Monday, July 11, 2005
Hong Kong, The Opium War, and Iraq
Last week I read the account of Captain William Hutcheon Hall of his voyage to China and participation in the First Opium War. He captained the Nemesis, the first iron paddlewheel steamship fitted with guns. As the ship had a fully-loaded displacement of 6 feet compared to comparable wooden ships of 13 feet, it was ideal for operations in the Yangtze River. It proved itself as such, with the war junks of the Imperial Chinese Navy proving no match for it or its two 32-pounders.
Captain Hall's perspective of his role in the war was very much black-and-white, typical of military commanders. He said of Commissioner Lin Zexu:
"Lin himself was the Robespierre, the terrorist, the reckless despot...who conscientiously believed that he could terrify not only their own countrymen [he had solved an opium addiction problem in a previous province by executing addicts - Ed.] but foreign nations into submission to their will."
It is understandable, I suppose, that military commanders must have an unshakeable belief in the correctness of their actions, and leave their debate to the politicians. This particularly so in an age when a spade was called a spade, and colonization was very much accepted as part of the nature of the British Empire. He was very clear though, on the reasons for taking Hong Kong, and its advantages and disadvantages. On the subject he had this to say:
"The roads of Hong Kong and the bay of Victoria form an excellent anchorage, haing deep water very near the shore, and only one small shoal having 16 feet of water upon it."
Its cons of course, were the typhoons and the breezes disrupted by the mountains on the island. He attributed the latter in particular to the insalubrious nature of Hong Kong, with fresh air not dispersng the evil humors rising out of the ground. The typhoons were mitigated though by the mountains, so in Captain Hall's mind they were in equal parts blessing and curse. He states:
"To this [rainy June] succeeds the burning, tropical sun of July [I can related to that!-Ed.], with a sort of death-like stillness in the atmosphere, which, little weathered as it is on that [north] side of the island by the southwest monsoon, cannot fail, if it last long without any change, to promote fever and sickness."
His ambivalence about Hong Kong in general comes out in the following paragraph:
"At the time we took possession of the island, there was little to tempt us to make a settlement there, except the excellent anchorage on its northern side, having a passage in and out at either end, its proximity to the mouth of the Canton River, and the difficulty of finding any more suitable place for our purpose."
He even alludes to his own belief that the northern shore was an inauspicious place to begin the city of Victoria, pointing out that the Chinese also believe that facing north is unlucky and facing south, as the main town of Singapore does, is better. He also harbours the belief, so to speak, that most Europeans would move south to the more healthy environs of Repulse Bay. A man ahead of its time:
"Doubtless, in a very short time many of the Europeans will reside on the southern side of the island, and cross over the mountains daily to transact their business."
He was not averse to amusing his readers with entertaining observations. This one about the comparative methods of colonization by different European nations:
"It has been said, in respect to colonization, that the first thing the French undertake is to build a fort, the Spaniards a church, and the English a factory or warehouse." [Hong Kong was no different, the first building going up being the Matheson Opium Store - Ed.]."
His comments though, about the British mission to 'civilize' China gives pause for thought. It struck me how similar it sounded, even 160 years later, to the missionary zeal with which America brings its promotion of democracy to the Middle East. Read this passage of Captain Hall, substitute Christianity with democracy, and China with the Middle East:
"Providence has at length ordained that a vast empire, which comprises nearly a third of the human race, shall no longer remain totally excluded from the great family society of nations; and we cannot but believe that the period has at length arrived when that wonderful nation is, by a slow but steady progress, to be brought under the influence of Christianity. But while we are impressed with this feeling, let us not be too hasty in precipitating a crisis which may convulse a mighty empire from one end to another. This, then, leads us to the momentuous question of the ultimate disorganization or breaking up of the Chinese Empire. This is the great event which we have to dread; [Italics are original - Ed.] for who can contemplate the feaful results of such a crisis without alarm, and without a desire to prevent a catastrophe of so vast a nature?"
It is the hallmark and classic failing of any 'civilizing' mission, how does one know when to get out, and how to ensure that the long-term impact of your intervention is positive. It is difficult to see how that can be the case, when the intervention starts with an overwhelming victory in a one-sided war. Captain Hall expresses cautious optimism for the future:
"Our intercourse with that remarkable nation [its nationals would probably agree with the use of that term in a different manner - Ed.] ought to be recorded in the pages of history as a blessing, and not, what it might readily become, without great caution and prudence - a curse."
That China has never regarded the Opium War as a blessing should give the Americans in Iraq today some pause for thought.