By ALBERT H. YEE
MISSOULA, Mont. (Jan. 24, 2012) — The New York Times’ list of 2011’s 10 best books includes Amanda Foreman’s “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War.” That book and praise by many other newspapers as well as by distinguished historians, such as James M. McPherson of Princeton, Gary W. Gallagher of the University of Virginia and Jay Parini of Middlebury College, expose a peculiar myopia. “A World on Fire” is like a book on Adolf Hitler that fails to cover the Holocaust.
For while Foreman discussed at length how Lord Palmerston, Britain’s Prime Minister, dealt with America’s Civil War, identified Britain’s envoy to the U.S. in 1865, Sir Frederick Bruce, simply as “the former minister to China,” and covered many other principals, she completely omitted their nation’s historic Opium Wars and their tragic effects. It’s obvious that Britain’s aggression in China concerned Palmerston and his supporters and opponents far more than America’s Civil War. Foreman may argue that Britain’s policies and activities regarding China had no bearing on the Civil War. Yet, her book of 958 pages included abundant minutiae and repetitive narrative on minor individuals and groups. Amplification of lead actors, surely Palmerston and Bruce, would have added rich substance. Foreman contradicted her book title – “World” indeed.
Palmerston’s aggression to subdue China in the First (1840-’42) and Second (1858-’60)
Opium Wars forced China to cease its opposition to open trade, particularly the sale of opium. Besides opening the floodgates to opium and foreign goods, victory in the Second Opium War allowed Britain and other powers to control China as a vassal state well into the 20th century. As China became chaotic, millions upon millions of Chinese became drug addicts and many died. Profiting Britain enormously, the Opium Wars and their aftermath deserve to be ranked with the greatest international crimes. This ugly side of Palmerston and imperialism, which Foreman and her reviewers must be aware of, should be widely known.
Palmerston did not go unopposed. William E. Gladstone, who Foreman mentioned often as a strong supporter of the Confederacy, attacked Palmerston’s China policy. Speaking in Commons for two hours in 1857, Gladstone said: “Your greatest and most valuable trade in China is . . . in opium. It is a smuggling trade . . . it is the worst, the most pernicious, demoralizing and destructive of all the contraband trades that are carried upon the surface of the globe.” Gladstone knew the dangers of opium, as his sister had became a hopeless addict. Tory leader in the House of Lords and PM in 1866, Earl Derby, who Foreman also discussed regarding the U.S. Civil War, brought an 1857 motion of no-confidence against Palmerston’s China actions, calling them a bald-faced, illegal land grab. Three years later after extraterritoriality was won in 1860, foreigners did not have to smuggle opium into China as before, as they could do all that they wanted in China.
Foreman failed to note that Sir Frederick Bruce played a role in the Second Opium War. He led Britain’s invasion to subdue China in 1858 that the Chinese defeated at the Dagu Forts. His brother, Lord Elgin, who commanded the larger British and French force finally defeated China’s resistance in 1860. In retaliation for war crimes, Lord Elgin demolished the exquisite Summer Palace with 200 grand buildings that Jesuit missionaries had built for Emperor Qianlong. As China’s surrogate master, Sir Frederick’s service in Peking (1860-64) was hardly that of a typical ambassador.
Many American opium traders profited in China, first in Canton before the Opium Wars and afterwards in Hong Kong. A number of East Coast fortunes originated from that history. One American drug baron was Warren Delano II, the maternal grandfather of one of America’s greatest presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After losing his first fortune to an economic depression and poor investments, Warren Delano II returned to China in 1860 and became wealthy again in seven years from opium and tea. A phony excuse given for the Americans’ opium trade was that they provided the anesthesia surgeons and patients needed during the Civil War.
This column was first published by the Missoulian.
Dr. Albert H. Yee of Missoula is a retired psychology and education professor, and author of “A People Misruled” and “Raising and Teaching Children for Their Tomorrows.” His website is www.alberthyee.tateauthor.com.