By Mark Simner
Published by Fonthill Media
One of the many delights in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, is an alabaster bas-relief sculpture of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment in action in China in 1840: it is a wonderful piece of work.
Alongside it is something equally fascinating. The Cathedral authorities have chosen to place beside it a little notice that draws attention to the skill of the sculptor, but, in an outburst of revisionist cant, then explains that imperialism and militarism – especially in defence of the drug trade – were among the unforgivable crimes of the past.
There can be little doubt that the export of opium from India to China by, among others, the Honourable East India Company is hard to condone. Indeed, Mark Simner makes the point that the trade was always kept quiet in Britain and, to a lesser extent, China.
In 1839, the Reverend Algernon Thelwell produced an exposé called The Iniquities of the Opium Trade with China , and we know that at least one officer, the ill-starred General Sir Redvers Buller VC, refused to wear his campaign medal in protest.
Refreshingly, however, there is no overtone of moral disapproval from this author. He has refused to be led by the many voices which, I suspect, will have suggested to him that this volume needed to condemn the sins of our forefathers if it is to sell.
Instead, Simner uses his first, lengthy chapter to explain the background: how the drug was discovered, and how seductive, addictive, and profitable it proved to be.
I was especially impressed to be told, for instance, that the British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, had to swallow a loss of revenue from £200,000 in 1796 to £30,000 the following year due to loss of confidence in the Honourable East India Company’s product. With campaigns against Mysore and the Mahrattas in India, encroachment by enemies there, Irish ferment, and a risk of invasion due to the French Revolution, this was especially unwelcome.
Fascinatingly, and with huge resonance for today, the author tells us that Indian dealers, mainly from Malwa, were adulterating the pure poppy opium with other substances (I believe the modern term is ‘cutting’), and that this soon became evident to consumers. All goods from India were then seen as suspect, and it took some time for confi dence to be re-established in the market.
That said, the book’s opening is important but rather dull. True, it is necessary to explain the background to the campaigns, and it is hard to see how it could have been made more lively.
Unforgivably, though, the editor has allowed the wrong date to be given for the Battle of Plassey. While this is by no means vital to the rest of the volume, it immediately causes the reader to question other research.
The pace picks up, however, when Simner starts his account of the actual fighting, which began in earnest in 1839, came to an unsatisfactory lull in 1841, and then erupted in a second bout of major blood-letting in 1859.
The author’s accounts of the mainly amphibious operations by predominantly Queen’s regiments – but with a fair leavening of sepoys – are very well portrayed. Royal Navy and Honourable East India Company warships and small boats were crucial to operations against a miscellany of armed junks, Chinese regulars, and local militia, and Simner skilfully weaves quotes and his interpretation of events together to give a real feel for the nature of the fighting.
Troops and sailors armed with modern artillery and small arms met Chinese forces who were oft en almost medieval in their tactics and weapons. As a result, almost every action was a British victory. This quote, in relation to the fighting off Tinghai in 1840, sums up the unequal nature of the combat:
A few shot, not exceeding eight or nine, were fired from our battery, which tended to silence their [the Chinese] firing… Whilst I was visiting [the British battery], several shot were fired without any effect other than proving that the Chinese were utterly ignorant of gunnery.
The affair of the Arrow , a British opium transport ship, is well explained, as is the sporadic fighting against armed Chinese junks.
The author makes the point that this fighting at sea resembled counter-pirate operations – but with the ironic twist that the purpose was to allow the drug trade to flourish.
For my money, though, the best, most-fluently written part of the book concerns the third attack on the Taku Forts in August 1860, perhaps the best known but least well understood assault in this theatre.
Maybe the contradiction of an alliance between Britain and France in the Opium Wars – at a time when these two powers were once more at each other’s throats in Europe – could have been explored in more detail. But the account of the various military actions is superbly handled, and there are some outstandingly helpful appendices, which explain the details of the various treaties.
The modern parallels to the events and cultural clashes in China in the mid-19th century are clear if you read this long overdue book. Famous names – Gough, Cochrane, Napier – crowd these pages, and there are good maps and some excellent illustrations, not least among them those of the Chinese commanders.
Though the writing is sometimes dense, with occasional grammatical errors, Mark Simner has done the military-history community a real service with this well-presented, objective oeuvre.
Review by Patrick Mercer
This article appeared in the November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about receiving the latest cutting-edge military history research and analysis delivered to your door, click here.