Imperial Twilight

Imperial Twilight

Stephen R Platt
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
The author has already published on China, in whose history he holds a PhD. Here gives us a clear account, not without an eye for irony, of the rather forceful way this vast but mentally isolated and isolationist Empire was opened up to trade. A somewhat elysian vision of 'pre-war' China might be punctured by Anson's account of Ch'in dynasty Chinese trying to put a fire out by holding up little idols in front of it in 1743.

Skin in the game: one of my three greats grandfathers (via one of his, possibly many, marital misdemeanours) was John Crewe (whose grandmother was a Macartney) who was on the 1793 Macartney mission in some sort of ADC role. Another, and his father in law, commanded Indiamen bringing tea and porcelain back to England from 1774 to 1822. A third went to HEIC pension in India as an Uncovenanted Opium Agent 4th Class. Platt enables us to see the Opium issue through nineteenth rather than censorious twenty-first century eyes, while pointing out that many in England could see the evil of both it and the resultant war. As he points out, the shadow of it has not gone away, and the penny has now dropped in China that there is no power without sea power.

For further reading on the topic I would recommend ‘The Cree Journals 1837-1856’, Surgeon EH Cree RN (of HMSs Rattlesnake, Vixen and Fury out East during the period), ed. M Levien, which has some fascinating watercolours of the area, and a sketch of the Charles Gutzlaff who features prominently in the book under review; also ‘Chusan’ (1840-2) by Liam D’Arcy Brown, both of which have escaped the copious bibliography. For me, the narrative would have been clearer if normal English names for people and places had been used for such as Ch'ien Lung and Peking. The English language is not changed by diktat.

There are three dozen beautifully reproduced illustrations, many of them in colour. The notes carefully attribute the citations (many from Chinese sources which give the book exceptional importance), but also include some asides which could usefully have been placed closer to the relevant text, perhaps as footnotes. On p.82 " .. Charles Lamb at Cambridge .." - for the record, Lamb could not be sent up to university because of his stammer. It is relevant to this narrative however that Lamb and Coleridge were school-fellows. On p.328, for Flaunt please read Flout, but that may be predictive text doing its evil work.

The chief value of this book for me was its thoughtful, penetrating and excellently researched and lucidly explained account of China's domestic political and economic situation during the period, particularly the problem of silver, which makes clear that the perceptions and attitudes of China, the East India Company and the British Government (and its servants on the spot) were all totally different from each other, and the last two took no account of how China and its Emperor actually saw the world. We see the endemic corruption and its effects, and how the Emperors could not comprehend that a State existed on the planet that was not subservient - until the guns of the Royal Navy disabused them of that conceit and reduced China to vassalage. The chaotic way the British Government was manoeuvred into an immoral and unjust war is truly unedifying although the opposition to it was an exemplar of the moral strength of Victorian Britons. The naval and military events do not feature in any detail - it was a walkover and it was the results that mattered. We came out of it with the Treaty ports and trade far more open to us (until 1941) and with China abased as is still remembered, even though at the time the War was only one of many often larger concerns of the Imperial government. Ironically, Hong Kong must be the War's most obvious memorial. Post-war China provided a useful worked example of the catastrophic results of legalising drugs. We also see how the Americans rode the coat-tails of the British but without the odium of opium - or war.

I greatly enjoyed this very well-written, often myth-busting book and am now better informed and also better educated as a result of reading it. I kow-tow to Dr Platt.

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