Before entering on the somewhat lengthy story of the Opium question, and the wars with China which came of it, it is pleasant to have to record one bright and happy event - the marriage of Queen Victoria. The Queen was married on February 10, 1840, to Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg Gotha, afterwards created Prince Consort. It was a love match in every sense of the word, and not many love matches have turned out so happily. The Queen and her husband had congenial souls and intellects. They thought together on most subjects, political and general. They had a long line of descendants, and their happiness was hardly broken until the early and sudden death of the Prince Consort, nearly twenty-one years after their auspicious marriage.
The reign of Queen Victoria inherited a dispute with the Government of China - a quarrel about the trade in opium. The reign very soon came in for an opium war with China. England, of course, had the best of the struggle, and the Chinese had nothing for it but to submit and to pay a war ransom amounting in all to nearly six millions sterling. What was it all about ? The story is somewhat curious, and can hardly be said to redound to the honour of England's nineteenth century. China is a country of vast extent, and occupied by a population the exact numbers of which it is difficult to arrive at, but which may be roughly taken at somewhere approaching to four hundred millions of people. China has a civilisation all her own, and a civilisation stretching so far back to antiquity that the history of the development of Greece, or even of Egypt, seems quite a modern story by comparison. At no time to which any authentic annals can reach back could the Chinese be called, in the strict sense of the word, an uncivilised people. They had laws and literature, faith, morals, and a system of government. In one sense, and within their own vast domains, they were always what must be called a practical people; but they were the merest of dreamers in their ambition to shut out from sight and knowledge all evidences of the growth of other peoples, and of different forms of civilisation. The one great wish of the Chinese people was to be let alone, to be allowed to go their own steady way undisturbed by that dreadful thing, of which they had vaguely heard, called modern progress, and to let a vain and giddy outside world go its way of trade and conquest provided it did not molest their shores. Especially the Chinese were anxious not to have any dealings with States as States.
In modern days the knowledge of traders and trading companies was forced upon them, and being a shrewd people who did not object to a little gain they were not unwilling to deal with the private trader. Even this concession, however, to the spirit of the times was only wrung from them after much resistance; and the whole history of European trade in its early stages is full of severe, offensive, and sometimes barbarous conditions which they imposed on European traders who desired to have any dealings with them. The Chinese did not want our literature or our arts; they had a literature and an art of their own which had, at all events, the merit of entirely satisfying them, and they did not want to learn anything from us, because they were perfectly and comfortably satisfied that they had nothing to learn. Owing to the vast extent of the country and to its enormous population, China was a tempting ground for all the adventurous traders of what may be called, for the sake of clearness, the civilised world. The East India Company soon converted parts of China into a trading ground; and the East India Company grew an immense quantity of opium which it was eager to sell to the Chinese population. Opium smoking was, and to some extent still is, the native vice of China, and Chinese Governments made many efforts to prevent the importation of the drug into their communities. In truth and fact the opium trade was the cause of our war with China; and the principle for which England fought was the alleged right of Great Britain to force the opium trade upon China despite all the efforts of the Chinese Government, and all the protestations of whatever public opinion there was in the nation independent of the edicts of the Government. It is not to be supposed that this was the avowed motive of the war on the part of England, but this was assuredly the question which was at stake. The British traders, especially those who came within the domain of the East India Company, insisted on pushing the traffic; the Chinese Government resisted their attempt, and England fell back upon her right to protect her subjects in China as well as in any other land.
Prince Consort. 1819-1861.
No doubt the Chinese authorities sometimes had recourse to measures which could hardly be justified by international law; but then the Chinese did not want to have anything to do with international law, and did not admit the right of foreign nations to devise out of their own heads, as the children say, a system of law which was to govern China without regard to any consent on the part of China herself. The East India Company was then practically a self-governing Company with purely nominal control on the part of the Sovereign and Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland. The East India Company was always committing England to some manner of policy about which the people at home had never been consulted; and the English Government generally felt bound to stand by the East India Company in the end. India was still the country where great fortunes were gathered, the country where the rich uncles of literature and the drama made their money and to which the great expectations of English families very commonly turned. As human nature is constituted it becomes very easy for most of us to find excuses for the traffic out of which our uncles are to become wealthy and of whom we are to be in great part the heirs. Therefore there are many excuses to be made for the opium traffic and for the wars which it engendered, which carried at the time a good deal of popular approval with them and lent strength to what might have been called, if the phrase had then existed, the forward policy with regard to China. Many public men in these countries contended that the opium trade was not nearly so bad a traffic as the philanthropists and moralists and other intrusive persons tried to make it out. The practice of inhaling opium, it was argued, was not so bad as the practice of whisky drinking or gin drinking among our own populations at home. Opium, according to many champions of the traffic, was indeed a refreshing and on the whole rather a healthy practice, and besides, if the Chinese Government did not like it why did not they take proper measures to stamp out the growth of the poppy at home instead of trying to interfere with the trade of the East India Company ?