Foreign Mud

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First published in 1946, Foreign Mud is a marvelous historical reconstruction of the events surrounding the illegal trade of opium in Canton during the 1830s and the ensuing Opium Wars between Britain and China. Based largely on voluminous documents written by British doctors, missionaries, merchants, and government officials, Collis's tale -- far from being a dry assemblage of dates and facts -- is a fascinating look at British imperialism. Shifting back and forth between the fiery debates in London and the confrontations on the China coast, his story recounts, in all its complexities, a moment in time when China is forced after more than two thousand years of self-contained sufficiency to open its doors to the culture, commerce, and evangelization of the West -- the casus belli: the foreign mud, or opium, the British grew and shipped from India. Interspersed with various maps, plans, and illustrations, Foreign Mud is a historical narrative readers will find provocatively entertaining.

Maurice Collis (1889-1973) was born in Ireland and spent many years in Burma as an Indian Civil Servant. After being demoted for being pro-Burmese, he subsequently became a very successful writer and critic in London.

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Editorial Reviews

Daily Telegraph
Collis's books give nothing but pleasure to those who enjoy elegant writing.
Times Literary Supplement
[T]ells in the most human terms a story that has been greatly distorted by less accomplished writers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780811215060
  • Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 6/1/2002
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The vision of Cathay danced before the eyes of the early navigators. To furnish the enchantment they had Marco Polo and a thousand rumours. And since to get to China by the way he went was impossible, because the Silk Road was no longer a safe caravan route, but swept by the wars of Central Asian kings, a sea passage had to be found. The Portuguese were the first to discover it. In 1557, fifty-nine years after their great navigator, Vasco da Gama, had reached India, they obtained leave from the Ming to settle on an island, or more precisely, on a hilly isthmus three miles long which jutted from the south coast of a deltaic island, divided only by narrow creeks from the mainland south of Canton. The town they built there came to be called Macao. Though they were not allowed to go beyond the confines of the isthmus, they enjoyed the monopoly of the sale in Europe of those commodities which the Chinese let them buy.

    The next to come into those seas were the Spanish, who soon after took the Philippines, inhabited by savages, and trading from Mexico via Manila used Macao as a terminal port, especially after 1580 when Portugal became part of Spain.

    There followed the Dutch. In 1619 they seized from its rajah Jacatra in Java, renaming it Batavia. Well situated there to make contact with China, they sent envoys to Peking in 1655 asking for a port and for free trade. But suspected of being pirates, they were granted nothing by the Chinese, now ruled by the Ch'ing, a Manchu dynasty that had established itself in 1644. Still hoping, they sent a second and a thirdembassy with a like result, the Emperor taking pains to make clear to them that China was a closed country, that he regarded them as barbarians from beyond the outer confines, but was glad to receive their tributory presents, for, as Lord of the World and the Dispenser of Light, it was proper that they had come to admire and worship him. The Dutch deplored this view of their efforts to open trade relations, but utterly failed to modify it.

    The third European nation to appear in the China Seas was the British. Their eastern headquarters was India, where at Surat and Madras they had holdings on shore. In 1626 Captain Weddell put into Macao on a venture backed by Charles I, but he was taken for a pirate and turned away. During the seventeenth century the British were so occupied in developing the Indian trade that their attempts to obtain a footing further east were not supported with sufficient force. The Dutch drove them from the Islands after a horrible massacre at Amboyna in 1623 and the Siamese from Siam in 1684 when Phaulkon rose to power in that kingdom.

    By the turn of the eighteenth century, however, the Portuguese Empire had fallen into decrepitude, having lost the key Points of Ceylon and Malacca to the Dutch. The Dutch in their turn got the worst of their brush in home waters with the British, and though firmly set in the great Islands, which they were developing as colonial possessions in the same way as the British were developing India, could not dispute the passage of the British towards China. This conjuncture in European affairs coincided with a modification of Chinese policy towards barbarians. The Emperor K'ang Hsi (1669-1722) had made his dynasty one of the most powerful that had ever ruled China. He had, through curiosity and taste for novel ideas, allowed Jesuits to live in his employ at the capital and had acquired a smattering of the history, sciences, and geography of Europe. At first inclined to be enthusiastic, his final view, after discovering that the Jesuits harboured secret plans for undermining the Confucian system, was that Europeans were dangerous people who, though possessed of certain material secrets of value, were essentially barbarians since by guile they would use their mechanical cleverness to overthrow others and, being without virtue, were not, as all states in the world should be, convinced that Chinese civilization was the only one. But in spite of his disillusion he felt strong enough to make some money out of them and decided in 1685, to open under precautions, his ports to European merchants in general, the dues they would have to pay being his perquisite; but this favour he soon afterwards reduced to permission to trade only at Canton.

    Britain was on the rising tide of her fortunes and was able to take better advantage of this opening than were the Dutch, nor had she reason to apprehend serious rivalry from the French or the Americans. By 1715 the East India Company, which for over a hundred years has been entrusted by the government with the monopoly of all British overseas trade with Asia, had firmly established itself at Canton as the principal European agency trading with China.

    The terms on which the British and the other Europeans were allowed to conduct their business were governed by the Eight Regulations, which had been drawn up with two objects in view, the first to screw as much money as possible out of the Barbarians and the second to keep them in such subjection that the danger of allowing them to come to China would be reduced to a minimum.

    As frequent reference will be made to these Regulations in the course of the narrative, for they amounted to intolerable restrictions as time went on, I shall give here their substance: (1) no vessels of war to enter the Pearl River on which Canton stood; (2) no arms to be brought by Europeans to the factories (warehouses) in the Canton suburb, where the merchants were allowed to carry on business, provided they only stayed during the winter shipping season (September to March) and did not bring their wives and families with them; (3) all the pilots, boatmen and agents working for the foreigners must be licensed; (4) not more than a fixed number of servants might be engaged by them; (5) sedan chairs and boating for pleasure were forbidden them as were excursions into the city or its neighbourhood, though three times a month a visit might be made to the public gardens on Honan Island, in the river opposite the city, provided that the visitors, who were to be conducted, did not go in droves of more than ten, got home before dark and did not get drunk or mix with the public; (6) all business to be carried on through a body of monopolist contractors known as the Hong merchants, who would also receive all complaints or petitions addressed to the local government authorities; (7) no smuggling and no credit allowed; (8) the ships coming to trade must anchor at Whampoa, thirteen miles below the city, where the loading and unloading was to be done.

    It was calculated that these regulations would render the Barbarians harmless and expose them to the maximum of exactions without possibility of redress. They were not made subject to Chinese law except should any be guilty of the homicide of a Chinese when the culprit had to be given up. Misbehaviour and disobedience were punished by stopping the trade for a time or threatening to do so.

    During the course of the eighteenth century the trade greatly increased in volume in spite of these restrictions. The merchants of the East India Company, ruled by their President and Select Committee on the spot and by the Directors in London, far outdistanced their European rivals until it could be said that the China trade was the exchange of commodities between Britain and China.

    The greater the volume of the trade, the wealthier the British became, and the stronger their position in their growing empire of India, so much the more tiresome, insulting and stultifying seemed the Regulations. During the last decade of the eighteenth century it was felt the time had come to try and convince the central government at Peking that it would be greatly to the advantage of all parties if the relations between Britain and China, both mercantile and political, were brought into line with the realities of the world. The Macartney embassy was sent to Peking in 1795, but was treated in exactly the same way as had been the Dutch embassies of the previous century, being granted nothing and obliged to take part in the ancient Confucian masquerade in which the Son of Heaven as Lord of the World received tribute from Outer Barbarians come from the darkness to worship the light. With such lavishness and marvellous taste was the masque produced that there was no sting in it, but it was not business, there was no profit, no money, no good in it.

    There followed in Europe the Napoleonic wars. From them England emerged the most powerful nation in the world. To the victors of Trafalgar and Waterloo it seemed impossible that the Chinese would refuse the friendly offer of a treaty regulating the trade between the two countries, impossible that, were a fresh embassy sent, they would again stage the classic masque and go through the ritual prescribed for the reception of tribute-bearing envoys. Accordingly in 1816 the Amherst Embassy was despatched. But the Chinese enacted the comedy again. We may suppose that they were to some extent the dupes of their own mummery and believed the pageant of the Son of Heaven to represent the truth, but they were also kept rigid in their determination to refuse all concessions by their conviction that the British were a dangerous subversive force and if allowed freely into China would overthrow the Dynasty, as they had brought down Emperor and Prince in India. Lord Amherst returned with hands as empty as all his predecessors, but more irritated than they; and the merchants at Canton, to ameliorate whose condition he had been sent, continued to ply their trade under the same antiquated regulations to which they had submitted for a century.

    But it was now within the power of England to force China to make a modern commercial treaty. Before using force a casus belli has to be found. The bland insolence of the Court of Heaven could hardly be said to provide it. The theme of this book is to show how it was provided. An indication of its nature can be given in this way: while up to the time of the Macartney Embassy British trade with China had been the exchange of various English goods for tea and silk, an adverse balance against Britain being liquidated by silver payments, from 1800 onwards a new article had increasingly been offered for sale so as to obviate these cash transfers. This commodity was opium. The East India Company, though the owners of the opium in the first instance, sold it to China through an outside organization. As its import was forbidden, it had to be smuggled in. The Company received the wholesale value of the opium and the funds so credited balanced, and more than balanced, the value of their exports, thereby setting the China trade on a sound financial basis.

    But an illegal drug traffic would not have had to be called into existence had the Chinese freely opened their ports and the interior to Europeans, for then the spread of new ideas would have resulted in a greatly increased demand for western goods. Since the Chinese were afraid to do this, and did not do it, the other system had to be devised. Nevertheless, explainable though its origin was, the drug traffic, especially when it had swelled till its value equalled that of the legitimate imports, was itself a blatant disreputability, of which the Company was ashamed, wryly declaring it a pis aller about which the less said the better. It was this very drug traffic, inextricably bound up as it was with finance and British business firms, which provided the casus belli.

    To understand how this came about we shall examine from every angle what happened at Canton between 1832 and 1842. Just as in a court of law the merits of a complicated civil action cannot be determined without hearing a great deal of evidence, so an historical imbroglio of the kind before us cannot be sifted unless it is set out in the fullest detail. But the reader will not find this sifting to be tedious, so curious, droll and revealing is the story. When all has been said, there will be found little malice, little cause for moralizing, but a great deal of humanity.

Excerpted from FOREIGN MUD by Maurice Collis. Copyright © 1946 by Maurice Collis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

I. Introductory 11
II. Mise-En-Scene 19
(i) Macao
(ii) First sight of the drug traffic
(iii) The Bogue
(iv) The River People
(v) The Factories
(vi) The official system of trading to China
(vii) The unofficial system of trading to China
(viii) The drug traffic in operation
(ix) The Dragon memorializes Heaven
III. The Misadventures of a Barbarian Eye 105
(i) Review of prospects in 1833
(ii) The head authorities at Canton
(iii) The appointment of Lord Napier
(iv) The palaver at the gate
(v) Laboriously Vile
(vi) Napier is ordered to go
(vii) Napier becomes heated
(viii) The victory of the chairs
(ix) The Viceroy acts
(x) The battle of the Bogue
(xi) The frigates are trapped
(xii) Napier's discomfiture and death
(xiii) What the Dragon said
(xiv) Conclusions from the misadventures
IV. Foreign Mud 185
(i) British opinion of the Chinese armed forces
(ii) The affair of the strangling
(iii) Captain Elliot's dilemmas
(iv) Lin demands the surrender of all opium
(v) Lin increases the pressure
(vi) Captain Elliot to the rescue
(vii) Lin succeeds in frightening Elliot
(viii) Elliot surrenders the opium
(ix) Lin destroys the opium
(x) Lin admonishes Queen Victoria
V. Sliding Into War 239
(i) Lin's descent upon Macao
(ii) The fight with the junks
(iii) The battle of Chuenpee
(iv) The Commons debate
VI. War 287
(i) A smuggler's sea fight
(ii) Lin is dismissed and succeeded by Kishen
(iii) Elliot and Kishen are dismissed
(iv) Sequel
Authorities 311
Index 313
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