- Historic Sites
A Cycle Of Cathay
President Nixon’s visit to Peking starts one more surprising turn in an American-Chinese “affair” nearly two centuries old
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
At the root of the shift was the fact that tea, first known to Europe in the seventeenth century, had become in the course of the eighteenth century the British national beverage—an antidote, perhaps, to the clammy English climate. For a while heavily taxed (the cause, it will be recalled, of American boycotts, the Boston Tea Party, and thereby America’s early turning toward coffee), it was nonetheless plainly a very great comfort that came to border upon addiction. After 1815, with the Napoleonic wars over, demand and supply could soar, with much to be carried, both to the United States and Europe, in American bottoms.
With that shift to tea in both cargo and volume, however, the need for something to provide in exchange became more acute. For a while Spanish silver dollars displaced sea-otter skins and sandalwood, declining in both supply and demand. But from 1827 onward, opium —long smuggled in, though not in large quantities—began to replace the Spanish dollars. Opium was compact, easy to conceal, didn’t spoil—and the Chinese demand for it was sharply on the rise. Americans joined with their British cousins in importing the drug into China from India and the Near East. And the Chinese, both merchants and officials, connived with the foreigners to make the trade possible. (One must note, in passing, that history is at least symmetrical and retributive, now that the West, in the 1970’s, finds itself assailed by massive illicit drug shipments from the Near East and Southeast Asia.)
The drug trade did create friction with the Chinese government, however, and, aside from the opium problem, deep tensions of various sorts were developing within the Canton system by the 1830’s—tensions deriving mainly from an inherent clash between the freetrading ethic of an expansionist Great Britain, the leader of the Western thrust, and the self-isolating ethic of a proud and complacent government in Peking. One or the other eventually had to give, and in an unevenly matched combat over the proximate issue of opium import into China, it was the Chinese who gave way before the superior firepower of the foreigners.
America was not, at this juncture, a combatant. But when the first of the unequal treaties was imposed by Britain in 1842, United States commissioners moved in to demand their nation’s share of the spoils on a “most-favored-nation” basis— meaning that they demanded henceforth any and all rights achieved by other powers, regardless of how they had been obtained. (The last vestige of these treaties was not finally given up by Washington until a century later, in 1943.)
Out of the unequal treaties there evolved, by 1860, an entirely new system of Sino-Western relations. Not only were foreigners given access to a large number of Chinese treaty ports on the coast and inland up the Yangtze River; they were also granted territorial concessions. In such ports, where foreign laws now prevailed, the outsiders were given immunity from Chinese law wherever they went; their diplomatic protectors were allowed to reside in Peking at last; and their merchants and missionaries were permitted unrestricted access to the Chinese hinterland.
Although Americans had played the role of bystanders in the days of the Opium War, their cousinly instincts got the better of them in the later years of the century. In June, 1859, for instance, Commodore Josiah Tattnall, USN, instructed merely to observe while the British and French taught the recalcitrant Chinese a lesson off the approaches to Tientsin, grew alarmed at the successful Chinese resistance, went to the relief of the wounded British admiral, and ordered his men to help man the British guns. “Blood,” he announced, in a sentence that has outlived his name, “is thicker than water.” Forty-one years later the Commodore’s instincts of consanguinity were confirmed by the participation of several thousand American troops in the German-led international expedition to put down the Boxer Rebellion and punish the Chinese government. And thereafter, for decades, American Army and Marine units were to be routinely stationed on Chinese soil, at Peking and Tientsin, while American gunboats patrolled the Yangtze River.
Large American fortunes had been built on the China trade before and after the Opium War, and the new treaty-port system promised even greater rewards. Indeed, the 1850’s—the days of the clipper ships—were a brief moment when American tonnage in the China trade actually exceeded that of Great Britain. This was also a decade in which American vessels participated heavily in a trade even more reprehensible than the shipment of opium: the traffic in Chinese coolie laborers, abducted or otherwise procured in the South China region and shipped for hard labor and, more often than not, early death in Latin America. To recall only one appalling event in this grim chapter: there is the case of the Waverley , an American ship with a human cargo en route from China to South America, in whose hold 260 Chinese died of suffocation in September, 1855. Meanwhile, opium itself was being shipped by fast American steamers into Formosa as late as 1872—there to be smuggled into mainland coastal markets.