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At the turn of the nineteenth century the Qing Empire was the most populous nation on earth and reckoned to be the world’s second largest economy, and yet it remained completely closed to the outside world. Spare in thirteen buildings along the Pearl River just outside of Canton, no trade was allowed to take place. The British East India Company ran entirely on the profits from tea—only grown in China—and yet no European had ever even seen the tea fields. A constant outpouring of silver to the Qing Empire was quietly reversed when the East India Company discovered the one good they had that the Chinese would buy: opium.

From 1839 to 1842 Great Britain waged a war with the mighty Qing over what has been called ‘The Toxic Exchange’: silver for tea and opium for silver. A textbook case of ‘gunboat diplomacy’, the events of the First Opium War show both the technological and naval might of the British Empire at its peak, but also the economic fragility of that same empire as it propped up the East India Company long beyond its necessity and while it relied so heavily on the profit from contraband. A hypocritical war for free trade while protecting the company’s own monopolies.

Our story begins in the Thirteen Factories along the Pearl River with a group of independent traders led by Jardine & Matheson, and concludes with the birth of Hong Kong: a desolate rock which became the world’s seventh largest trading entity.

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Selected Bibliography

China: A History, John Keay

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making, Julia Lovell (The best all around narrative of the war that I have read.)

Opium War, 1840-1842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the Early Part of the Nineteenth Century and the War by Which They Forced Her Gates, Peter Ward Fay

The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914, Robert Bickers

The Honourable Company: A History of the East India Company, John Keay

The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational, Nick Robins (Where I got most of the trade numbers. Good for economic history boffins.)

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Jung Chang

Heaven’s Command, Pax Britannica and Farewell the Trumpets, Jan Morris

While a work of fiction, James Clavell’s Tai-Pan is also a great book on the Opium War which begins around the time this episode ends, just before hostilities are renewed. Dirk Struin takes the place of William Jardine as a more exciting protagonist, and the Noble House stands in for Jardine & Matheson, while Tyler Brock plays the part of Lancelot Dent.