While discussing the moral problem of the opium trade between Britain and China in the 1840s, it is important to refer to Samuel Warren’s pamphlet, The Opium Question, that was written in 1840. Warren was a famous writer of his period, and The Opium Question became a result of Warren’s cooperation with James Matheson, who was interested in presenting his vision of the Opium War, as well as William Jardine’s views. Therefore, while speaking about the morality of the opium issue, it is important to focus on the following question that requires its further discussion: Why did Warren, analyzing the morality of the opium trade, tend to describe opium merchants as not accountable for their activities?
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The answer is that Warren preferred to criticize both the British and Chinese governments for developing the war and promoting immorality, but in fact, the author presented the situation from Jardine’s viewpoint to support his position in society. Therefore, the critique of the governments was more effective than the discussion of merchants’ role in this situation. Thus, the moral problem of the opium trade, reflected in the courses selected by the British and Chinese governments, was explained from the political perspective rather than ethical.
In his pamphlet, Warren introduced the question of the morality of the opium trade along with the question of merchants’ guilt. Thus, he stated in his work: “The vilest and most sordid motives are attributed to the opium merchants, who are represented as, for their own miserable gain, corrupting the morals and destroying the lives of the Chinese.” However, the author accentuated that the critique should be shifted to the activities of the emperors rather than to merchants.
According to Su, Warren promoted the idea that merchants could not be discussed as “accountable for the moral rights and wrongs of dealing the drug when the British government explicitly condoned the Company’s activities.” The author paid more attention to the ineffective actions of Great Britain, and opium merchants were presented as victims of the situation in which they followed the rules adopted by Britain and China in the Opium War.
The tone and style of The Opium Question were similar to other works and articles that were published during the period. According to Cassan, the tone of the pamphlet showed “the manner in which Jardine intended to present his side of the argument to the public.” From this point, Jardine emphasized the aspect of patriotism in the context of the Opium War. Despite the fact that Warren criticized Britain’s course along with China’s one, it was important to demonstrate an unethical character of the Chinese officials’ actions against the British traders and residents in China. The focus of the morality discussion was shifted according to the British authorities’ needs.
Thus, the context in which Warren wrote the pamphlet influenced the position presented in work regarding the morality of the opium trade. It is possible to state that the critique of Commissioner Lin and the Chinese emperor was more preferable for Jardine than the actual discussion of the moral question associated with the trade of opium in China and its consequences for Great Britain. The form of a pamphlet allowed Warren to convey his ideas regarding the opium question in the most personal manner that could be viewed by the audience as convincing. Accordingly, the readers of the pamphlet could not notice that the work lacked the detailed explanation of the moral question, and this missing part did not allow for understanding the realities of the British trade in China.
As a result, one of the most surprising facts about Warren’s The Opium Question is the author’s description of opium merchants’ role in the Opium Wars that can be understood only with reference to the context in which this work was created. The author’s viewpoint in the pamphlet seems to be based on certain biases, and Warren tries to promote an idea that is beneficial for the persons who were interested in writing this work. Still, it is possible to state that The Opium Question has a great historical value because it allows for understating how the problem of Opium Wars was discussed by those officials who were interested in their development in the 1840s. When comparing Warren’s views to supporters of China’s position, it is possible to observe opposite ideas.
Warren’s The Opium Question refers to the moral problem of the opium trade, but the author chose a specific perspective that was beneficial for Jardine, and he focused on criticizing the British and Chinese governments while presenting opium merchants as persons who became dependent on the circumstances. Therefore, the pamphlet represents the moral problem of trading opium from a complex perspective of the critique of the British government, the critique of the Chinese emperor’s violent actions against the British people in 1840, and patriotism. These approaches to interpreting the situation were interesting to the British officials who wanted to illustrate the immorality of the Chinese officials. As a result, Warren succeeded in shifting the focus from which the question of the opium trade was discussed.
Cassan, Benjamin. “William Jardine: Architect of the First Opium War.” Historia 14, no. 1 (2005): 107-117.
Melancon, Glenn. Britain’s China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence, and National Honour, 1833–1840. London: Routledge, 2017.
Su, Christine. “Justifiers of the British Opium Trade: Arguments by Parliament, Traders, and the Times Leading Up to the Opium War.” Sindh University Research Journal 7, no. 1 (2008): 45-51.
Warren, Samuel. The Opium Question. London: James Ridgway, 1840.
- Benjamin Cassan, “William Jardine: Architect of the First Opium War,” Historia 14, no. 1 (March 2005): 113.
- Samuel Warren, The Opium Question (London: James Ridgway, 1840), 61.
- Christine Su, “Justifiers of the British Opium Trade: Arguments by Parliament, Traders, and the Times Leading Up to the Opium War,” Sindh University Research Journal 7, no. 1 (2008): 47.
- Cassan, “William Jardine,” 113.
- Ibid., 114.
- Cassan, “William Jardine,” 113.
- Warren, The Opium Question, 62.
- Glenn Melancon, Britain’s China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence, and National Honour, 1833–1840 (London: Routledge, 2017), 38.