Opium and British colonial intervention in Hong Kong

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Thu Oct 21 13:29:24 BST 2010

Extracted from the historical novel
By Dennis Wheatley
Pub. Hutchinson, 1964
P. 47

         'I certainly am. Now that's settled let's hear Merri tell us 
about the island.'
'With pleasure,' smiled the ravishing Miss Sang. 'I will say my short 
piece telling how, from an island that one hundred and thirty-two 
years ago was inhabited only by a few poor fisherfolk, Hong Kong has 
become a great metropolis with a population of over three million.
         'You must know that it all started because the English took 
a great liking to tea. By the early years of Queen Victoria's reign 
it had become very popular and they could not get enough of it. But 
it had to be paid for in silver because the Chinese Emperor 
maintained that China had everything she wanted and no need or wish 
to trade with the outside world.
         'As tea drinking increased, the British Government became 
more and more annoyed at having to send money instead of goods to 
China, so they hatched a most unscrupulous plot to stop the drain on 
their silver. Over a hundred years before this the British East India 
Company had established a post in Canton to buy silks, Chinese 
porcelain and other things for which Europeans were willing to pay a 
high price. The Company's representatives had a far from happy time 
there. They were not allowed to take their wives to Canton, or to mix 
with the Chinese or learn their language. They were forbi9den to have 
weapons or ride in a rickshaw or go out after dark; and they had to 
do all their business through a corporation of Chinese merchants that 
was called a Hong. But at least they had their foot in the door and 
they determined to use the Hong for their wicked ends.
         'In India the Company grew opium on a very large scale and 
sold it to the people there at a big profit. But it happened that in 
the I830S they had a large surplus of the evil drug on their hands. 
In those days opium was hardly known in China, except for medicinal 
purposes, so the British said, "Let us encourage the Chinese to smoke 
it, then we will kill two birds with one stone. We will have made a 
market for our surplus stock and pay for the tea with that instead of 
with silver."
         'The Hong merchants were just as unscrupulous as the British 
and willingly agreed to market the drug. During the next few years 
thousands of chests were imported and tens of thousands of 
unfortunate Chinese became drug addicts. Greatly distressed by this, 
in 1839 the Emperor issued an edict sternly forbidding all further 
traffic in the drug.
         'The British Government were greatly upset by this; but they 
soon found a way round it. The Company, as the Government's agents, 
stopped importing opium into China; instead they sold it to big 
trading houses such as those of Mr. Matheson and Mr. Dent, who were 
quite willing to smuggle it in, and the Hong, anxious not to lose its 
big profits, continued to distribute it almost openly.
         'This resulted in the Emperor sending a Mandarin named Lin 
Tse-hsu as Viceroy to Canton to put a stop to the smuggling. That 
caused the smugglers no uneasiness because they assumed that all that 
would happen was that they would h3;ve to give away a small fraction 
of their huge profits to the Hong so that it could give the new 
Viceroy a somewhat bigger squeeze than it had been paying the old 
one, and that by putting up the price of opium in a few months' time 
they would soon get their money back.
         'But things did not turn out at all like that. Viceroy Lin 
proved an upright man. Far from proving bribable, he threatened the 
merchants of the Hong with death if they did not surrender their 
stores of opium, and ordered the British merchants to disgorge theirs 
as well. To save themselves the Chinese sent in a thousand chests, 
but the British stood firm and Captain Elliot of the Royal Navy had 
the Union Jack run up over the trading post in Canton. Viceroy Lin 
retaliated by withdrawing all Chinese labour and surrounding the post 
with troops.
         'Captain Elliot had only one sloop of eighteen guns under 
him and that was down-river, so rather than risk their all being 
killed he told the smugglers that they must give up their opium. 
Furious but helpless, they handed over two million pounds' worth of 
it and the honourable Lin had the satisfaction of employing five 
hundred coolies to mix it with salt and lime then throw it into the river.
         'Trade having come to a complete standstill in Canton the 
disgruntled British retired to the Portuguese colony of Macao. They 
had hardly had time to settle in before fresh trouble arose. Some of 
their ships were lying in the bay here. A party of sailors came 
ashore, got drunk and started a fight with some of the Chinese 
fisherfolk, one of whom was killed. Captain Elliot punished the men 
severely and compensated the bereaved family. But that did not 
satisfy Viceroy Lin. He demanded that one of the British sailors 
should be handed over for execution. Captain Elliot refused, so Lin 
attempted to blockade Hong Kong harbour and forced an approaching 
supply ship to unload her cargo. For Captain Elliot that proved the 
last straw and he retaliated by ordering one of his ships to open 
fire on some Chinese war junks. By November 1839 Britain and China 
were officially at war and, as you both must know, China got the worst of it.
         'Britain sent sixteen men-of-war from India and four 
thousand troops. The fleet sailed up the Yang-tse and occupied the 
island of Fing-hai. The Chinese could offer little resistance to 
modern European weapons. An expeditionary force advanced eight 
hundred miles. When they were within one hundred miles of Peking the 
Emperor sent his Grand Secretary, the Mandarin Kishen, to gain a 
respite by entering into negotiations. Elliot, annoyed by Kishen's 
procrastination, forced his hand by seizing all the forts round 
Canton. On that Kishen agreed to surrender and signed a treaty with 
Elliot permitting the reopening of trade in Canton and ceding Hong 
Kong to Britain.
         'But matters did not end there. The British Government felt 
that Elliot had not driven a hard enough bargain to compensate them 
for the trouble to which they had been put; and, on his side, the 
Emperor, furious with poor Kishen for having given away anything at 
all to the barbarians, had him brought to Peking in chains, sentenced 
him to death and repudiated the treaty. So the war was renewed and 
Sir Charles Pottinger was sent out to take charge of the situation. 
He arrived in the summer of 1841. Several more Chinese cities were 
taken and when Nankin was surrounded the Emperor threw in his hand. 
By the treaty of Nankin, in August 1842, he not only confirmed 
Britain in her possession of Hong Kong but agreed to open the five 
ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai to trade, and 
made restitution for the two million pounds' worth of opium destroyed by Lin.
         'This terrible trade was resumed and prospered, so that by 
1850 India was shipping the drug to China at the rate of fifty-two 
thousand chests a year. In vain the Emperor tried to protect his 
subjects. by punishing those caught selling the drug. In 1858, by 
another war, the British forced the Chinese to make legal the sale of 
opium, and in 1860 to cede to them the Peninsula of Kowloon.
         'Meanwhile the original Colony had passed through many ups 
and downs. For a long time the Governors sent out from England were 
men who knew nothing of the Far East and were always at loggerheads 
with the trader tycoons. In the early days, too, the merchants had 
visualized Hong Kong as a warehouse that would in time supply China 
with the greater part of the goods she would buy from the outer 
world, and when the Government put up for sale the land along the 
waterfront high prices were paid for all the plots. But a few years 
after the treaty by which China agreed to receive goods through five 
ports, each of which began to prove a rival to Hong Kong, property 
here became as valueless as shares in the South Sea Bubble. A plot 
for which a Mr. McKnight had paid ten thousand Hong Kong dollars was 
auctioned in December 1849 and knocked down for twenty dollars.
         'The merchants were in despair and the island had acquired a 
most evil reputation. It was said to be the haunt of vice, piracy, 
pestilence and fever and the British Government was urged to give it 
up. It even became a saying, "Oh, go to Hong Kong", instead of "Go to 
Hell". But a new Governor arrived, Sir George Bonham. He was a very 
different type of man from his predecessors. Instead of despising the 
wealthy merchants he invited them to Government House and sought 
their advice on ways to better the Colony. They offered him the funds 
with which to drain Happy Valley and transform it from a 
mosquito-infested swamp into a healthy suburb and helped him to 
improve conditions in many other ways. A local aristocracy, led by 
the Jardines, the Mathesons and the Dents, came into being. They 
fathered the Hong Kong Club, the Jockey Club, the Cricket Club and 
amateur theatrical and operatic societies. By their efforts Hong Kong 
at last began to prosper and the first tourists arrived. Relations 
with China improved and in 1898 she leased the New Territories to 
Britain for ninety-nine years, so that the Colony should have more 
land to supply itself with agricultural produce.'
         Julian had already been aware of most of the facts that she 
had given in her obviously well-rehearsed speech, but that did not 
lessen his enjoyment of watching her mobile young face as she told 
the story of the island; and he remained enraptured, almost as though 
hypnotized, while gazing at her profile as she went on for a further 
quarter of an hour to tell of the great typhoon of 1906, the conquest 
of the island by the Japanese, the fears of bankruptcy when in 1949 
Mao had bolted the door to Red China, the amazing way in which Hong 
Kong had saved itself to become more prosperous than ever before, and 
the wonderful work that was being done to rehabilitate the refugees.
         When she had done, Urata said, 'Thanks a lot, Merri. You've 
certainly given us a good picture of how the place has grown. But, as 
you know, I'm in shipping and you've said nothing about pirates. It's 
said they are still pretty active in these parts. Would that be so?'
Merri gave a slow nod. 'Yes; piracy still goes on. But not in a form 
that should worry you. As far back as anyone can remember there have 
been bad men sailing these seas who attack small coastal vessels and 
rob them of their cargoes. If, too, they find a passenger on board 
whom they know to be wealthy they take him prisoner and hold him to 
ransom. But in these days they would never dare to attack anything 
larger than a junk.'
         'How about the drug traffic?' Julian enquired.
         'That, too, continues, in spite of all efforts to prevent 
it. In 1917 the British Government agreed to stop importing opium 
into China, but after nearly a hundred years the habit of smoking it 
had become ingrained in the Chinese people, and for a long time past 
they had taken to growing it for themselves. Today China is not an 
importer but an exporter of the drug and it is largely from there 
that the addicts in Hong Kong receive their supplies.'
         'Are there many addicts here?'
         'Alas, yes. It is a terrible problem, and has become much 
more difficult to deal with since the practice started of converting 
opium into heroin. That greatly reduces the bulk of the drug so makes 
it much easier to smuggle.'
         'In the States they're doing a big job reclaiming addicts,' 
Urata put in. 'Are they doing anything of that kind here?'
         'Oh, yes,' Merri informed him. 'Out at Tai Lam we have a 
special prison for the treatment of addicts who have been convicted, 
and at the new hospital at Castle Peak there is a special ward set 
aside for addicts willing to submit voluntarily to a course of 
treatment. My mother works for the Hong Kong Advisory Committee on 
Narcotics, in a special section of the Customs employed in preventing 
the smuggling of drugs, so I could tell you a lot about such matters. 
She wanted me to work in her office, but I would not like such a 
life, and as I have never travelled I greatly enjoy talking to people 
who come from all parts of the world. That is why I asked Major 
Stanley, who is the head of the Hong Kong Tourist Association, to 
take me as one of his private guides.'

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