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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 28 New Delhi July 4, 2015

Sun Sets on the British Empire

Monday 6 July 2015, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

When we were young, our school-books said: “The sun never sets on the British Empire”—that meant whichever way you turned the globe, a piece of British Empire could be seen on the map. This week, in an extravaganza resembling a Hollywood premiere, the exit of the British Empire from the last piece of territory outside Britain was shown on the sovereignty of Hong Kong having been resumed to the People’s Republic of China as the Prince of Wales with his faithful Governor, Chris Patten, had to sail out of the picturesque harbour that dotted the southern coastline of China.

For the present generation of our country, Hong Kong is known as a prosperous spot where one would go in search of a job or make a fortune. And our VIP’s and super-VIPs used the stop-over for shopping luxury goods. But Hong Kong has a history that connects it with our country. About the same time the East India Company sneaked into our country and began to meddle into disputes among our principalities, the very same East India Company was trading in China. All the precious goods from China—from silk to tea that the Company was involved in—had to be paid for in silver. But the balance of trade was steadily going into China’s favour and the freebooting merchants of the John Company were every year finding it more difficult to get adequate supply of silver to pay for the goods that they were buying in China. The bosses of the Company had to think of a new means by which to meet their foreign trade demand. The Company decided to grow opium on a systematic scale and then sell it or infiltrate it into China. The idea was that once opium was inducted into the country, the people would be addicted to it and thereby its demand would keep growing and this would make a captive market and fetch them the money they needed to buy the local wares.

And so, here comes India in the Company’s dirty map. Here is a passage from a European, an Anglo-Saxon to be precise, who wrote on “The Middle Kingdom” as early as 1848:

In all the territories belonging to the Company the cultivation of the poppy, the preparation of the drug, and the traffic in it until it is sold at auction for exportation are under a strict monopoly.... The cultivation of the plant is compulsory. Vast tracts of the very best land in Benares, Bihar and elsewhere in the northern and central parts of India are now covered with poppies; and the other plants used for food or clothing, grown from time immemorial have nearly been driven out.

After elaborate arrangements, the East India Company made its first large shipment of opium from India to China in 1781. The drug itself ws little known in China, but through the Company’s efforts, opium was widely spread—a real drive of a determined entrepreneur. Israel Epstein, a distinguished journalist, wrote in a book, From Opium War to Liberation:

Soon China’s exports of tea, silk and other goods were not enough to pay for the imported opium, and silver began to flow out of the country instead of in.

In 1800, the Company landed 2000 chests of opium in China. Each chest had 140 to 160 lbs. By 1838, the East India Company and its associates pushed in as many as 40 thousand chests of opium into China. It may be worth noting that the Americans also joined the dirty game as they brought in Turkish opium to supplement the East India Company’s Indian opium. Epstein notes:

Several mercantile fortunes which later found the basis of US industrial development were made in this way.

The Chinese authorities were getting alarmed at this systematic injection of the drug menace. In 1800, the Chinese Emperor, Chia Ching, was alarmed at the pernicious effect of opium on the health of the people and the economy. But it was a Himalayan task. Many common people had formed the habit of taking opium, while many traders and officials had been corrupted by the profits for the partnership with the East India Company’s dirty trade. Clashes took place and fierce encounters ensued between the opium-importing European merchants and the local people. It was during that period that Britain’s terror operation—the gunboat diplomacy—was first known. The first Opium War exposed the danger. But the East India Company was not going to give up its prize. Between 1839 and 1942, it landed British troops along the coast, and occupied Canton, Shanghai, Amoy and Ningpo and found its way inland, trying to cut off South China from the north. To cut the story short, the freebooting invaders from the West forced the Treaty of Nanking on China in 1842-43. By this treaty, all traffickers of opium were guaranteed safety: five major Chinese ports were opened to British trade and settlement. The British nationals were exempted from the Chinese law. The Chinese undertaking was given not to charge more than five per cent import duty on all foreign goods—an act which ruined China’s domestic industry.

It was at this humiliating Treaty of Nanking that the British were given Hong Kong which for decades to come became the base for military, political and economic penetration into China. If in the last fifty years this role could not be played by Britain, that was mainly because of the strength generated by the Chinese state with the collapse of the Chiang Kaishek regime and the emergence of Mao’s China.

Today Hong Kong coming back to the People’s Republic of China is indeed a historic occasion. It was the last outpost of imperial order which had been based on fraud and deceit, backed by guns. Here lies the real ancestry of Hong Kong and the historic significance of its liberation from the British raj and return to People’s China.

Taking a historic view of the event, one can certainly connect it with our struggle for freedom. In its heydays, the real seat of British Empire lay in its political Department in Delhi which wielded its authority from Mesopotamia (now Iraq) at one end to Hong Kong and Shanghai at the other and to Tashkent and Kashgar in the North. This huge imperial domain got its first shock when it had to quit the Indian subcontinent itself. Let us not forget that at that time, it was the most formidable imperial power. The raising of the Tricolour on the rampart of the Red Fort on August 15, 1947, was the first definite blow on this imperial structure. With this transfer of power in 1947 came the first salvo for decolonisation on a world scale. And this week, at the midnight of June 30 when the British flag was lowered and Hong Kong unfurled the Red Flag of the People’s China, the last blow for decolonisation has been registered as the Britannia sailed out to the open sea bereft of the best port it had on the Asian coastline.

Amidst all the murky happenings, the petty squabbles and pilferage all around us, let us not forget the significance of the times we are living in. Here is History being remoulded in our times, a shift into a new spoch in Time.

(Mainstream, July 5, 1997)