientious Objector in the Opium Trade

Researching the 19th century opium trade is a beguiling activity. One first approaches the trade with abhorrence, realizing that the merchants brought untold misery to thousands of addicts across China. However, over time, as you read the documents and letters of these merchants, they become flesh and blood - self-made entrepreneurs that seem similar in outlook to today's modern tycoons in all respects save one - they peddled an illegal drug. The sympathy for them comes partly because one reads these letters generally without reading Chinese accounts of the scale of the addiction or even English missionaries' sobering reports on opium usage. Scholars that study them generally focus on the merchants themselves, and come to believe that these merchants were good men in their own way, and had their own moral code. Some scholars argue that because the merchants were not actually allowed to travel inland in China, they were never able to see the evil harvest of their trade. Also, it was said, they were subject to a different moral code in the 19th century, and would not have regarded selling drugs to an alien (Chinese) culture as a terrible thing.

Yet it is important to remember the sly nugget of wisdom William Jardine himself proferred to Karl Gutzlaff, a Pomeranian saddle-maker turned missionary in China:"We have every respect for persons entertaining strict religious principles, but we fear that very godly people are not suited to the drug trade."

In fact Jardine made this statement because he was trying to convince Gutzlaff, one of the few Europeans that spoke Chinese, to accompany his opium clipper on illegal runs to Ningbo to sell his drugs. After a crisis of conscience, Gutzlaff went for the money, reasoning that he would use the cash for preaching and distributing bibles. But it does demonstrate that already then, there was a recognition that the trade was an amoral, if not wholly immoral, activity.

Proof of this came with one of the scions of the firm, Donald Matheson. Young Donald had come to Hong Kong in his uncle James's footsteps, and was well on his way to amassing a huge fortune as a Director of Jardine Matheson. But he was also a very devout Christian, and the horror of his livelihood continued to prick away at his conscience. In 1848, he surprised and shocked all Hong Kong, especially everyone in his firm, by resigning his post, and effectively giving up the Matheson family's interest in the company. He shortly afterwards returned to Britain. An interesting postscript to this story is that Donald Matheson in 1892, as an elderly gentleman, still retained such an abhorrence for the opium trade (which by that time his old firm Jardine Matheson had exited) that he became Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade in England. Thanks to his tireless efforts and those of his colleagues, the opium trade was roundly condemned in Parliament - just 50 years after Chinese efforts to halt the same trade had moved that august House to go to War with China!

So let there be no mistake - the opium traders of the day were full aware of the pernicious evils of the drug they peddled, as much so as the Colombian cartels of the 21st century.

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