While sipping our cup of tea in the comfort of our favourite armchair, it is easy to forget that once, or actually twice, an international war raged on Chinese territory, caused by the western craving for tea – the Opium Wars.
During the early 19th century, Chinese tea had become one of the most valuable and sought after exotic Products in the European market, but there were not many European goods that the Chinese wanted to buy in exchange, except for silver. The English East India Company bought silver from mines far away in the colonies in the Americas, but it was expensive, and other goods were sought after for the tea trade in order to increase the already huge profit of the so called “Honourable Company”. Eventually, a market was found for opium, grown cheaply in the company’s own colonies in India. But opium was outlawed by the Chinese emperor. So the British, on highly questionable legal grounds, entered into a very dirty war. The first Opium War started in October 1839, with the intent to force China to open its market for international trade and to make China buy the addictive and lethal drug opium in exchange for the more innocent stimulant – tea, ‘a drink with jam and bread‘. A second opium war followed in 1858.
For an excellent account of these intriguing historical events and its implications on today’s world politics, I can recommend The Opium War by Julia Lovell published 2011 by Picador; ‘…it was easy to forget that this was a war – a world war, pitting Britain, France and at times the United States and Russia against the Chinese empire – that was provoked (in contravention of international law) by a Young British alpha male, exploited by a cantankerous monomaniac and waged by a melancholy plenipotentiary who thought it ‘wretched‘. Read it!!
Today, in 2018, we see certain political leaders take the first steps towards yet another trade war based of allegations of a trade deficit with China, while others argue for steps to be taken in order to promote and secure world ‘free-trade’. I wonder whether the political and financial leaders will learn from history or will history just repeat itself? And what is actually our role, as consumers, in the dramatic events of the world? Is our daily consumption habits part of the driving force of a world trade far from fair?