Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune
Articles On China, 1853-1860

[Trade or Opium?]

Written: September 20, 1858;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

September 20, 1858

THE NEWS of the new treaty wrung from China by the allied Plenipotentiaries has, it would appear, conjured up the same wild vistas of an immense extension of trade which danced before the eyes of the commercial mind in 1845, after the conclusion of the first Chinese war. Supposing the Petersburg wires to have spoken truth, is it quite certain that an increase of the Chinese trade must follow upon the multiplication of its emporiums? Is there any probability that the war Of 1857-8 will lead to more splendid results than the war of 1839-42? So much is certain that the Treaty Of 1842, instead of increasing American and English exports to China, proved instrumental only in precipitating and aggravating the commercial crisis of 1847. In a similar way, by raising dreams of an inexhaustible market and by fostering false speculations, the present treaty may help preparing a new crisis at the very moment when the market of the world is but slowly recovering from the recent universal shock. Besides its negative result, the first opium-war succeeded in stimulating the opium trade at the expense of legitimate commerce, and so will this second opium-war do if England be not forced by the general pressure of the civilized world to abandon the compulsory opium cultivation in India and the armed opium propaganda to China. We forbear dwelling on the morality of that trade, described by Montgomery Martin, himself an Englishman, in the following terms:

"Why, the 'slave trade' was merciful compared with the 'opium trade'. We did not destroy the bodies of the Africans, for it was our immediate interest to keep them alive; we did not debase their natures, corrupt their minds, nor destroy their souls. But the opium seller slays the body after he has corrupted, degraded and annihilated the moral being of unhappy sinners, while, every hour is bringing new victims to a Moloch which knows no satiety, and where the English murderer and Chinese suicide vie with each other in offerings at his shrine."

The Chinese cannot take both goods and drug; under actual circumstances, extension of the Chinese trade resolves into extension of the opium trade; the growth of the latter is incompatible with the development of legitimate commerce these propositions were pretty generally admitted two years ago. A Committee of the House of Commons, appointed in 1847 to take into consideration the state of British commercial intercourse with China, reported thus:

We regret "that the trade with that country has been for some time in a very unsatisfactory condition, and that the result of our extended intercourse has by no means realized the just expectations which had naturally been founded on a freer access to so magnificent a market.... We find that the difficulties of the trade do not arise from any want of demand in China for articles of British manufacture or from the increasing competition of other nations.... The payment for opium ... absorbs the silver to the great inconvenience of the general traffic of the Chinese; and tea and silk must in fact absorb the rest."

The Friend of China, Of July 28, I 849, generalizing the same proposition, says in set terms:

"The opium trade progresses steadily. The increased consumption of teas and silk in Great Britain and the United States would merely result in the increase of the opium trade; the case of the manufacturers is hopeless."

One of the leading American merchants in China reduced, in an article inserted in Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, for January, 1850, the whole question of the trade with China to this point: "Which branch of commerce is to be suppressed, the opium trade or the export trade of American or English produce?" The Chinese themselves took exactly the same view of the case. Montgomery Martin narrates: "I inquired of the Taoutai at Shanghai which would be the best means of increasing our commerce with China, and his first answer to me, in the presence of Capt. Balfour, Her Majesty's Consul, was: 'Cease to send us so much opium, and we will be able to take your manufactures.'"

The history of general commerce during the last eight years has, in a new and striking manner, illustrated these positions; but, before analysing the deleterious effects on legitimate commerce of the opium trade, we propose giving a short review of the rise and progress of that stupendous traffic which, whether we regard the tragical collisions forming, so to say, the axis round which it turns, or the effects produced by it on the general relations of the Eastern and Western worlds, stands solitary on record in the annals of mankind. Previous to 1767 the quantity of opium exported from India did not exceed 200 chests, the chest weighing about 133lbs. Opium was legally admitted in China on the payment of a duty of about $3 per chest, as a medicine; the Portuguese, who brought it from Turkey, being its almost exclusive importers into the Celestial Empire. In I773, Colonel Watson and Vice-President Wheeler — persons deserving to take a place among the Hermentiers, Palmers and other poisoners of world-wide fame — suggested to the East India Company the idea of entering upon the opium traffic with China. Consequently, there was established a depot for opium in vessels anchored in a bay to the southwest of Macao. The speculation proved a failure. In 1781 the Bengal Government sent an armed vessel, laden with opium, to China; and, in I794, the Company stationed a large opium vessel at Whampoa, the anchorage for the port of Canton. It seems that Whampoa proved a more convenient depot than Macao, because, only two years after its selection, the Chinese Government found it necessary to pass a law which threatened Chinese smugglers of opium to be beaten with a bamboo and exposed in the streets with wooden collars around their necks. About 1798, the East India Company ceased to be direct exporters of opium, but they became its producers. The opium monopoly was established in India; while the Company's own ships were hypocritically forbidden from trafficking in the drug, the licences it granted for private ships trading to China containing a provision which attached a penalty to them if freighted with opium of other than the Company's own make. In 1800, the import into China had reached the number of 2,000 chests. Having, during the eighteenth century, borne the aspect common to all feuds between the foreign merchant and the national custom-house, the struggle between the East India Company and the Celestial Empire assumed, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, features quite distinct and exceptional; while the Chinese Emperor, in order to check the suicide of his people, prohibited at once the import of the poison by the foreigner, and its consumption by the natives, the East India Company was rapidly converting the cultivation of opium in India, and its contraband sale to China, into internal parts of its own financial system.

While the semi-barbarian stood on the principle of morality, the civilized opposed to him the principle of self. That a giant empire, containing almost one-third of the human race, vegetating in the teeth of time, insulated by the forced exclusion of general intercourse, and thus contriving to dupe itself with delusions of Celestial perfection-that such an empire should at last be overtaken by fate on [the] occasion of a deadly duel, in which the representative of the antiquated world appears prompted by ethical motives, while the representative of overwhelming modern society fights for the privilege of buying in the cheapest and selling in the dearest markets-this, indeed, is a sort of tragical couplet stranger than any poet would ever have dared to fancy.