Author: Jeffery Chen

Did British Merchants Cause the Opium War?

A review of Song-Chuan Chen’s Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press (January 12, 2017) 240 pages. The war had a name even before its first shot. The first recorded use of the moniker, the ‘Opium War,’ was in an 1839 piece in the London Morning Herald; within months it would be echoed across the benches of Parliament and across the carronades of the fleet sent to punish the Chinese crackdown on British trade. The war’s nomenclature revealed from the beginning the multivalent views the British public held towards the war: it was at once the “unjust and iniquitous” Opium War — to use Gladstone’s well-known phrase — as well as the patriotic ‘China War,’ as its proponents wanted it to be called. The historiography of the war is similarly divided among varied lines. Some see the war as reflective of China’s failure to catch up to Western technologies; others emphasize the British desire to avenge their slighted national honour as the …