of The Tablet's first edition
war with China
There is hardly room for the hope that the misunderstanding to which the late occurrences in China has given rise, should now be adjusted without war and its attendant horrors; and when involved in a struggle with a power at a lower stage of civilization than ourselves, and infinitely less versed in the science of destroying human life, our only consolation must be sought for in the justice of our cause, and in the conviction that no prudence on our part could have averted the calamity.
From what occurred some weeks ago in the House of Commons, there appeared every reason to believe that the Opposition were bent on robbing the British nation of this consolation, and public meetings were got up, and petitions were sent round, with a view to wheedle the country into a belief, that the Queen's soldiers and the Queen's ships were on their way to China, for no other purpose than to force the Emperor to allow us to poison his subjects by millions. The delusion appeared to be "taking", and on Tuesday night an attempt was made to follow up the fancied success, by a motion in the House of Lords. The result of that debate will certainly not invite to a repetition of the baffled stratagem.
Of Lord Stanhope, who brought forward the motion, and who was left entirely unsupported on the occasion, we should be sorry to say anything unkind. His lordship is an honest enthusiast, acting under the influence of a humane and benevolent disposition. He is known to be an enthusiast, more particularly in the cause of abstinence, and it is not to be wondered at that the intoxicating drug in China should share in that abhorrence with which he looks upon the intoxicating alcohol at home. So far he will find few who will not sympathize with him, and should he consent to go on a temperance mission to Canton, he may rest assured that the best wishes for his success will accompany him from England. But it is not from his place in the House of Lords that his lordship must hope to impress upon the Chinese the merits of abstinence; nor must he hope, while with all our expensive establishments at home for the prevention of smuggling, we are unable to prevent the illicit introduction of Dutch gin and American tobacco, that the people of England should impose upon themselves the gigantic task of establishing a preventive service in the East for the reformation of Chinese opium-topers. Yet to this extent his lordship would apparently have us go, for the concluding words of the address which he would fain have persuaded his brother peers to present to the Queen, called upon her "to take immediate measures for the prevention of such proceedings (smuggling opium), and to assure her Majesty that if any additional powers should be found requisite for the purpose, this House will readily concur in granting them to her Majesty".
Lord Melbourne, disposed of the noble earl's three hours' speech in about twenty minutes. He pointed out most happily the absurdity of thinking they could enforce the prohibitory laws of a foreign country, and by a temperate statement of facts, demolished the whole tale by which an attempt is made to fasten the guilt of the opium smuggling on the Indian government. When it is known that a duty of one million five hundred thousand pounds sterling is levied upon the opium grown in our Eastern dominions, it will hardly be said that we have encouraged its cultivation. Lord Stanhope, it seems, in his solicitude for the morals of the Chinese, would have the cultivation prohibited. To this Lord Melbourne aptly replies, by asking this noble earl whether he would not even allow it to be grown for the use of those who employ it as medicine in Europe? The fact, however, is, that to suppress the cultivation of opium in India, we must begin by conquering those state of Hindostan that still preserve their independence, for it is notorious, that more than half the opium exported from India to China, is not grown within the British dominions.
Opium smoking is neither so prevalent nor so disgusting a vice in China, as gin drinking is in England. Now Lord Stanhope, if vested with power as large here, as the Emperor exercises in China, would certainly be quite as zealous in his desire to extinguish the filthy propensity of drunkenness among the lower classes of his own countrymen, as he appears to be solicitous to assist in the great moral reform of the Chinese. He would perhaps, for we rate his honesty more highly than his judgment, prohibit distillation at home, and impose some very severe penalties upon the importation of spirits from abroad. What would, be the consequences? Why almost every French and Dutch vessel that arrived in a British port would be engaged in smuggling brandy and gin into the country. We remember the time when French silks were prohibited in England, and when a lady of fashion would have thought herself ill-dressed, had she not been able to parade the illegal article at every rout where she showed herself. Coffee and sugar were prohibited articles in Sweden, not many years ago, yet there were not, at that time, perhaps, a single gentleman's house in Sweden, at which coffee was not regularly presented every day after dinner. The idlest of political absurdities is the prohibition of any article of foreign produce, for which people have once acquired a taste; and were the British Government willing to assist the Chinese emperor in his design to suppress the opium trade, though we employed the whole British navy in the pious undertaking, we should fail in the attempt.
The Duke of Wellington is deserving of the highest praise for his conduct on this occasion. He demonstrated the absurdity of imputing to the British Government or the British nation, any part of the blame of the opium trade, and at the same time opposed a manly defence to the imputations which Lord Stanhope had attempted to cast upon Captain Elliott, who in a position of almost unexampled difficulty, has conducted himself with such discretion as few men would under such circumstances have been able to display. We were much gratified by the warmth with which the noble Duke defended the conduct of an absent officer, who while studying to do his duty to his country, acted rashly only when his rashness tended to endanger his own life, showed timidity only when the safety of others was at stake.
The Duke of Wellington, while he frankly admitted that if any blame attached to the present ministry, or the present government of India, with respect to the opium trade, that blame must be shared by preceding administrations, denied altogether that the opium trade was the immediate cause of the war.
"I declare," said his grace, "I never in my life have seen, on the part of the authorities of any country, such language as has been written to Captain Elliott by the officers of the Chinese government (hear, hear). The noble earl has talked of the provocation given by the Chinese government by the language of British subjects. I say as an Englishman who has passed fifty years of his life in the honourable service of his country, that I cannot bear to see a servant of the British Government doing his duty on his station at Canton, and that he should be treated in a manner, and addressed in language such as should not be used to the meanest criminal in any country in the world (hear, hear). And to force what? That which this gentleman was ready to do - to surrender up the whole of the opium into the hands of the China government, and, in point of fact, he did so surrender it. (Hear, hear.) And now the noble earl says that this war is to be attributed to the opium! Why, there was no British opium in China at the time that these other outrages were continued. The war has grown out of another state of circumstances. First of all, there was a claim for the surrender of an Englishman to be put to death, because a Chinese had lost his life in an affray. That was one cause of the war. (Hear, hear.) Another of the causes of the war is this - that after a promise had been made that matters should return to their former state, in proportion as the opium should be delivered up - that the British inhabitants should have the use of the native servants - that they have the common comforts of life, provisions and all that was necessary for subsistence - and, finally, that the trade should be opened, and matters resumed in their usual course - having received that promise, it is discovered that this Chinese lost his life in an affray in which there were American seamen as well as English." (Hear.)
The refusal of the Duke of Wellington to join in the attempt to delude the people of England on this question, has given the death blow to this mock moral delusion. We shall hear no more of the opium agitation.