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  • In 1792.

  • Britain has just come out of a war that's cost it not only much of its national treasury,

  • but also one of its most lucrative overseas colonies:

  • North America.

  • The empire needs new sources of revenue,

  • new opportunities for trade,

  • and there's one clear possibility:

  • China.

  • *Birth of the People plays*

  • By the end of the 18th century, the world had become a much smaller place,

  • with European traders traveling the globe

  • to feed the hungry markets of the industrializing West.

  • Wars were fought all over the planet

  • to secure exotic goods or the raw materials needed

  • to power new economies of the rising European empires.

  • But China still remained aloof.

  • Demand for Chinese goods was high.

  • Silk,

  • porcelain, and especially tea were coveted by buyers back in Europe.

  • But the Chinese emperors saw all these foreign traders

  • as a potentially destabilizing influence.

  • And, as they had done throughout Chinese history,

  • placed strict controls on foreign trade.

  • Specifically, they limited trade to just a few ports.

  • Traders weren't allowed to set foot in the empire

  • except at a handful of cities designated for that purpose.

  • And all trade had to go through a trade monopoly known as the Hong,

  • who could tax and regulate foreign trade as they saw fit.

  • By the middle of the 18th century, this was taken further,

  • and all foreign trade was restricted to a single port:

  • Canton.

  • This drove resentment among the European traders,

  • who saw limitless opportunity for profit

  • if they could just get their hands on it.

  • And those Europeans trading in China

  • were, in some ways, a self-selecting group.

  • If you're going to make your living

  • transporting goods thousands of miles from your home,

  • you probably believe in the inherent value of unrestricted trade,

  • which meant that these rules did not sit well with the Europeans,

  • and piracy and smuggling began to rise.

  • Even within the official channels of trade,

  • merchants began to strain at these limitations.

  • Eventually, an employee of the Honorable East India Company,

  • the militarized trade organization responsible for British affairs in India,

  • pushed by, what he saw, as abuses of corrupt officials

  • and undue restrictions on free trade,

  • decided that it was time to openly break the rules that the Chinese imposed.

  • He left Canton and took his grievances upriver

  • (literally and figuratively), wanting to be heard by someone in the Chinese hierarchy

  • who was outside the Hong,

  • outside the monopoly set up in Canton.

  • And here's where divides of culture come in.

  • Because it's possible that he wasn't acting in a way

  • that he saw as malicious or even inappropriate.

  • In fact, he may have been acting in a way

  • that he thought of as perfectly reasonable, were he in England.

  • But he wasn't in England.

  • And the arrogance of this traitor just deciding that his complaint

  • should be elevated to imperial court,

  • rather than going through the proper authorities,

  • was unbelievable to the Chinese.

  • More than that, it put into question whether these Europeans

  • would stay in one port at all,

  • or even obey Chinese law.

  • And so, further restrictions were put into place.

  • Trade was clamped down on even more.

  • But European demands for Chinese goods,

  • especially English demands for their newfound love of black tea,

  • continued to grow.

  • Which brings us back to 1792.

  • By this point, the British were importing

  • tens of millions of pounds of tea every year.

  • Within two decades,

  • import duties on tea would account for 10 percent

  • of the government's entire revenue.

  • Tea was one of the major drivers of the economy.

  • Tea was so essential to the British world,

  • that the Canton system was simply no longer acceptable.

  • And more than that, the British were now running

  • an enormous trade deficit with the Chinese.

  • Millions of pounds of silver were flowing out of the British Empire

  • and into China.

  • On top of that, recent European struggles had cut them off

  • from the silver mines of South America,

  • and costly foreign wars had left the treasury dry.

  • Even the Honorable East India Company was broke,

  • incurring a huge debt to finance their military conquests

  • of parts of India.

  • The British Empire, for all of its power and wealth,

  • for all its global might and territory in every region of the globe,

  • simply did not have the raw currency it needed

  • to continue paying for its tea habit.

  • So, the British decided that it was time

  • to finally send an official diplomatic mission to China.

  • No more traders, merchants, or pirates.

  • This was going to be a real envoy,

  • from one monarch to another,

  • to talk about opening up trade.

  • After some consideration, it was decided

  • that the first Earl of Macartney,

  • a seasoned colonial governor, should lead the mission.

  • His aims were simple:

  • end the Canton system,

  • establish a permanent embassy

  • (or at least get a permanent British representative in the imperial court),

  • and, if possible, secure the grant of a small island off the coast of China

  • where British merchants could operate

  • under British, rather than Chinese, law.

  • So they packed the hold of a ship

  • with clocks and telescopes, and even carriages

  • to be presented to the Chinese Emperor,

  • and began their trip.

  • They sailed east, around the Cape of Good Hope,

  • with only one minor detour when the trade winds

  • pushed them all the way to Rio de Janeiro.

  • At last though, they arrived in China.

  • They immediately asked to dock at a port

  • much closer to Beijing than Canton.

  • This was considered bad form by the Chinese,

  • but representatives of the East India Company

  • explained that they had expensive gits for the emperor on board,

  • and didn't want any of them to get ruined in a long overland journey.

  • So, the Chinese acquiesced.

  • They and their goods were ferried up the Grand Canal to Beijing,

  • and here they assembled their gifts,

  • and prepared for the last leg of their journey:

  • over the Great Wall, and to the emperor's summer palace at Jehol.

  • Here, they finally met the emperor.

  • And... trouble began immediately.

  • Because, in the presence of the emperor,

  • it was expected that everyone "kowtow,"

  • or kneel and bow so low that their head touched the floor.

  • And Macartney, being a seasoned British governor and gentleman,

  • hailing from, what he believed,

  • was the most powerful and civilized nation in the world,

  • with, as he saw it, the most divine monarch,

  • and, not only the right, but the duty

  • to spread the British way around the globe,

  • refused to do so.

  • After all, if he wasn't going to touch his head to the floor for King George,

  • he certainly wasn't going to do it here.

  • So, after some wrangling and protestations,

  • he proposed a counter-solution.

  • He would perform the kowtow,

  • so long as every time it was done,

  • a Chinese official of equal rank

  • would kowtow to a picture of George III.

  • This was, of course, ludicrous to the Chinese,

  • as, after all, they were from the most powerful and civilized nation in the world,

  • with the most divine monarch,

  • and who was this barbarian to try to put his king

  • on anything like the emperor's level?

  • Seriously?

  • But even without the kowtow issue truly resolved,

  • with Macartney merely genuflecting in the end,

  • as he would to King George.

  • the meeting went forward.

  • Macartney showed off the marvels of British science,

  • although mostly the flashier and less practical kind,

  • and presented them to the emperor.

  • And here too, signals got crossed,

  • because the Chinese court took this as a tribute mission.

  • After all, all gift-giving missions to the emperor

  • are tribute missions.

  • What else would it be?

  • And yet the British thought

  • that they were demonstrating all the reasons that China would benefit

  • from opening up trade with them.

  • So, in the end, Macartney was dismissed

  • without the emperor agreeing to a single one of the goals

  • he set out to achieve.

  • And the emperor sent one of the most

  • gloriously, imperially snarky letters

  • ever penned to King George,

  • thanking him for his tribute,

  • which, though neither he nor the Chinese actually wanted it,

  • he would graciously accept out of respect

  • for how far George had sent people

  • just to pay him tribute.

  • But no, China didn't need

  • baubles or knickknacks from England, thank you.

  • Trade would remain the way it was.

  • So Britain was left with a massive trade deficit.

  • The East India Company was 28 million pounds in debt

  • as a result of their war in India,

  • and the royal coffers were nearly dry.

  • They needed to find some product the Chinese wanted,

  • and then they did:

  • opium.

  • *outro theme plays*

In 1792.

Subtitles and keywords

B1 INT US trade chinese british emperor canton china

First Opium War - Trade Deficits and the Macartney Embassy - Extra History - #1

Keywords

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