Commissioner Lin & the Opium Question

Proceedings of The 6th International Conference on Advanced Research in Social Sciences

Year: 2023



Commissioner Lin & the Opium Question

Dr. Jailakshmi Kaul





This is one of the promising chapters in the history of modern China, as it not only lays bare the aberrations in the western imperialism – which was all out to promote opium trade in China for sheer pecuniary profits, but also the impact that it left on the people of China (what to speak of the Indian people vide the British opium trade monopoly). More known on the opium trade are facts like the two opium wars, and China’s surrender before the western powers; or else the production, cultivation, distribution, marketing of this commodity from viewpoint of a business venture. What is relatively less known to the general public is the shady side of the opium trade – and – the underworld that came into existence along with this in order to sustain that; and still worse the type of society it promoted and shaped for ensuring a continued supply of customers in future. Obviously, the worst victims were India and China – both known as the centers of great civilizations in preceding centuries.

Lin Zexu, second son of Lin Binri (who served as an official in the Qing government) and born in the province of Houguan (modern Fuzhou of the Fujian province) in August 1785 – was not just a politician, but a political philosopher as well, recognized as an unusually bright child during his early life, obtaining a position for himself in the subsequent imperial examination, and finally admitted into the Hanlin Academy. With these obvious traits of his character, he rose rapidly to the higher positions – crossing rather quickly various grades of provincial services with his prodigious temperament – finally to reach the position that he did when he was appointed the High Imperial Commissioner of China by the emperor Daoguan in the late 1838, vesting him with extraordinary powers.            .

What is of utmost interest is that Lin always opposed the opening of China for the westerners. Was it some kind of hindsight that he thought so, or else, his sensitivity to the events occurring around the corner since the last century? He

Is known to have collected material about the geography of the world once he assumed official responsibility for the administrative work; and later on becoming the governor-general of Hunan and Hubei by 1837, he launched a suppression campaign against the trading of opium. In 1839, he wrote a long memorial to the ruler of England – in the form of an open letter (published in Canton) urging England to end the opium trade forthwith. And that was it. No IF & BUTS.

There are a whole lot of other details, which this paper intends to bring to light on the issue of opium question; but what is of real significance is the fact that amidst the atmosphere of depressing trace practices in connection with opium, and an atmosphere of stifling corruption both within and outside China, how Lin Zexu showed the courage to stand up against this challenging situation to save his country from the ruin – which he could see written large on the wall – IF situation was left uncontrolled. Just to quote a few words from his letter to the Queen of England, “A murderer of one person is subject to the death sentence. Just imagine, how many people opium has killed”. Quite understandably, the letter never elicited any response.

It was not for no reason that a scholar commented about the Indo-British Opium Trade to China, saying that it forms “one of the most curious chapters in the annals of European expansion. That roughly one-seventh of the revenue of British India should have been drawn from the subjects of another State as payment for a habit-forming drug, is one of the most unique facts that the history of finance affords”. Incidentally, this observation comes from a British official.

keywords: Canton, Commissioner, Hong Merchants, Opium evil, Proclamation to foreigners