Practice English Speaking&Listening with: First Opium War - Trade Deficits and the Macartney Embassy - Extra History - #1

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In 1792.

Britain has just come out of a war that's cost it not only much of its national treasury,

but also one of its most lucrative overseas colonies:

North America.

The empire needs new sources of revenue,

new opportunities for trade,

and there's one clear possibility:


*Intro theme plays*

By the end of the 18th century, the world had become a much smaller place,

with European traders traveling the globe

to feed the hungry markets of the industrializing West.

Wars were fought all over the planet

to secure exotic goods or the raw materials needed

to power new economies of the rising European empires.

But China still remained aloof.

Demand for Chinese goods was high.


porcelain, and especially tea were coveted by buyers back in Europe.

But the Chinese emperors saw all these foreign traders

as a potentially destabilizing influence.

And, as they had done throughout Chinese history,

placed strict controls on foreign trade.

Specifically, they limited trade to just a few ports.

Traders weren't allowed to set foot in the empire

except at a handful of cities designated for that purpose.

And all trade had to go through a trade monopoly known as the Hong,

who could tax and regulate foreign trade as they saw fit.

By the middle of the 18th century, this was taken further,

and all foreign trade was restricted to a single port:


This drove resentment among the European traders,

who saw limitless opportunity for profit

if they could just get their hands on it.

And those Europeans trading in China

were, in some ways, a self-selecting group.

If you're going to make your living

transporting goods thousands of miles from your home,

you probably believe in the inherent value of unrestricted trade,

which meant that these rules did not sit well with the Europeans,

and piracy and smuggling began to rise.

Even within the official channels of trade,

merchants began to strain at these limitations.

Eventually, an employee of the Honorable East India Company,

the militarized trade organization responsible for British affairs in India,

pushed by, what he saw, as abuses of corrupt officials

and undue restrictions on free trade,

decided that it was time to openly break the rules that the Chinese imposed.

He left Canton and took his grievances upriver

(literally and figuratively), wanting to be heard by someone in the Chinese hierarchy

who was outside the Hong,

outside the monopoly set up in Canton.

And here's where divides of culture come in.

Because it's possible that he wasn't acting in a way

that he saw as malicious or even inappropriate.

In fact, he may have been acting in a way

that he thought of as perfectly reasonable, were he in England.

But he wasn't in England.

And the arrogance of this traitor just deciding that his complaint

should be elevated to imperial court,

rather than going through the proper authorities,

was unbelievable to the Chinese.

More than that, it put into question whether these Europeans

would stay in one port at all,

or even obey Chinese law.

And so, further restrictions were put into place.

Trade was clamped down on even more.

But European demands for Chinese goods,

especially English demands for their newfound love of black tea,

continued to grow.

Which brings us back to 1792.

By this point, the British were importing

tens of millions of pounds of tea every year.

Within two decades,

import duties on tea would account for 10 percent

of the government's entire revenue.

Tea was one of the major drivers of the economy.

Tea was so essential to the British world,

that the Canton system was simply no longer acceptable.

And more than that, the British were now running

an enormous trade deficit with the Chinese.

Millions of pounds of silver were flowing out of the British Empire

and into China.

On top of that, recent European struggles had cut them off

from the silver mines of South America,

and costly foreign wars had left the treasury dry.

Even the Honorable East India Company was broke,

incurring a huge debt to finance their military conquests

of parts of India.

The British Empire, for all of its power and wealth,

for all its global might and territory in every region of the globe,

simply did not have the raw currency it needed

to continue paying for its tea habit.

So, the British decided that it was time

to finally send an official diplomatic mission to China.

No more traders, merchants, or pirates.

This was going to be a real envoy,

from one monarch to another,

to talk about opening up trade.

After some consideration, it was decided

that the first Earl of Macartney,

a seasoned colonial governor, should lead the mission.

His aims were simple:

end the Canton system,

establish a permanent embassy

(or at least get a permanent British representative in the imperial court),

and, if possible, secure the grant of a small island off the coast of China

where British merchants could operate

under British, rather than Chinese, law.

So they packed the hold of a ship

with clocks and telescopes, and even carriages

to be presented to the Chinese Emperor,

and began their trip.

They sailed east, around the Cape of Good Hope,

with only one minor detour when the trade winds

pushed them all the way to Rio de Janeiro.

At last though, they arrived in China.

They immediately asked to dock at a port

much closer to Beijing than Canton.

This was considered bad form by the Chinese,

but representatives of the East India Company

explained that they had expensive gits for the emperor on board,

and didn't want any of them to get ruined in a long overland journey.

So, the Chinese acquiesced.

They and their goods were ferried up the Grand Canal to Beijing,

and here they assembled their gifts,

and prepared for the last leg of their journey:

over the Great Wall, and to the emperor's summer palace at Jehol.

Here, they finally met the emperor.

And... trouble began immediately.

Because, in the presence of the emperor,

it was expected that everyone "kowtow,"

or kneel and bow so low that their head touched the floor.

And Macartney, being a seasoned British governor and gentleman,

hailing from, what he believed,

was the most powerful and civilized nation in the world,

with, as he saw it, the most divine monarch,

and, not only the right, but the duty

to spread the British way around the globe,

refused to do so.

After all, if he wasn't going to touch his head to the floor for King George,

he certainly wasn't going to do it here.

So, after some wrangling and protestations,

he proposed a counter-solution.

He would perform the kowtow,

so long as every time it was done,

a Chinese official of equal rank

would kowtow to a picture of George III.

This was, of course, ludicrous to the Chinese,

as, after all, they were from the most powerful and civilized nation in the world,

with the most divine monarch,

and who was this barbarian to try to put his king

on anything like the emperor's level?


But even without the kowtow issue truly resolved,

with Macartney merely genuflecting in the end,

as he would to King George.

the meeting went forward.

Macartney showed off the marvels of British science,

although mostly the flashier and less practical kind,

and presented them to the emperor.

And here too, signals got crossed,

because the Chinese court took this as a tribute mission.

After all, all gift-giving missions to the emperor

are tribute missions.

What else would it be?

And yet the British thought

that they were demonstrating all the reasons that China would benefit

from opening up trade with them.

So, in the end, Macartney was dismissed

without the emperor agreeing to a single one of the goals

he set out to achieve.

And the emperor sent one of the most

gloriously, imperially snarky letters

ever penned to King George,

thanking him for his tribute,

which, though neither he nor the Chinese actually wanted it,

he would graciously accept out of respect

for how far George had sent people

just to pay him tribute.

But no, China didn't need

baubles or knickknacks from England, thank you.

Trade would remain the way it was.

So Britain was left with a massive trade deficit.

The East India Company was 28 million pounds in debt

as a result of their war in India,

and the royal coffers were nearly dry.

They needed to find some product the Chinese wanted,

and then they did:


*outro theme plays*

The Description of First Opium War - Trade Deficits and the Macartney Embassy - Extra History - #1