Europe in China/Chapter 8
The Opium Question and the Exodus from Canton.
The taste for opium is a congenital disease of the Chinese race. At the beginning of the Christian era, the uses and effects of opium were the secret of the Buddhist priesthood in China. Priests from India secured for themselves divine honours by performing feats of ascetic discipline, fasting and mental absolution, sitting for instance motionless for months at a time indolently gazing at a black wall. These feats were performed by means of opium. Buddhist and Taoist priests peregrinated through the whole of China performing astounding medical cures by means of opiates. Centuries before European medical science discovered the uses of opium, there was all over China a large and constantly increasing demand for this drug, and, though opium was grown in China from the earliest times, most of the supply was imported into China by Arab traders at Canton and Foochow. Nevertheless, while numbers of individuals taking opium in excess were physically and morally ruined by it, the use of opium never affected the health of the race to any perceptible extent. When the smoking of opium and the consequent practice of introducing opium vapour into the lungs commenced in China, is not known. As early as A.D. 1678 a regular duty on foreign imported opium was levied at Canton, but for 77 years after that date the annual import did not exceed 200 chests. By the year 1796, however, the annual rate of importation had risen to 4,100 chests and the rapid spread of a taste for opium smoking, and the consequent demoralisation of individuals who smoked opium to excess, attracted the attention of the Government. Accordingly the importation of opium was formally prohibited (A.D. 1796) by an Imperial Edict, the regular levy of a duty on opium ceased, and for it was substituted, with the connivance of the Cantonese Authorities, a system of secret importation under a clandestine levy of official fees. The effect of this Imperial prohibition was an immediate rise in the selling price of opium, and a consequently increased supply. Chinese historians report that by the year 1820, the annual clandestine sales of opium at Canton had reached a total of nearly 4,000 chests.
But we have exact statistics of the annual exportation of opium from India, most of which found its way to Canton, while the remainder which went elsewhere was balanced by imports of opium into China from other countries. These Indian Government statistics show that the exportation of opium from India continued, from A.D. 1798 to 1825, with very little variation, at an average rate of 4,117 chests per annum; that it rose in the year 1826, at a bound, to 6,570 chests, and continued until the year 1829 at an average annual rate of 7,427 chests; that in the year 1830 the export suddenly rose to 11,835 chests and continued, until the year 1835, at an average annual rate of 12,095 chests. But in the year 1837, on account of the enhanced demand caused by the general expectation entertained in 1836 that the trade would be legalised, the exportation of opium took another sudden bound, rising to 19,600 chests, in consequence of which the total amount of opium, accumulated in the hands of opium merchants at Canton and Macao during the period 1836 to 1837, reached a total of 30,000 chests. Of these, some 20,000 chests were sold in 1836, to the value of about two million pounds sterling, of which sum £280,000 went into the pockets of the High Authorities. The trade in opium was all along carried on at Canton in the foreign factories, where the Hong Merchants and their privileged clients and even Chinese officials openly purchased—from the various foreign merchants, representing English, Anglo-Indian (chiefly Parsee), Portuguese, American, French, Spanish, Danish, and Dutch firms—written orders (chops) for opium to be delivered by ships anchored in the outer waters of the Canton River. The opium was not stored at Canton, but at first it was warehoused in Macao, subsequently it was kept on board ships anchored at Whampoa (the port of Canton), until, with the year 1830, a new practice arose. Foreign ships now used, on arrival from India, to anchor first at the mouth of the Canton River, viz, at Kam-sing-moon during the S.W. monsoon (April to September) or at Lintin during the N.E. monsoon (October to March), and there to discharge their opium into stationary receiving hulks, whereupon the ships proceeded with the remainder of their cargo to Whampoa to engage there in the legitimate trade. In the year 1830, there were only five such receiving ships in Chinese waters, but by the year 1837 their number had increased to 25, most of which were either English or temporarily transferred to the English flag, though some were openly under the American, French, Dutch, Spanish and Danish flags. These receiving ships, anchored at Lintin or Kam-sing-moon, were heavily armed and strongly manned, so much so that no Chinese fleet could possibly interfere with them successfully. They were readily supplied with provisions by native boats (known as bumboats) and during the business season the officers in command of these receiving ships were in daily communication with their respective agencies at Canton and Macao by means of fast foreign cutters or schooners, manned by Indian lascars, and known as European passage-boats. Since the winter of 1836, when foreign ships were forbidden to anchor at Kam-sing-moon, and the prohibitions enforced by the erection of a shore battery guarded by a naval squadron, the opium ships were (1837 to 1841) confined to the station at Lintin. But whenever the Cantonese Authorities made a special show of interference with the opium traffic, as carried on at Lintin, some of the most powerfully armed opium ships would be sent away to the eastern and north-eastern coasts of China, to sell opium wherever practicable along the coast, in a manner similar to that practised at Lintin. In the year 1826 the commanders of the receiving ships anchored at Lintin made an arrangement with the revenue cruizers established by the Viceroy Li Hung-pan, under which these cruizers, for a monthly fee of Taels 36,000, allowed the opium to pass freely into the ports of Whampoa and Macao. And in the year 1837, when strict orders had been issued by the Emperor to stop all opium traffic at Lintin, the Commodore Hou Shiu-hing, in command of the Viceroy's cruizers, arranged with the commanders of the opium ships at Lintin, to convoy or actually to carry by his vessels the opium from Lintin to its destination, for a fixed percentage of opium. Some of the opium which he thus received, the wily Commodore then presented to the Viceroy as captured by force of arms, and on these meritorious services being officially reported to the Throne, the Emperor bestowed on the Commodore a peacock's feather and gave him the rank of Rear-Admiral. The Annals of the present Manchu Dynasty (partly translated by Mr. E. H. Parker), from which the foregoing statements are taken, allege that the opium annually stored in the original five receiving ships did at first not amount to more than 4,000 or 5,000 chests, but that later on (1826 to 1836) there were, on the 25 receiving ships, some 20,000 chests of opium in any one year.
The extraordinary dimensions which the opium trade thus assumed, with the connivance of the Chinese Authorities, as a forced trade (neither legal nor strictly speaking contraband), especially during the decade from 1826 to 1836, naturally aroused anxious attention both on the part of the English and Chinese Cabinets.
The English Government viewed with apprehension the annually increasing importance which the East India Company's opium monopoly assumed, since 1826, as a source of public revenue. The extent to which the income of the Indian Government had gradually become dependent upon the cultivation and export of opium, likewise caused the English Cabinet much anxiety and perplexity. Parliament also took the matter up and appointed a Select Committee to investigate the questions involved, both in 1830 and 1832. In the latter year, however, the Committee, though by no means approving of the opium traffic, gave it as their opinion that it did not seem advisable to abandon so important a source of revenue in the East India Company's monopoly of opium in Bengal.
Captain Elliot, the Government's representative in China, personally abhorred the opium trade, root and branch, and did not diguise his views either in his relations with the merchants in Canton or in his communications to the Government. He stated the perfect truth when he wrote to Lord Palmerston (November 16, 1839) that, if his private feelings were of the least consequence upon questions of a public and important nature, he might assuredly and justly say that no man entertained a deeper detestation of the disgrace and sin of this forced traffic on the coast of China; that he saw little to choose between it and piracy; and that in his place, as a public officer, he had steadily discountenanced it by all the lawful means in his power, and at the total sacrifice of his private comfort in the society in which he had lived for years. But he also stated perfect truth, and in this respect Chinese history supports him, when he wrote to Lord Palmerston (February 2, 1837), that the opium trade commenced and subsisted only by reason of the hearty concurrence of the Chief Authorities of the southern provinces of China and indeed also of the Court at Peking; that no portion of the foreign trade to China more regularly paid its entrance duties than this opium traffic; and that the least attempt to evade the fees of the Mandarins was almost certain of detection and severe punishment. Captain Elliot further stated, on the same occasion, that a large share of these emoluments reached not merely the higher dignitaries of the Empire, but in all probability, in no very indirect manner, the Imperial hand itself. The fact that, for centuries past, the principal trade revenue office at Canton (that of the Hoppo) has always been, as it still is, the monopoly of officers of the Imperial Household, lends force to this surmise. But what prevented Elliot's taking official proceedings against the opium trade, which he personally loathed, was the same consideration which had prevented the Parliamentary Committee of 1832 disavowing it altogether. The evil had already gone on too long. The opium trade had, by its financial operations, become so intertwined with the legitimate trade, that separate dealing with it was impossible. The import of opium into China, as it gradually expanded, gave an enormous impetus to the export of tea and silk from China to the European markets, and the whole opium trade had imperceptibly become a necessity both for China and for Europe; for China, because the craving for opium was so widespread among the Chinese people, that the demand for it defied the severest criminal enactments; for Europe, because the sale of opium, which had by this time come to form three-fifths of the whole British imports into China, provided a very large portion of the funds required for operations in Chinese produce destined for European markets. Indeed, as Elliot put it (February 21, 1837), the movement of money at Canton had come to depend, by the force of circumstances, almost entirely upon the deliveries of opium at Lintin. The tares could not be rooted out now, without destroying the wheat.
Lord Palmerston, and the other members of the Cabinet, whilst unanimous in their dislike of the opium trade, could not yet agree to any definite solution of the problem. On one point Lord Palmerston was perfectly clear, viz. that Her Majesty's Government could not possibly interfere for the purpose of enabling British subjects to violate the laws of the country to which they trade, and that therefore any loss which such persons may suffer in consequence of the more effectual execution of the Chinese laws on this subject, must be borne by the parties who have brought that loss upon themselves by their own acts. He wrote to Elliot to this effect (June 15, 1838), but at the same time declared that the Cabinet did not feel sufficient confidence in their apprehension of the opium problem to enter upon any negotiations with the Chinese Government regarding the repression or legalisation of the trade in opium. Nevertheless there are indications that Lord Palmerston had, in his own mind, already settled the leading principles of that policy which he formulated later on (February 26, 1841), in the following words. 'It is evident,' he wrote to Rear Admiral Elliot and to Captain Elliot, 'that no exertions of the Chinese Authorities can put down the opium trade on the Chinese coast, because the temptation both to the buyers and to the sellers is stronger than can be counteracted by any fear of detection and punishment. It is equally clear, that it is wholly out of the power of the British Government to prevent opium from being carried to China, because even if none were grown in any part of the British territories, plenty of it would be produced in other countries, and would thence be sent to China by adventurous men, either British or of other nations. The present state of Chinese law upon this matter makes the trade illegal; and illegal trade is always attended with acts of violence. Battles between Chinese war-junks and British smugglers have a necessary tendency to produce unfriendly and embarrassing discussions between the British and Chinese Governments, or at all events to keep alive hostile feelings between the British and the Chinese people. It would seem, therefore, that much additional stability would be given to the friendly relations between the two countries, if the Government of China would make up its mind to legalise the importation of opium upon payment of a duty sufficiently moderate to take away from the smuggler the temptation to endeavour to introduce the commodity without payment of duty. By this means, also, it is evident that a considerable increase of revenue might be obtained by the Chinese Government, because the sums which are now paid as bribes to the custom-house officers would enter the public coffers in the shape of duty.'
The policy of the Chinese Government was for a long time equally undecided, wavering between legalisation and extirpation of the opium trade. The counsels of the leading statesmen of China were divided until the close of the year 1838. But, whilst divided in their opinions as to the desirability of stamping out the use of opium, and as to the possibility of preventing smuggling effectively, all the principal statesmen of China were singularly unanimous in looking at the opium question not, as we might suppose, from a moral point of view, but simply and solely as a financial problem. Their objection to the opium trade was not that it fostered a vice gnawing at the vitals of the nation, but that it caused the balance of the trade to turn against China and that it accordingly drained China of silver and impoverished the nation. The Chinese author of the above-mentioned Annals of the Manchu Dynasty, whilst personally holding the same views of the opium traffic which Elliot held, and occasionally indulging in elaborate tirades concerning the immorality of the traffic in opium, gives, as the reasons why the Chinese Government condemned the trade, purely financial arguments. Formerly, he says, a rule had been in force, that no silver was to be exported and that the whole foreign trade should be conducted by barter, which compelled foreign merchants annually to import half a million dollars, but, he adds, with the expansion of the opium trade it came gradually to pass that a balance of silver had annually to be made up by China. Thus also a Memorial to the Throne, by Wong Tseuk-tsz, which contributed much to the victory eventually scored by the anti-opium party in Peking, argued that the growing consumption of opium was at the root of all China's troubles, because silver was becoming scarce and relatively dear, the value of the tael having advanced from 1,000 to 1,600 cash in price. But since the year 1832, and especially all through the year 1836, the counsels of the pro-opium party were decidedly in the ascendant at Peking and in the provinces. A joint Memorial, presented to the Throne in 1832 by the ex-Viceroy and the Governor of Canton, boldly recommended the licensing of the opium trade on the ground that such a measure would reduce the price of opium and thereby diminish the export of silver, and secretly hinted that the encouragement of the growth of native opium would still further impede the avaricious plans and large profits of the foreigners. Another Memorial, presented to the Throne in spring 1836, further argued that the legalisation of the opium trade would bring it under the rules of barter; that thereby the baneful effects of the trade, consisting in an annual loss of over ten million taels inflicted on the currency of the realm, would be entirely obviated; but that for this purpose the Hong Merchants must be made personally responsible for the conduct of the whole opium trade and for the entire abolition of the traffic carried on at Lintin; and that the success of the scheme depended upon levying such a small duty (seven dollars a chest) as to cut off all inducement to smugglers to risk their lives. When the Emperor remitted this Memorial (June 12, 1836) for further report, it was generally assumed at Canton that it was now only a question of framing the regulations for the detailed organisation of the legalisation scheme. Elliot gave utterance to an opinion generally entertained at the time in the best informed official circles of Peking and Canton, when he wrote to the Foreign Office (October 10, 1836), that he expected soon receiving the final orders from Peking for the legalisation of the opium trade. When, a few weeks later (October 28, 1836), the Viceroy issued orders for the expulsion from Canton of twelve foreign opium merchants, eight of whom were British subjects, it was still thought that this measure, though rigidly insisted on (November 23 and December 13, 1836), was only meant as a blow directed against the Lintin trade. This surmise was confirmed when an Imperial Edict (dated January 26, 1837) appeared, which declared the baneful effects, arising from a prevalence of opium throughout the Empire, to consist in a daily decrease of fine silver, and consequently placed a strict interdict on the exportation of sycee silver, without prohibiting the trade in opium. On February 2, 1837, Elliot wrote to Lord Palmerston, that he was still of opinion that the legal admission of opium may be looked for. That the Lintin trade was the principal, if not exclusive, cause of objection, was further demonstrated by another Imperial Edict with reached Canton in August, 1837. This Edict stated that, whereas the illicit trade, the importation of opium and exportation of sycee, depended entirely on the receiving ships stationed at Lintin, the resident foreigners must immediately be ordered to send those ships away. Elliot accordingly had four successive demands made upon him to order those ships to leave China, and finally he was directed to write to his King and request him to command those ships to leave, and to prohibit their return to China. Captain Elliot declined to interfere on the ground that his duties were at Canton and that he had no power, and he hinted that the Chinese Authorities were themselves at fault in not recognising him properly as a Government Officer. But towards the close of the year the hopes of the legalisation of the opium trade grew fainter and fainter and Captain Elliot now (December 7, 1837) reported to Lord Palmerston, that things were in such a condition of uncertainty that it was impossible to divine what the Chinese Authorities meant, as they were wandering from project to project and from blunder to blunder, and that the protection of British interests demanded that a small naval force should immediately be stationed in Chinese waters.
Lord Palmerston must have seen the reasonableness of Captain Elliot's request. But he had by this time determined upon applying to Chinese affairs his favourite policy of masterly inaction. So he deliberately left Elliot and the British community to their fate, unprotected by any fleet, and waited to see what the Chinese Government would really do.
Whilst the British and Chinese Cabinets hesitated as to the course to be taken, the hangers on of the Lintin trade pushed matters to a crisis. During the first few months of the year 1888, the number of foreign cutters and schooners carrying opium from Lintin to Whampoa increased enormously, and the deliveries of opium were now frequently accompanied by conflicts in which fire-arms were used freely. Elliot discovered that many of these craft were owned by British subjects, but he was powerless. When he devised (as above mentioned) some police regulations for the purpose, Lord Palmerston informed him that he had gone beyond his powers in doing so. The Cantonese Authorities, irritated by this incomprehensible inactivity of Elliot, desired to give foreigners in general a warning, and caused a native, convicted of smuggling opium and sycee, to be executed under the walls of Macao (April 13, 1838). Trade continued, though under gloomy apprehensions, as everybody felt that a crisis was approaching. Things went on, however, quietly enough, until the close of the year, when (December 8, 1838) some boxes of opium, that had been brought up to Canton, presumably from an American ship anchored at Whampoa, were seized in front of the house of Mr. Innes and discovered to be his property. The Chinese Authorities immediately ordered both Mr. Innes and the ship in question to leave Canton waters within three days (subsequently extended to ten), whilst the Hong Merchant, who was security for the ship, was at once exposed in the stocks with a heavy wooden collar round his neck. This caused great excitement, the more so as the other Hong Merchants sent Mr. Innes a written warning that they were going to pull down his house over his head. The threat was, however, not carried out, and the excitement had well nigh subsided, when (December 12, 1838) the Chinese Authorities, resolved to give the foreigners another lesson to intimidate them, brought a criminal, condemned to death on a charge of selling opium, and made arrangements to execute him in the square, right under the windows of the factories. Some of the foreigners at once protested against the erection of the tent which was to accommodate the officials, others pulled down what scaffolding had already been put up, while a mob of some six thousand natives that had collected stood by and at first applauded the proceedings of the foreigners, laughing at the discomfiture of the Chinese police. But when some foreigners imprudently pushed in between the mob, and assaulted some of the crowd with sticks, popular feeling turned against them and the cry 'ta, ta' (kill them) was raised on all sides. Showers of stones now forced the foreigners into their houses; the doors were hastily barricaded; a shot was fired, happily without doing any injury; the mob were about making preparations for the entire demolition of the factories, and the life of every foreigner in Canton was in imminent peril, when the Authorities sent troops at the last moment and restored quiet. But the Hong Merchants, whom the Authorities held responsible for the disturbance, now declared that trade must be suspended altogether, unless the traffic carried on in small craft between Lintin and Whampoa were immediately put a stop to. Elliot would have gladly exceeded his legal powers to do so, but Lord Palmerston had left him without sufficient naval support to clear the waters of Canton of an armed traffic, carried on by the riffraff of every foreign nation, supported by the Chinese people and secretly participated in by Chinese officials. All he could do was to make an appeal to the conscience of the foreign community and to warn the offenders. He called a public meeting (December 17, 1838) and asked the merchants to co-operate with him in his efforts to stop the traffic between Lintin and Whampoa. But the reckless foreigners on board the boats down at Whampoa cared neither for the threatenings of Elliot or the Chinese Authorities, nor for the general reprobation in which all the respectable foreign merchants at Canton held this traffic. Elliot exhausted all his executive powers by serving a notice upon all British subjects engaged on those boats, which warned them that, unless they at once left the Canton River, he would consider them as outlaws and leave them to be dealt with by the Chinese Authorities. When Elliot issued this notice (December 18, 1838), his communications with the Chinese Government had been interrupted for nearly a year. It was at this juncture, believing some dreadful calamity to be impending upon the whole foreign community at Canton, that Elliot resolved to resume official intercourse with the Chinese Government at any cost, and accordingly he made the humiliating concessions above mentioned, consenting to address the Cantonese Authorities as a humble petitioner and to receive communications, which really were orders, from the subordinates of the Governor of Canton city. He sacrificed his personal and official dignity, because he saw no other way of preventing a massacre.
However, the Cantonese Authorities were too well aware of the advantages connected with the continuance of the foreign trade at Canton, to resort deliberately to any extreme measures. They had no wish to stop trade altogether, or even to suppress the fair opium traffic at Canton, but they were determined to stop the forced traffic between Lintin and Whampoa, because it evaded the exactions of the higher officials. The new year (1839) opened with gloomy forebodings, for on the day when trade was re-opened (January 1, 1839), a rumour spread in Canton that the party at Peking, opposed to the legalisation of the opium trade, had gained a decided ascendency in the Imperial councils. And, indeed, while Elliot was penning a dispatch to Lord Palmerston (January 2, 1839), imploring the Foreign Office for some support under his embarrassing circumstances, stating also that there was no time to be lost in providing for the defined and reasonable control of Her Majesty's subjects in China, the former Viceroy of Hukwang, Lam Tsak-sü, better known as Commissioner Lin, was already on his way, armed with extraordinary powers as Special Imperial Commissioner and High Admiral. Lin had previously distinguished himself as an uncompromising anti-opium agitator and now, whilst travelling along the wearisome route from Peking to Canton, he concocted an elaborate scheme to entrap all the opium dealers and to extirpate the whole opium traffic by one fell blow, besides bringing the Cantonese Authorities once for all to book for their connivance at, and share in, the opium trade. The news of his approach caused, indeed, all the local officials, from the Viceroy down to the Hong Merchants, to quake in their shoes. Accordingly the opium traffic was actually stopped for several months before Lin's arrival, and the Authorities bestirred themselves to make a show of serious repressive measures. They now (January 10, 1839) issued a notification strictly prohibiting the conveyance of opium from Lintin to Whampoa, and further (January 16, 1839) called upon all foreign merchants to pledge their word that they would have nothing whatever to do with the smuggling of opium or with the exportation of silver. Again, acting upon advance orders sent on ahead by Commissioner Lin, the Viceroy now ordered the backdoors of the factories to be blocked up and set a watch in front. Having thus shut in the foreign community, the Viceroy and the Governor issued (January 30, 1839) a joint proclamation addressed directly, without the intervention of the Hong Merchants, to all foreign merchants. In this proclamation foreigners were told that the Imperial Commissioner Lin, sent from Peking to extirpate the whole opium traffic, was hourly expected to arrive in Canton. The Viceroy and Governor even added, in their zeal, what was entirely against Lin's plan, that the foreign merchants must at once send all the warehousing vessels, anchored in the outer seas, away. These orders were enhanced by the threat that, in case of disobedience, trade would be brought to an end for ever. The real sting of the proclamation was, however, when read in the light of the newly established blockade of the factories, in the words 'thus are the lives of all you foreigners in our grasp.'
This blockade of the factories and the imprisonment of the whole foreign community was, indeed, the indispensable preliminary to the execution of Lin's deeeply laid scheme. Having thus caught the whole of the foreign merchants in his net, Lin, to keep them busy, allowed the legitimate trade to continue unmolested for the present, and proceeded first of all to examine the high officials and the gentry of Canton as to the detailed history of the opium traffic, censuring some and cashiering others. But he at once ordered measures to be taken to intimidate the foreign merchants further by the strangling of a Chinese opium dealer (February 26, 1839). in front of the factories and in the presence of a formidable array of Chinese troops. Further, to cut off their eventual retreat to Macao, he ordered the Bogue forts to be guarded by a fleet, and a blockade of Macao to be commenced by land and sea.
To prevent a collision, now imminent, Elliot ordered (March 7, 1839) all English-owned passage boats to remain outside the Bogue. But, thinking English residents at Macao to be at the moment in greater peril than those at Canton, Elliot proceeded, with the permission of the Chinese officials (March 10, 1839) to Macao, where, to his great relief he found H.M. sloop Larne which had just arrived. On passing through the Bogue, Elliot had noticed that large numbers of fire-rafts and war junks were being collected there, in evident preparation of an attack on the foreign merchant shipping anchored at Lintin, and on arrival at Macao he found active measures in progress for an effective blockade. After making all necessary arrangements with Captain Blake, the commander of the Larne, for the protection of British residents at Macao, and ordering all British ships in Chinese waters immediately to rendezvous, for mutual protection, in the harbour of Hongkong, Elliot hastened back to Canton, and, although finding every outlet of the Canton River guarded by Chinese cruizers, he pushed resolutely on. Having heard, en route, of fresh perils of his countrymen at Canton, and believing that some desperate calamity would ensue unless he reached Canton at once, he pluckily forced his way, unarmed, in a small but fast-sailing gig of the Larne, manned by four blue-jackets, through the successive cordons of Chinese soldiery, until, he reached, at the imminent risk of his life, the British factories. Elliot's arrival (March 24, 1839) revived the drooping spirits of the foreign community who were at the moment in sore perplexity, and the sight of the English flag waving proudly and defiantly from the factory tower, where, in place of the demolished flagstaff, the ensign staff of the Larne's gig had been put up by Elliot's order, inspired every heart with fresh courage.
During Elliot's absence, the Imperial Commissioner Lin had sent to the foreign merchants (March 18, 1839) a demand for the surrender of all opium stored on board ships in Chinese waters, threatening them with their lives if the order were not obeyed forthwith. While the merchants were deliberating what to do, the Hoppo, acting under Lin's orders, prohibited foreigners, some of whom now sought to get away, retreating to Macao (March 19, 1839) and took measures to cut off all communication with Whampoa and the outside shipping. At the same time the factories were surrounded by a stockade and a triple cordon of Chinese troops on land, and by a semi-circular bridge formed by war junks on the river side. When these measures were complete (March 21, 1839), the demand of the surrender of all opium was repeated. The General Chamber of Commerce now sought to appease the Authorities by an offer to surrender 1037 chests of opium, but the offer was contemptuously rejected, and Mr. Lancelot Dent, being supposed to have under his orders six thousand chests of opium, was now (March 22, 1839) summoned to appear in person before the Imperial Commissioner and to surrender himself forthwith at the city gate. Naturally, all the foreign merchants made common cause with him and it was unanimously resolved that he should not go. Thereupon all Chinese servants were ordered to leave the factories, and all supplies of fresh water and provisions were cut off. Moreover, the senior Hong Merchants (How-qua, senior, and Mow-qua), loaded with iron chains fastened round their necks, were now (March 3, 1839) sent to the factories, under the charge of the Prefect of Canton, with orders, under pains of immediate decapitation, to bring Mr. Dent with them into the city. The whole foreign community, however, declared that he should not go, and when the Hong Merchants affirmed that it would really cost them their lives if they went away without him, Mr. Inglis pluckily volunteered to go in place of Mr. Dent, if three others would accompany him. This offer, readily accepted by the Prefect as a happy compromise, was at once acted upon by three other gentlemen, Thom, Slade and Fearon. The four heroes proceeded accordingly, with the Prefect and the Hong Merchants, into the city and were examined, at the temple of the Queen of Heaven, by a Committee of the highest local officers, under the Governor's orders, viz. the Chief Justice, the Treasurer, the Grain Intendant and the Commissioner of the Salt Gabelle. These high officials were so struck with admiration of the bravery of the four Englishmen, that, after briefly examining them, they allowed them to return to the factories unmolested. Next day, however, the demand for Mr. Dent's surrender was renewed and the foreign community were just deliberating what was to be done now, when Elliot arrived in their midst, took Mr. Dent under his arm and carried him off to his own room, informing the Chinese officers that he would rather surrender his own life than that of any Englishman under his charge.
On the following day (March 25, 1839), whilst the foreign merchants signed bonds, pledging themselves not to deal in opium nor to introduce it in China in any way, Captain Elliot applied to the Viceroy, respectfully claiming passports for all English ships and people at Canton, adding that, unless these passports were granted within the space of three days, he would be reluctantly driven to the conclusion that the men and ships of his country were forcibly detained, and act accordingly. The Chinese Authorities took no notice of this covert threat, well knowing that H.M. sloop Larne could not engage the Bogue forts single-handed. If anything were wanted to prove that, even in this opium contest, the real question at issue was the absolute supremacy of China over England, the reply, which Elliot now received from the Viceroy Tang Ching-ch‘ing, would prove it. Elliot had, at the close of his letter, expressed a regret that the peace 'between the two countries' (meaning of course China and England) was placed in imminent jeopardy by the late unexplained and alarming proceedings of the Chinese Authorities. The Viceroy, in reply, stated that he could not understand what Elliot meant by 'the two countries'; that of course he could not possibly mean to compare England with China, which would be absolutely preposterous, because all regions under heaven were in humble submission to the Government of China, while the heaven-like goodness of the Emperor overshadowed all; and that the English nation and the Americans had, by their trade in Canton, of all those nations in subjection, enjoyed the largest measure of favour. 'Therefore,' argued the sarcastic Viceroy, 'I presume, it must be England and America, that are conjointly named "the two countries," but the meaning of the language is greatly wanting in perspicuity.'
However, Elliot's application for passports was peremptorily refused, as also another application he made on the same day, begging that servants, water and food supplies might be restored to the foreign community. He was reminded in reply that Mr. Dent had not yet been surrendered and that the Imperial Commissioner was determined to get possession of all the opium now in China.
The foreign community, thus officially informed that they were prisoners, calmly prepared for the worst. But they were in a sad plight, for they were absolutely without any servants, without fresh water, without fresh provisions, and had to live, at short rations, upon what they had in their cupboards. During the next few days, sundry Chinese officials overwhelmed Elliot with complaints that he was the cause of all the troubles, that Mr. Dent would have surrendered if Elliot had not appeared on the scene, and that Elliot's preposterous notions of international equality had caused the present refractoriness of the foreign merchants and the delay in the delivery of the opium. When these complaints were found to be of no avail, the officials used threats, informing Elliot that the Imperial Commissioner Lin had hitherto taken no action because 'he cannot bear to destroy ere he has instructed,' and that therefore Elliot had been allowed a few days' grace, but he should not have servants or provisions, and the opium must be delivered at once.
These were no idle threats. The factories were surrounded by masses of Chinese soldiery, all longing for plunder; combustibles of all sorts were brought to the spot, and on the evening of March 26, 1839, there was not a foreigner in the factories but was convinced that the Chinese were ready to do the worst. After an anxious night, spent in deliberation, and feeling constrained by paramount motives affecting the safety of the lives and liberty of all the foreigners at Canton, Elliot issued, at 6 o'clock, on the morning of March 27, 1839, a public notice to British subjects, requiring them to deliver up to him all British-owned opium, either in their possession or under their control, holding him, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, responsible, and leaving it to Her Majesty's Government hereafter to define the principles on which the proof of British property and the value of British opium should be determined. Two days later (March 28, 1839), Elliot informed the Imperial Commissioner, that he was prepared to deliver up 20,283 chests of British-owned opium. In reply, Elliot was ordered by the Prefect of Canton to give further detailed information as to the places where the several amounts of opium were stored, and he was supplied with various instructions as to the arrangements to be made for the delivery of the opium. When Elliot, however, once more requested that servants and food supplies be restored to the prisoners, the Prefect informed him that no such indulgence could be allowed until the delivery of the opium had commenced. After several days spent in discussions of the mode of securing the delivery of all the opium on board the different ships, it was finally agreed by Commissioner Lin (April 2, 1839), that Mr. Johnston, the Second Superintendent, should proceed under a guard of Chinese officials and, armed with written orders of Captain Elliot, bring all the ships up to the anchorage of Lankeet, in sections of two ships at a time, to discharge the opium there. Commissioner Lin then promised, that on completing delivery of one-fourth of the opium, the compradores and servants should be restored to the prisoners; that on completing delivery of one-half of the opium, the passage boats should be allowed to resume communication with the ships; that on delivery of three-fourths of the opium, trade should be re-opened; and, he added pompously, on delivery of the whole being completed, everything should return to the ordinary condition and a request should be laid before the Throne that encouragements and rewards might be conferred. But Lin further added, that, if there should be any erroneous delay for three days, the supply of fresh water should be cut off; if for three days more there should be like delay, the supplies of food should be cut off, and if such delay should continue still three days longer, the criminal laws should forthwith be maintained and enforced.
Mr. Johnston having left Canton, the imprisonment of the foreign community, numbering over two hundred persons, continued as rigorously as before, until April 17, 1839, when the servants were tardily allowed to return to the factories and food supplies were again obtainable. Meanwhile, however, the prisoners were still guarded day and night by Chinese soldiers, posted at their doors with drawn swords and instructed to cut down any one who should make an attempt to escape. Both the merchants and Captain Elliot were repeatedly worried by demands to sign a fresh bond handing over to capital punishment any of their countrymen who should hereafter deal in opium, and professing abject submission to China's claim of supremacy. No one signed the bond and the confinement continued.
The above detailed promises of Lin were by no means faithfully adhered to. The servants were not restored as soon as one-fourth of the opium was delivered; the boats were not permitted to run when one-half was delivered; and the promise that things should go on as usual on completion of the opium delivery was falsified by reducing the factories to a prison with one outlet, by the perpetual expulsion of sixteen merchants, some of whom had never dealt in opium at all (as some clerks and a lad were included), and by the introduction of novel and unbearable regulations. Not until May 4, 1839, did the imprisonment of the foreign community at Canton come to an end. On that day, trade was declared re-opened and two days later fifty foreign merchants, known to have had no direct dealings in opium, were allowed to depart for Whampoa en route for Macao. Elliot, however, and the other merchants were still detained in custody as hostages until the delivery of the opium was completed (May 21, 1839). Then Elliot was graciously allowed to leave, but the permission was coupled with the demand now made that sixteen of the principal British merchants should remain in custody as a punishment for dealing in opium. Elliot refused to leave without them, and, after protracted negotiations, he at last (May 27, 1839) obtained their discharge on their signing a bond, guaranteeing that they would never return to China. By the end of May the exodus of British merchants and British shipping from Canton waters was complete. American merchants remained and became a favoured class.
Lin had gained a victory. He had succeeded in stopping for a time the trade in opium. But his seeming success had been gained only by driving British trade away from Canton in a manner eventually resulting in the establishment of a British Colony at Hongkong, which in turn deprived Canton of all its former commercial importance. He had also succeeded in obtaining forcible possession of over twenty-four million dollars worth of British-owned opium which it took him wrecks (until June 1, 1839) to destroy with quick-lime in pits dug on the sea shore at Chinkau, near the Bogue, and the full value of which China had to repay a few years later.
'This affair has been well managed,' wrote the Emperor to Lin, but the verdict of the vermilion pencil is not always the verdict of history, and six months later Queen Victoria stated, in her Speech from the Throne (January, 1840), that 'events had happened in China which deeply affected the interests of her subjects and the dignity of her crown.'