Wednesday 27 June 2012

The Opium War

Julia Lovell, 2011
(June 2012)

More imperial (mis)adventure. Her Majesty’s Government as military-industrial drug pushers. Obviously this is one of the more morally suspect episodes in the history of the British Empire, and it’s not exactly short of competition in that respect.

The more I read about what I’m contractually obliged to refer to as Our Proud History, the more I’m struck by the absolute lack of a grand plan. There really was no over-arching strategy for forming a global empire, no shady conspiracy of Old Etonian illuminati; just a bunch of overweening, self-righteous white men getting away with as much as they could.

The world ‘plenipotentiary’ is fun to both spell and say, and gets a fair old run out here. Notably it was a word without meaning for the Chinese; how could you invest the celestial power of the state and emperor in anyone but the Emperor himself? European powers, in contrast, had seemingly few qualms about choosing well-connected, well-bred old-boys and giving them full authority to see just how far they could push their luck.

Which in this instance was quite a long way due to the almost comical levels of incompetence displayed by the opposing side. I say ‘almost’ because, y’know, the death and the killing and the slaughter and stuff. But it happened far away and long ago, so it’s kind of all right to laugh at it now.

Less funny is the fact that very similar lies and hyperboles are still being trotted out in the same part of the world, to very similar ends. The ‘Awe-Inspiring General’ Yijing repeatedly exaggerated, dissembled, and outright lied in dispatches to his emperor; claiming amongst other things that, ‘Whilst [the British] are still alive, I shall eat their quivering flesh and sleep on their skins.’ He was inevitably routed, and fled. I can’t help but be reminded of the North Korean claim that KimJong-Il hit 11 holes-in-one in his first ever round of golf.

Julia Lovell has a pleasingly skeptical eye towards the professed motivation of all the participants, and is perfectly willing to let this bleed through to the tone of her writing. This makes for a very readable book. Often when I’m reading popular history the main enjoyment comes from engaging with the ideas and learning new things, but this was genuinely pleasurable to read as well. Nice to be able to say that without reservations.


  1. How do you read all these books? I can barely read a book in a week, and thats only a 300 page book.

    1. Well, these posts don't go up in 'real time', as it were. The go up in order, but get shoved around a bit to fit my slightly anal Mon Weds Fri posting schedule. If two go up after each other it doesn't necessarily mean I've read the second in two days flat.

      That said, I'm probably not going that all much faster than a book a week. This is only the third one I've put up this month. If you averaged it all out I doubt it'd come to more than 5 a month. I always like to have one on the go though, so there's not much dead time between them. I'd get nervous if I had no unread books in the house.

  2. I'm hoping a book comes out about BP and it's leverage in releasing the only convicted Lockerbie bomber (along with politico's) on humanitarian grounds.......he killed 286 people...humanitarian grounds? Can you imagine being the family of a victim and watching that fuck get a heroes welcome before living a few more years as a national hero while everyone with a head on their shoulders connects the dots even though it makes them sick to even imagine it....the dots are too easy to connect but 100's of billions of dollars in potential makes bad bad shit happen.

    I feel dizzy...I'm gonna be sick.

    1. That's a bit of a tangent. Know of any good books about the British Mandate in the Levante? I'd certainly be interested, and it all stretches back to that. And yeah, the Al Megrhai (sp?) thing was sickening, on so many levels.