REVIEW> ‘Civilization: Is the West History?’

March 6, 2011

I am a historian.  And, having watched the first of Niall Ferguson’s latest promotional ‘history’ series, (which accompanies his book, The West and the Rest) I wanted to pull my hair out.

It is totally reductionist.  I feel sorry for the wider audience and the sort of pottage history that they are subjected to.  In fact, this is not history; it is propaganda.  Schoolchildren are already subjected to an introspective version of history – I certainly had no taste of world history in my formal school education before university.  And the fact that the Conservative led government could even consider the so-called ‘H-bomb’ to be an advisor for the history curriculum is an indication of where we could have been heading.

In this programme, Ferguson’s narrative covering the Anglo-Chinese relations in the 1840s was the most outrageous.  China was described as ‘monochrome’ and ‘ignorant’.  This was substantiated by the fact that the Chinese did not want any of the British manufacture, and how ornate handmade British clocks were cast away, demonstrating that the Chinese did not understand science. There is no denying that this was a period of stagnation in China, but context is crucial here.  Omitting key parts to how the Opium Wars occurred is not good enough.  It was absolutely simplistic for Ferguson to say that the Opium War began when the Chinese shot at British ships.  We have to understand why.  At the heart of it was the opium trade.


Economic crisis

An infamous comment of Hart,  the Englishman who directed China’s customs service later in the nineteenth century, explains how China had, ‘the best food in the world, rice: the best drink, tea; and the best clothing, cotton, silk, fur.’  China had the best tea in the world, whilst Britain did not initially have useful commodities for the Chinese. Textiles such as wool and British cotton was not appropriate for the Chinese.  Yet, in contrast opium was highly valued and the British soon realised this.  Importantly, the Chinese smoked opium, whilst Indians and Arabs drank it.  Hence, there was a higher predisposition for there to be an addiction crisis in Chine.

‘Country Trade’ was a triangular web of trade that developed between England, India and China from the seventeenth century.  The Government of India (East India Company) commissioned the cultivation of opium in two Bengal agencies, Patna factories and the Benares factory at Ghazipur, which was sold to the Chinese in Canton.  The silver procured by these sales of opium was used by the British to purchase tea.

Before the crisis, China made great profit from the Country trade, and foreigners were subject to heavy financial burdens.  For example, incoming vessels had to pay measurement duty, cumsha (gift), pilotage, loading duties and other fees and this could total several thousand dollars.  These payments were made to the Hoppo through the linguist.  In addition, the Hoppo could get away with charging whatever he wanted as there was no published schedule.  Also, British trade was strictly restricted to Canton.

As a result, foreign merchants found loopholes and the private merchants, led my James Matheson held their opium vessels at the island of Lintin, and other ‘outside’ anchorages such as Camsingmoon and Hong Kong.  Without the restrictions imposed by the Canton officials, this illicit trade developed enormously, multiplying itself more than five times in little over a decade.

This led to a detrimental change to the system of trade, and a deep concern to the Chinese officials was the fact that trade was becoming very expensive.  In 1821 there was an unusual problem as opium in the Canton area was fetching $2000 a chest.  In addition, there was the great loss of silver.  The balance of trade had altered between 1829 and 1840 as only $7 million of silver was imported, whilst nearly $56 million of treasure dollars, sycee and gold was sent out of the country.  From the Chinese point of view the monetary equilibrium between the de jure legal tender, the copper cash, and the de facto legal tender, the silver sycee had destabilised.  Ever since Tang times the legal ratio of exchange between gold, silver, and copper was 1:10:1000.  So one thousand copper coins would equal to one tael of silver.  Yet in the Tao-Kuang period, the market value of copper had depreciated considerably.  In 1838 and 1842, 1650 copper cash was required for one tael of silver.


As a result, many people struggled to pay their taxes with the additional problem that in the late 1830s Chinese consumers spent over a hundred million taels each year on opium.  Instead of seeking other currency reforms, they held it that the only way to alleviate the economic crisis was to stop the import of Opium.

In contrast, British manipulation of the Country trade bore much fruit and it became indispensable.  A tenth of Whitehall’s revenue came from a tax on tea, which is why the British government had a strong motive for making sure tea arrived from Canton without interruption.  An Act of Parliament required the Company to keep a year’s supply of tea always in stock.  The revenue which tea bought into the British Exchequer averaged, in the last years of the monopoly, £3,300,000 pa.  Furthermore, tea had become the raison d’etre of the Company’s commerce, as estimates of various witnesses before the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1830 stated the Company’s profit totalling between £1,000,000 and £1,500,000 a year.

So crucially, the mentality was that if the British pubic could go on drinking their millions of gallons of tea each year, twice as many Chinese opium addicts had somehow to be created.

Diplomatic disaster

But the Opium crisis was a diplomatic disaster for the British.  There was no bilateral relationship.  There were huge cultural differences and Hsin-pao Chang and Peter Lowe argue this perspective, and explain that: ‘the clash between Britain and China represented the confrontation between two wholly diverse and uncomprehending civilisations between the brash dynamism of the Industrial Revolution and the serene confidence of the Confucian superiority’.  The biggest challenge in the relationship was the fact that there were huge misconceptions and a general lack of understanding.  In Canton, foreigners were given the title of fan kow (foreign dogs) and ‘the red-haired barbarians’.  But the British misunderstood the Chinese too.  This was perpetuated by the fact that the Chinese with whom the foreigners came in contact with were not the cream of the literati; the officials who came to manage foreign affairs in Canton were bureaucrats of doubtful integrity and scruples.  The British were intrigued in Chinese oppression, and  J. S. Mill asks in On Liberty ‘what sort of human beings can be found under such a [despotic] regime?  For example, there was the exhibition of a Chinese lady with a pair of small bound feet at the Grand Salon, 94 Pall Mall, London in July 1827.  Admission: one shilling.

The misunderstanding between the Chinese and British was aggravated by the fact that the British did not want to abide by Chinese customs and the fact that the Chinese were intransigent in their expectations.  For example, bearers of tribute knelt three times before the Emperor and at each kneeling put their faces three times on the floor.  The Emperor did this before heaven & his ancestral tablets.  It was also a thing required of previous envoys from Russia, Portugal, Holland, and Chinese Catholics did this to European missionaries.  In contrast, when Lord Macartney was sent on an embassy to Peking, he was determined to be treated as the representative of an equal power and refused to perform the kowtow, unless a mandarin also kowtowed before his own sovereign George III.  But the condition was refused by the Chinese.

And there was a huge language barrier, which was exacerbated by the fact that the British officials did not abide by the conduct of communications, and the Chinese were pedantic regarding this.  Captain Elliot, refused to use the specification of the term pin.  The Chinese were insistent that this be used.  Instead he used ching-shang.  This was interpreted as ‘presented before his high place’.  This had never been used in Chinese government documents. It was used in informal correspondence among friends of equal status.  As a result, governor-general Lin was greatly infuriated.  This clearly shows how both British imperialistic thought and Chinese intransigence got in the way of any diplomatic treaties.

Historic issues

Underpinning the Opium Wars was the Lady Hughes affair.  In November 1784, dinner guests aboard this ship were honoured as they left Whampoa.  A British gunner failed to notice and the blast killed a Chinese man and mortally wounded another.  The Chinese authorities demanded the person of the gunner.  This was refused.  So all English trade was stopped, and the Lady Hughes’s cargo was seized and held as hostage.  As a result, the Factory at Canon gave the man up.  It was felt that the most he could be charged was accidental homicide.  But one day it was learnt that he had been quietly strangled. Subsequently, it became a definite policy of the English not to turn men accused of homicide over to the Chinese for trial. This became an issue of contention, and the refusal of the British to hand over offenders meant that the disputes became issues of exterritoriality.  For example, in the last stages before the Opium War broke out, Elliot refused to hand over the murderer of Lin wei-hsi, who had been beaten to death by a wooden club on the head and chest.  Instead,   Elliot advanced fifteen hundred dollars to the family of the victim and a trial of six suspects on August 12 aboard the Fort William.

Events like these led to the most monumental event, indicating the harshness of General Lin’s implementation of the Law.  On March 24th, the  hoppo was ordered to stop all trade.  All the Chinese compradors and servants, whom he accused of transmitting messages for the foreigners, were instructed to withdraw from the factories; and finally he reinforced the guards and set up a blockade around the community.  Thus some 350 foreigners were confined in the 80,000 square yard hong area along the river for 47 days.  The order to leave was received by the Chinese servants, cooks, coolies and compradors at about 8pm. Within a short time an estimated eight hundred Chinese carrying their beds, trunks, and boxes left the hongs ‘as if they were running from the plague’.  By half past eight, there was not a single Chinese left.  Every night the factories were guarded by five hundred men, servants and collies drawn from several hongs and armed with pikes, spears and long heavy staves.  To Lin, the detention of the foreign merchants at Canton was the enforcement of Chinese law, the rightful punishment of a group of degraded opium smugglers and a fitting conclusion to the shameful period of the opium trade.  But to Elliot, the Chinese government had committed a serious piratical act against British life, liberty, and property and against the dignity of the British crown.  This was despite Palmerston’s insistence that Elliot maintained his dignity as representative of the crown and insisted in British subjects obeying Chinese laws.  On the 27th Elliot notified the commissioner that the opium would be delivered, and pledged to deliver 20,283 chests of British owned opium.  But there was delay in the delivery of Opium.

Pressure was applied to the British government by Elliot and the merchantmen.  The Opium crisis reflected that there was a clash of civilisations.  The conflicting personalities encapsulate this, involving point-scoring, power politics and issues of exterritoriality, and indeed created a highly pressurised situation.  This is why Palmerston finally agreed to send the 16 men of war, 4-armed steamers, 27 transports carrying 4000 Scottish, Irish and Indian troops to Canton.  The superior technology was no match for the Chinese defence.  Gladstone commented that this was, ‘A war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of.’


The biggest clue regarding what to expect from this programme is the spelling of the word ‘Civilization’…it has a ‘z’ in it.  This is what it is, an American perspective and a triumphant one at that.  Ferguson’s interpretation is patronising and rewinds historical revisionism backwards.  This programme is a joke, and I think that this historian is undoubtedly stuck in history.


10 Responses to “REVIEW> ‘Civilization: Is the West History?’”

  1. What an absolutly brilliant review! I am at work now but I will come back later and make a more measured comment.

  2. Thanks again for posting some very interesting points. I didn’t realise that close link between tea drinking in Britain and opium consumption in China. It does cast a new light on history doesn’t it.

    I think I know what Niall Ferguson would say. He would point out that we need to explain how the British came to be in a powerful enough position to threaten China with force in the first place.

  3. Halima said

    Wow a long post… Is it from an essay? I have very little knowledge about the opium war so reading the stats on amount and nationality of solider deployed suprises me i know it shouldn’t… You didn’t mention english soliders which suggest there weren’t any? if so then another example of the exploitative and money motivated nature of england… ready to murder others for their own gain… england history is there any part of it that doesn’t have bloodshed and immoral exploitation?

  4. henry said

    Great piece of crit…

    Ferguson is rapidly becoming the Charlie Sheen of academia… “Fear my Apps of Fire!”

    Bit of a twit really.

  5. drivel said

    To be fair, in the ‘Ascent of Money’ TV series, Ferguson accuses the British of being an immoral narco-state pushing opium on the Chinese and sending in the gunboats when the Chinese tried to stop the trade. For me, he’s generally open about the dodgy practices that got the empire started e.g. piracy, and those that kept it going!

  6. W Tang said

    It is quite clear Niall Ferguson’s interpretation of the antecedences of China and its upcoming stature in the world is a politically motivated propaganda. His prejudiced approach gives me the feeling of a cry baby that lost the dummy or the lollypop.

    There will be much more propaganda in the western media – this kind of China-bashing, it has been the US political trend for some years now.

    Would the world not be a better place when the power is more balanced? China is still a developing country even though it is rising quickly from poverty. The West is still very rich and developed, and therefore, naturally growth cannot be expected as in other developing countries.

    The West should welcome and embraced the emerging balance of development and wealth shared around the world – as the West enjoyed wealth for the last 500 years. This wealth was gained through aggression and war via colonisation of land and culture and governance.

    I end with, that I hope any emerging power should learn from the mistakes of predecessors. Peace to all.

  7. Scott Ford said

    Last night I watched the final episode of this series, and I feel like I wasted 6 or 7 hours of my time. Apparently, becoming religious is the answer to everything – even though Ferguson said in an earlier episode that religion was the thing that held back civilisations. Just a recommendation that we all become members of American style mega-churches & get a Protestant work ethic. What a pathetic way to end what could have been a quality series.

  8. DKZZZZ said

    Pro-American propaganda with a Fox-News quality ‘intellectual’ discourse. The true sign that the Western Civilisation is in decline is the fact that Ferguson is teaching at Harvard.

  9. Hershel said

    I just watched the first episode of ‘Civilization’ and read your blog post critiquing it, pointing to Ferguson’s neglect of discussing the Opium Wars. I found it strange that your post deals with the Opium Wars, something which took place centuries after the subject of Ferguson’s analysis (how Europe was able to overtake China in the 16th century on account of China’s tendency away from commercial competition and lack of apetite for foreign trade).

    I’m aware of Ferguson’s tendency towards triumphalism with respect to the British Empire, but I don’t detect much of it here; in fact he seems quite balanced in pointing out that by any measure, China had the most sophisticated civilisation in the world at the height of its power, but due to certain traits, it lost that particular supremacy. The Opium Wars took place a few centuries after this shift in global supremacy, so I fail to see how they are relevant here.

  10. Malcolm Watts said

    I watched the last episode last night on NZ TV and was shocked to hear that Thomas Edison was “the king of A.C.”. This is a gross historical error; the real proponent of A.C. power was Nikola Tesla whereas in fact Edison eschewed alternating current in favour of his flawed D.C. scheme, so much so that he built the first electric chair in history to demonstrate “how dangerous it was”, also becoming the first to carry out an unsuccessful execution in his invention. After hearing that I suddenly found myself wondering what other inaccuracies were present in the series.

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