Chapter 5 - Exporting free trade, importing tea

Adjacent to Ratcliffe Highway, a very old road that gave access to wharves and docks on the north bank of River Thames, is Free Trade Wharf. It is now a riverside apartment block (the entrance in the photo to the right is shown as it was at the time the Tour de France was about to pass in July 2014) but was originally constructed to serve the shipping business in 1856 (MCV1 is carved on the on the arch). The name reflects a principal of commerce which, it was hoped, would help ensure a good financial return for those who built it. The idea of free trade meant, according to the supportive theorists of the time, that great benefits would accrue to everybody once protective tariffs were removed and goods allowed to pass without let or hindrance across the oceans. In Britain one result of this movement had been the repeal of the Corn Laws, imposed after the Napoleonic Wars to protect agricultural interests.

The voyage of the Saracen was intimately bound up with the theory of free trade and Richards and his crew were to spend much time in the waters off China, Japan and Siam, all countries ripe for being ‘opened up’, whether their populations and governments wanted it or not. China, then ruled by the Manchu dynasty, had come under particular pressure to develop trade with the British and had succumbed after being subjected to the havoc and destruction wrought by modern weapons. The key to the trade issue was tea.

Tea had probably first been imported into England in middle of the C17th and it was certainly on sale, during the time of the Commonwealth, at a coffee shop near the Royal Exchange. Early imports were expensive, 1lb costing the equivalent of 40 bushels of wheat, but increasing popularity, something probably encouraged by the return of the monarchy, led to a reduction in unit costs. By 1680 the tea to wheat exchange rate was down to 1lb to 12 bushels. Nearly a century later it was 1lb to a single bushel and by the time the Saracen sailed one pound of ordinary ‘Congou’ tea could be had for a peck (a quarter of a bushel). A phenomenal amount of tea was being imported by that time, 85 million lbs against 65 million lbs of coffee, and consumption was rising, partly as a result of the policy of tariff reduction. Unfortunately, the product to which the British and particularly Londoners, who were, according to one contemporary source, perhaps ‘the most tea-drinkingest’ of all, were addicted came from China, a country that had proved particularly difficult to deal with.

China was also a source of silk, fine ceramics and other manufactured goods, but despite the growing volume of trade, foreign merchants, including the British, were strictly controlled by the Manchu government. They were only allowed to live in a small compound, measuring 1100 by 700 feet, in Canton and refused permission to trade with anyone other than the Hongs, their monopolistic Chinese counterparts. In the first part of the C19th the balance of trade was very much in the Chinese favour, for what the British had to sell was either not wanted or too expensive to import and distribute, whilst the Manchu emperor sent trade missions away empty handed. However, when a drug began to be supplied in quantity from British India, merchants found they had hit on the ideal high price, low volume product.

Opium had been used as a medicine in China for centuries, but as the habit of smoking tobacco laced with the drug became more common so the problems of addiction grew. To supply the demand domestic production continued to increase, even when made illegal, and a network of criminal gangs, supported by bribed officials, ensured supplies got where they wanted. These criminal gangs were given tacit encouragement by the East India Company (more properly called the Honourable East India Company) an enterprise established by royal charter in 1600 and which had first conducted business from a house in Philpot Lane in the City of London. Two centuries later it was a huge commercial and administrative organisation with a grand London headquarters. It had its own army and navy, and held the monopoly on British trade with India and China and a monopoly on the production of opium in British India too. Rather than directly antagonise the Chinese government, which repeatedly banned opium smoking, the East India Company initially limited the amount of product exported to China. It did not sell directly either, instead holding annual auctions in Calcutta where only licensed firms could bid. These firms then transported the drug in fast clippers to well armed ships at permanent station off the Chinese coast. From here the opium found its way to the mainland on board boats known as ‘fast crabs’ or scrambling dragons’, crewed by pirates. As the import of opium grew so the export of silver, generally in the form of Mexican dollars, increased too and there was no shortage of funds in the hands of the East India Company either to buy tea or other Chinese products, or to oil the wheels of corruption.

In the early 1830s, partly under pressure from free traders, the East India Company was wound up as a commercial entity and became a purely administrative body. The tea trade then passed into the hands of independent traders and ironically many of these maintained offices in Philpot Lane, which was very convenient for the auction rooms in Mincing Lane where all kind of products imported from the east were now sold. Seeing the profits that could be made from tea many businessmen who had never thought of operating in the field started to look at the trade and transport opportunities too, leading a member of one commercial company already involved in the far east to comment that every merchant and ship owner who had ever heard of a chest of tea looked at China as an inexhaustible supply of riches.

But increasing exports of tea, and of silk too, meant greater imports of opium and for the Chinese government, struggling to cope with the social problems caused by increasing addiction to the drug, the ending of the East India Company monopoly was a negative development as more aggressive private companies now pitched into the drug business. One new company was Jardine, Matheson and Co. formed by two free trade Scotsmen, William Jardine and James Matheson. Matheson thought the Chinese were resisting free trade through a ‘marvellous degree of imbecility and avarice, conceit and obstinacy’ and both saw opportunities involvement in the opium trade could bring. It was inevitable that the Chinese would seek to defend themselves against an increase in illegal drug importation and in 1839 a Chinese official, Lin Tse-hsü, took determined action against British opium imports, including the confiscation of 20,000 chests stored at Canton. The British reaction was probably inevitable. Far from ending the opium trade the British government, pressurised by, amongst others, Jardine and Matheson, dispatched a punitive expedition. Over a period of three years this force occupied Hong Kong and captured Canton and several other towns and an iron hybrid, the Nemesis, which had been built for the East India Company, played an important part in the coastal battles which defeated the Chinese. Subsequently this series of military and naval engagements became known as the First Anglo-Chinese War, a neutral sounding description with no reference to the causes. Today is more often called the First Opium War, especially by those who wish to emphasise the underlying reason for the aggression. This also fits in with C21st conception of opium being a very bad thing although, as a plant, the opium poppy is as innocent as the tea bush. But somehow the First Tea War doesn’t have very dramatic undertones and questions are rarely raised about the responsibility of the tea trade in bringing on war. This wasn’t the case at the time. In the year Free Trade Wharf was constructed, in a book called ‘The Food of London’, George Dodd raised this question,

…if China tea led to the growth of the East India company and if this growth led to the establishment of a British Empire in India and if this empire has led to wars in Scinde, Caubul, the Punjab, Burmah and China then has tea much of good or evil to answer for.

The First Opium War ended with the humiliation of the Chinese and the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. In this, and in supplementary treaties, the Chinese agreed to accept the concept of extraterritoriality, conceded Hong Kong to British control, agreed to pay an indemnity for the cost of the war and the confiscated opium, and opened five ports, Canton, Shanghai, Foochow, Ningpo, and Amoy to British trade. What the British did not get, however, was legalisation of the opium trade in China. The Chinese Emperor responded to the request by saying;

Gain-seeking and corrupt men will for profit and sensuality defeat my wishes, but nothing will induce me to derive a revenue from the vice and misery of my people.

Over the next few years there was a dramatic change in the five ports as business expanded and, inevitably, piracy increased too, a British consul estimating that, in 1850, there were 3000 predators operating off the coast of the province of Fujian alone. As Foochow, standing on the River Min, became an increasingly important port the need for a detailed and accurate Admiralty chart, to assist commerce and help catch pirates and to help the Royal Navy if more ‘gunboat diplomacy’ should be called for too, was self-evident. The responsibility for surveying the mouth of the River Min was to fall to Richards and the crew of the Saracen.

Chapter 6 -Plymouth to the Sunda Strait - February to June1854

Back to Introduction

Opium Clippers

Lin Tse-hsü

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

When London Became An Island

Free Trade Wharf