What Started China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’


To most Chinese, their century of humiliation began with a three year war launched against them in 1839, in which Westerners sought to force the deadly drug Opium upon China – which they successfully did. The victors then forced a defeated China to accept an unequal treaty which opened up their country to foreign trade. The westerners also annexed the lands that became Hong Kong. The three year war was called “The Opium War”, which unlike many conflicts, does actually describe why the war was launched, and this term is not at all flattering the British who started it.

Along with the slave trade, the traffic in opium was the dirty underside of an evolving global trading economy. In nineteenth century America and Europe, pretty much everything was deemed fair in the pursuit of profits. Doesn’t this still sound familiar today?

Even many British people were ashamed of their war and the protests against it are marked by some as the beginning of a concern for human rights during international trade.

‘Russell & Company’ was a Boston, USA firm whose fleet of ships made it the leader in the lucrative American trade in Chinese tea and silk.

In 1823, one of its employees, 24-year-old Warren Delano sailed to Canton, (the old name for Guangzhou, Hong Kong’s neighbouring, and now glittering modern city) where he did very well in the business. Within seven years he was a senior partner in Russell & Company. But Delano’s problem, as with all European and American traders, was that China had much to sell but it declined to buy. China’s Manchu emperors had no need of goods manufactured by those they considered backward by comparison.

But the British found a way to reduce their huge trade deficit problem. British merchants bribed Chinese officials to allow entry of chests of opium from British-ruled India, even though its importation into China had long been banned. Drug imports soared, and nearly every American company followed suit in the trade.

Writing home, Warren Delano said he could not pretend to justify the opium trade on moral grounds, ”but as a merchant I insist it has been . . . fair, honorable and legitimate,” and no more objectionable than the importation of wines and spirits to the U.S.

Yet as drug addiction became an epidemic, and as the Chinese began paying with their precious silver for the drug, their Emperor finally acted and in 1839 he ordered vast stocks of opium held in China be seized and dumped into the sea. The British were furious at this act of defiance and it furnished the spark for their Opium War on China.

The Opium War, initiated by British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was waged with the determination to obtain full compensation for the dumped opium. Not everyone supported the war – it was denounced in the UK Parliament as ”unjust and iniquitous” by the prominent political Leader William Gladstone.

(Iniquitous – grossly unfair and morally wrong. Wicked, sinful, evil, immoral: Oxford English Dictionary)

Whatever the sentiments of some British leaders, the war was successful. China was humbled, forced to open five ports to western traders as well as being forced to accept a British colony upon the Chinese lands in Hong Kong.

After the British victory, the western drug trade into China flourished. However, the moral disquiet in the west concerning the forceable sale of drugs into a large civilian population, even in Asia, never abated either.

Growing outrage against the western drug trade was increasingly expressed in the press and in public, in both America and England, thereby encouraging Russell & Company and most other American businesses to pull out of the opium trade in China. So senior partner at Russell & Company, Warren Delano with his drug profits returned to America as a rich man and he settled down in New York to start a family. His daughter Sara married a well-born neighbor, James Roosevelt, with Sara Delano-Roosevelt later giving birth to a son Franklin, who became the 32nd President of the United States.

President Roosevelt’s grandfather, Warren Delano, the old China drug dealer, was close-mouthed about opium, as were his partners in Russell & Company. The Delano family’s ongoing reticence is understandable. It is “supposedly” no longer acceptable to believe that anything goes in the global business marketplace, regardless of social and moral consequences of those acts. I say “supposedly” with very big quotation marks, even with large amounts of scorn, as only a cursory glance of modern business practices and illegal foreign invasions for oil, make a mockery of that assertion.

Approximately 13.5 million Chinese people became drug addicts as a result of the 2.3 million kg of opium shipped annually at the peak of the “trade”. Many became wealthy. Other “respectible” western family fortunes, such as that of Former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s, were also created in part as a result of their drug dealing in China.

When the communist party won the civil war in China in 1949, they quickly set about to destroy the drug trade as well as the triad gangs which controlled it. As a result, by the 1950’s an estimated 300,000 mainland chinese triad gang members had fled to British controlled Hong Kong for safety, whilst thousands more fled to Taiwan, Singapore and the USA.

    *  *  *  *  *

Karma often has a way of coming back to haunt us – even years later.

As the United States economy prospered in the nineteen century, tens of thousands of new workers were required to build the huge infrastructure projects there such as trans-continental railways.

Chinese workers were hired. They were cheap, worked very hard under any conditions – frigid cold, sweltering heat, dangerous storms, landslides – and many died as a result. The Chinese workers did a good job too.

But there was one aspect of using Chinese workers to build 19th century American infrastucture that no-one gave much thought to. Until it was too late. Many of the Chinese workers smoked opium as a result of it being forced upon them by westerners a few decades earlier, and they took their opium with them to America, introducing the drug habit and its addiction to a whole new previously unexposed western population.

Some experts take this era of the employment of Chinese drug addicts to America as the start of what we now call the scourge of the deadly, violent and massively lucrative international drug trade, a now massive trade that has infested the whole world.

Remember, that at this time, the now well established drug manufacturing and drug dealing nations in Central America and Asia did not exist. At least, their drug businesses did not exist. The first “narco-states” – the creators of the modern international drug trade – were actually Great Britain and the United States. Panama, Mexico, Colombia, Thailand etc came much later.

The United States is one of many nations that now suffers from a drug crisis amongst its people. It is hardly new. Various Presidents have initiated a “War on Drugs” to seemingly little effect. The drug crisis now encompasses many types of drugs, and much more dangerous than opium.

But the fact remains, that the initial forced sale of Opium into a militarily weak China, with consequently vast and lucrative profits being generated for the benefit of western elites, has in fact, initiated a hugely debilitating crisis in much of the world.

These types of hidden social and financial costs rarely make it into contemporary public domain for discussion and debate. This fact is yet another damning endictment of our global mainstream media and our leaders.

And, when we view the behaviour of “respectible” nations and the “anything goes” elites of today, it must be asked, “has anything really changed since The Opium War?”

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"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free." Goethe

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