“I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich, I congratulate you.”
To many observers, this remark sounded a whole lot like neo-colonialism. Colonialism was not kind to colonized peoples, and there’s no reason to believe neo-colonialism will be. Especially when leaders of major military powers have “friends” trying to make money in far away lands. Here’s an example from another century.
The British East India company was one of the first joint-stock companies in the world. Interestingly, its charter permitted it to wage war. It maintained a mercenary army and engaged in equal parts trade and conquest. In 1757, the company’s mercenary army defeated the nawab of Bengal, gaining control over the region. Bengal was attractive to the company since it was the primary source of opium, which the company traded to great profit. In a sense, you could say the East India company was a narco-cartel that took over an entire state, Bengal, with a population of 30 million people. Of course, it helped that there were backed by the military might of the nascent British empire. This is what Betsy Devos’ brother Erik Prince thinks should happen in Afghanistan, with Blackwater/Academi playing the role of the East India Company. Except it’s already been done, with predictably terrible results.
In 1770, the east Indian regions of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa suffered a terrible famine, while the company exercised control over the region. 10 million people starved to death, though some studies indicate the death toll may have been as high as 15 million. Death rates in some towns were over 60%, and for the region as a whole, 33-50%. In comparison, the better known Great Famine of the 1840s (in another British colony, Ireland) caused 1.5 million deaths. Reports of the Bengal famine of 1770 reached Britain swiftly. The company and its agents were severely criticized in several quarters. Among others, Adam Smith wrote about the company’s policies in Bengal:
The great fortunes so suddenly and so easily acquired in Bengal and the other British settlements in the East Indies, may satisfy us that, as the wages of labour are very low, so the profits of stock are very high in those ruined countries. The interest of money is proportionably so. In Bengal, money is frequently lent to the farmers at forty, fifty, and sixty per cent, and the succeeding crop is mortgaged for the payment. As the profits which can afford such an interest must eat up almost the whole rent of the landlord, so such enormous usury must in its turn eat up the greater part of those profits. (In their transactions with the inhabitants of India, the British substituted violence for trade; and the price at which they bought or sold was often very different, therefore, from the value of the market. They took what they wanted at their own price, and it was by this violence that they drained the country of its wealth.) — Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations
Yet, almost two hundred years later, during WW-2, another British government would stoke another famine in Bengal, killing 2 or 3 million people.
The great famine of 1770 was triggered by a failed monsoon the prior autumn. A decade of predatory tax harvesting by the East India company had depleted the savings of rural Bengalis and Biharis. The company had raised land taxes over the prior decade, sending the proceeds back to shareholders in London. When the monsoon failed in 1769, many now impoverished Bengali families had no way to buy food. The company’s officers had stolen their savings via extortionate “taxes”, often employing violence and torture. The company’s policy of replacing food crops with opium likely exacerbated the famine. Smallpox broke out among the starving survivors.
In a pattern familiar from the more extensively documented famines of the nineteenth century, peasants tried to sell their possessions, even the plows and bullocks they would need n teh future to till their fields. In desperation they ate their seed corn, then turned to eating grass, leaves, and bark. Children were sold to anyone who would buy them: some survived the famine only as slaved in European and Indian households. There were reports, as so often when the intensity of India’s famine passed beyond normal comprehension, of hungry people driven to the extremes even of cannibalism; “There were persons who fed on forbidden and abhorred animals, nay the child on its dead parent, the mother on her child.” Large numbers died of starvation or disease before they could find relief or because they were too worn out and malnourished to absorb the food they received. Mortality was greatest among agricultural laborers, poor peasants, and artisans (cotton and silk weavers, lime workers, and the like), with Bihar and western Bengal suffering most. Only toward the end of 1770 did the drought and famine abate. — David Arnold: Hunger in the garden of plenty
As it happens, killing a third of your labor force isn’t a good thing for any enterprise, even a narco-cartel with a side business in tax harvesting. Opium production fell after the famine, and the East India company came under immense financial stress. Since many members of parliament held East India company stock, it wasn’t difficult to convince them to pass laws to bolster the firm’s finances.
The Company created a powerful East India lobby in Parliament, a caucus of MPs who had either directly or indirectly profited from its business and who constituted, in Edmund Burke’s opinion, one of the most united and formidable forces in British politics. It also made regular gifts to the Court: “All who could help or hurt at Court,” wrote Lord Macaulay, “ministers, mistresses, priests, were kept in good humour by presents of shawls and silks, birds’ nests and attar of roses, bulses of diamonds and bags of guineas.” It also made timely gifts to the Treasury whenever the state faced bankruptcy. In short, it acted as what George Dempster, a stockholder, called a “great money engine of state”.
By 1773, the company had successfully lobbied the British parliament to grant it a monopoly on opium production in Bengal. That would solidify the company’s position as the largest producer and dealer of hard drugs in the world.
The East India company used the land taxes extracted from peasants to buy opium. Since it had a monopoly, it could control prices. The opium was then sent to China, to be traded for Chinese tea. And this is where the opium trade intersects with American history.
Goaded by the directors, Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773. This legislation was meant to further bolster the company’s finances by allowing it to export tea, under preferential terms, to the American colonies. If this is beginning to sound familiar, it should. The Tea Act led to the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.
If 10 million Bengalis hadn’t been starved to death by an opium cartel owned by British lords, this country might not have thrown off the colonial yoke when it did.
Let’s talk about this tea which American revolutionaries gleefully dumped into Boston harbor. With their monopoly on opium production, the East India company had solved one of its biggest dilemmas. Thus far, British merchants had to scrounge up gold and silver to buy Chinese goods. But if they could get enough Chinese people hooked on opium, that would serve as currency. And since they controlled production and prices, let’s just say it was a good deal. Over the course of the 18th and early 19th century, the East India company increased its opium exports to China manyfold.
At the turn of the 19th century, the Chinese government moved to make the opium trade illegal. British merchant-pirates resorted to smuggling to continue the trade. The Chinese government’s attempts to restrict opium imports were largely ineffective. By the 1830s, a large portion of the population (perhaps as high as 20%) was using opium. The Chinese government sought to restrict the trade even further.
Faced with a direct threat to their lucrative opium-tea trade, British naval forces and the armies of the East India company joined together to wage war on China. British forces fighting alongside the East India company’s mercenary army won the First Opium War of 1840-42. Casualties on the Chinese side (both civilian and military) were in the tens of thousands. British forces engaged in extensive looting and destruction of art works. The Qing dynasty government was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking. It granted British merchants free access to numerous Chinese ports, and ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain. British merchants resumed distributing thousands of tons of opium to China every year. The loss and burden of making reparations to Britain weakened the Qing dynasty and helped spark the Taiping rebellion. That bloody civil war cost 20-30 million lives and the First Opium War is seen as a seminal event in Chinese history.
The government and the company were severely criticized by some in Britain for initiating this war. Famously, this included the future Prime Minister Gladstone, who had seen his sister turn into an opium addict. Opium was widely available in Britain and Europe at the time, most commonly sold as laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol. Those treating addiction among their friends and family were appalled that their government would wage war on Chinese administrators trying to do the same. Their criticism remained laughably ineffective when there was so much money to be made via drug-dealing.
In 1856-60 the British government fought a second opium war, seeking to renegotiate the terms of the earlier treaty. A key demand was lifting all restrictions on the opium trade. The British also sought to expand the coolie trade. This system of indentured servitude took Indian and Chinese laborers and placed them on Caribbean and South American plantations to grow commodity crops. It has been called near-slavery. The “coolies” were often kidnapped from their homes or transported after being given false assurances. US traders participated in this human trafficking, most often by selling Chinese laborers to Cuban plantation owners. Lincoln eventually signed a law outlawing the coolie-trade.
Over their four year campaign, British and French forces defeated the Chinese army and navy. It’s worth noting that they were aided by the US armed forces. A naval vessel, the USS San Jacinto was actively engaged in the conflict. Can you imagine the response if the armies and navies of Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan lay siege to the port of Los Angeles, demanding the unfettered right to sell heroin and cocaine to Americans? Yeah, that’s probably what most Chinese people thought about it.
There are dozens of interesting stories about these events. Tales of colonization and its impact on peoples across the world. Stories of narco-privateers sailing under the British flag who enjoyed the protection of the world’s most powerful navy. There’s that one time the US navy fought alongside dealers and smugglers of hard drugs. The tragic history of a famine that killed ten million living, breathing human beings, just like you and me. There’s the story of Chinese and Indian leaders who sought to protect their people and countries from colonization.
Are you likely to see a mainstream movie about any of this? Not really. Hollywood is too busy rehabilitating Georgian and Victorian era aristocrats with period pieces that showcase their tastes in clothing and leisure activities.
We are treated to sympathetic movies about the madness of George III, Victoria and her Scottish servant, Victoria and her Indian servant, Victoria and her German consort-prince, Young Victoria, Old Victoria, Middle-Aged Victoria.
What should we learn from this? That the desire to absolve and gloss over runs deep? If so, it means thirty years from now, perhaps sooner, we’ll all be watching bio-pics about Trump’s lovable forgetfulness and his unlikely friendship with Ben Carson.