Free Trade by Force: Civilization against Culture in the Great China Debate of 1857 Erik Ringmar, NCTU, Taiwan Europe, Europeans like to believe, is not only a continent but also a civilization. 1 We share norms and values which are more important than we are. Spreading our civilization has for this reason become an important goal. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. It has been difficult to make some of the people who do not share in the blessings of European civilization understand the importance of this project. Although they may agree in general regarding the relevance of European norms and values, they see the attempt to spread them as a hostile act of civilizational imperialism. And of course they are right — Europeans really do think they are better than others and that the world would be a better place if everyone was like them. This civilizational smugness is as much alive today as ever, and it continues to involve Europeans in conflicts with the rest of the world. This chapter retraces the history of the idea of a civilizing 1 This chapter draws on my current research on European imperialism in China in the nineteenth-century, to be published as Liberal Barbarism: The European Destruction of the Palace of the Emperor of China (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2011). I am grateful to Jozef Bátora, Yana Zuo, and to an audience at the City University, Hong Kong, for comments on a previous version. 1
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Free Trade by Force: Civilization against Culture in the Great China Debate of 1857
Erik Ringmar, NCTU, Taiwan
Europe, Europeans like to believe, is not only a continent but also a civilization.1 We
share norms and values which are more important than we are. Spreading our
civilization has for this reason become an important goal. Unfortunately, not
everyone agrees. It has been difficult to make some of the people who do not share
in the blessings of European civilization understand the importance of this project.
Although they may agree in general regarding the relevance of European norms and
values, they see the attempt to spread them as a hostile act of civilizational
imperialism. And of course they are right — Europeans really do think they are
better than others and that the world would be a better place if everyone was like
them. This civilizational smugness is as much alive today as ever, and it continues
to involve Europeans in conflicts with the rest of the world.
This chapter retraces the history of the idea of a civilizing mission as it pertains
to one country – Great Britain. Britain is interesting not only because of its
hegemonic economic power and its large empire, but also since the country initially
was quite skeptical of civilizational goals. It was really only in the last decades of
the nineteenth-century that Britain took on what Rudyard Kipling in 1899 described
as “the white man’s burden.”2 By critics of imperialism, this mission was always
1 This chapter draws on my current research on European imperialism in China in the nineteenth-century, to be published as Liberal Barbarism: The European Destruction of the Palace of the Emperor of China (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2011). I am grateful to Jozef Bátora, Yana Zuo, and to an audience at the City University, Hong Kong, for comments on a previous version.
2 Originally written for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the “White Man’s Burden” was reworked and published in 1899, with the subtitle, “The United States and the Philippine Islands.” See "The White Man's Burden." McClure's Magazine 12 (Feb. 1899).
seen as a cynical cover for a self-serving policy of plunder. Surely it was supremely
arrogant of British officials to speak for civilization as a whole? Surely other
societies, especially those with a long and venerable history, deserved to be treated
with more respect? And surely it landed the British government in a tragic
contradiction when they concluded that civilization best could be spread by means
These were the precise points raised by critics from both Houses of Parliament
when they met to discuss the government’s handling of relations with China in late
February and early March 1857. By this time, Britain had for over half a century
sought to convince the Chinese to open up its markets to international trade.
British diplomatic delegations, dispatched in 1793, 1816 and 1834, had all been
rebuffed by the Chinese, and although a war — the “First Opium War” — had
resulted in some Chinese concessions, British merchants wanted more. And more
was exactly what John Bowring, the new governor of Hong Kong, was going to give
them. In October, 1856, in blatant disregard for his instructions and without official
authorization from home, he started a new war with the Chinese. What Bowring
demanded was a China completely open to the world. Free trade was going to be
forced on the Chinese. Such a policy, he was convinced, was not only to the
advantage of British merchants but also to the advantage of China itself. Only by
prying China open would the country come to enjoy the benefits of European
It was Bowring’s actions which parliament discussed in February and March,
1857. Bowring’s war provided a reason for reviewing Britain’s relationship with
China but also with the rest of the non-European world. In these debates, as never
before or after, the options available to Britain were laid out at great length. And
not everyone sided with Bowring. In the end he was censored by the House of
Commons, and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, was forced to resign. In the
subsequent electoral campaign the same debate continued in the country at large.
In the election — “the Chinese election of 1857” — Palmerston was returned with a
great majority and most of his critics were defeated. The people had spoken — and
their verdict was that free trade indeed could be forced and civilization spread by
Arguably, this is still a conclusions reached by many Europeans. Despite the
loss of colonies, and a concomitant scaling back of far-reaching military
commitments, Europeans have found it hard to let go of their civilizational goals.
Indeed Britain still reserves the right to engage in unprovoked wars in order to
defend them — as evidenced by Tony Blair’s active support of the American
intervention in Iraq in 2003. If we ever are to liberate ourselves from this
superiority complex, we need to rethink our relationship with non-European parts of
the world. A first step in this process of self-liberation is to return to the arguments
presented in the Great China Debate of 1857.
culture vs. civilization
At its core the Great China Debate concerned the relationship between culture and
civilization. Culture is necessarily local, it is embedded in a certain time and place;
the boundaries of cultures are drawn around societies and nations. Civilizations, by
contrast, spread across cultural boundaries and are shared between societies.
Civilization, moreover, implies a hierarchy of values. While the alternative to one
society’s culture is the culture of another society, the alternative to civilization is an
inferior and threatening state of barbarism. Thus, while cultures often can live side
by side with each other, no peaceful coexistence is possible between civilization and
its alternatives. Civilization is always “under threat” and “must be protected,” not
only because it represents our way of life, but above all because it represents
superior human values. Identifying oneself as the carrier of civilization is thus to
put oneself in an adversarial posture vis-à-vis the rest of the world. For civilization
to survive, we must either kill the savages, control, or civilize them.
In European history, France was always the great civilizing power.3 During the
ancien régime, French civilization spread in the form of fashion as European elites
adopted the language, clothes and manners of the Parisian court. After 1789,
French civilization — liberté, égalité, fraternité — inspired revolutionaries across
Europe, and those who did not heed the call were usually shaken up by the civilizing
mission of Napoleon’s armies. Throughout the nineteenth-century, French
politicians, Alexis de Tocqueville prominently among them, continued to insist that
the ideas which the French state represented had an obvious, universal, appeal.4
Germany, by contrast, was the country of Kultur.5 Lacking a common state, their
common culture was instead what united all Germans, and once a German state
was created, it invested heavily in maintaining and strengthening this shared
heritage. When Germany belatedly adopted the language of civilization — such as
when fighting the Herero in South-West Africa or the Russians during World War II —
the rhetoric was unconvincing and the policy obviously self-serving.6
British politicians and thinkers, for their part, were traditionally highly skeptical
of civilizational aims.7 Edmund Burke was famously scathing of the French
revolution which he saw as an assault on French culture by the proponents of empty
civilizational goals. True to this outlook, he was instrumental in putting Warren
Hastings on trial for crimes committed against the culture and people of India.8
Traditional British liberals were equally weary of civilizational crusades. As Jeremy
Bentham explained, what makes the greatest number of people happy is unlikely to
3 Brett Bowden, The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 26-30.
4 Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton University Press, 2006), 248.
5 Bowden, Empire of Civilization, 34-40.6 On the Herero, see Philipp Prein, “Guns and Top Hats: African Resistance in
German South West Africa, 1907-1915,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 20:1, 1994:99-122.
7 Pitts, A Turn to Empire, 26-100; Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 153-189.
8 Pitts, A Turn to Empire, 71-77
be the same in all societies, and colonies are a mercantilist mistake.9 Free
exchange will eventually spread some values and ways of life further than others,
but this is an unintended consequence of exchange and not its goal.10 All that
classical British liberals wanted to do was to peacefully go about their business.
It was only in the middle of the nineteenth-century, in a break with both
conservative and liberal traditions, that Britain came to embrace the idea of a
formal empire engaged in a civilizing mission.11 In the middle of the nineteenth-
century, a new breed of politicians and colonial administrators emerged for whom it
was obvious not only that British society was superior to other societies, but that
they represented a civilization, and that it was incumbent upon them to spread the
blessings of this civilization to others less fortunate than themselves. By taking on
“the white man’s burden” Britain transformed both its relations to the world outside
of Europe and its understanding of itself.
John Bowring and the walls of Guangzhou
“We have received the following telegraph dispatches from Trieste,” The Times
reported on December 29, 1856: a “serious collision” has taken place between
Britain and the Chinese authorities at Canton (Guangzhou).12 On October 8, the
Arrow, a ship under British registration, was boarded by the Chinese, the Union Jack
hauled down and 12 crew men arrested. When British authorities in Hong Kong
demanded an apology, the Chinese insisted they had done nothing wrong, and thus
“the matter was placed in the hands of Admiral Seymour.” Hostile action began on
October 24 when the forts guarding Guangzhou harbor were taken and the navy
9 Jeremy Bentham, “Essays on the Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation,” in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 1, ed. John Bowring (London: W. Trait, 1843).
10 Pitts, A Turn to Empire, 107-114.11 The work of the Mills, especially James, is crucial here. Ibid, 123-133. 12 “Bombardment of Canton,” The Times (London, December 29, 1856), 22563
edition. The following two quotes are from the same source. For an account see J. Y. Wong, Deadly Dreams: Opium and the Arrow War (1856-1860) in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 84-108.
opened fire on the city. On the 29th the city-walls were breached, and on November
3rd and 4th the city was repeatedly bombarded. Property “to a large amount” was
destroyed by fire and “commerce was at a standstill.” War between China and
Britain — the “Second Opium War” — had begun.
In the middle of the nineteenth-century, China still had limited intercourse with
the rest of the world: foreigners were not allowed to settle in the country, to trade
freely or to preach their religion; the Chinese had no permanent diplomatic missions
and little official interest in the rest of the world. Hoping to open China up to
international intercourse, not least to Indian-grown opium, the British had already
fought a war — the “First Opium War,” 1839-42 — concluded through the Treaty of
Nanjing, which granted foreigners trading rights in five Chinese ports and gave
Britain a permanent foothold in Hong Kong.13 Yet the Chinese authorities seemed to
be dragging their feet. Although foreigners, according to the agreement, should
have had unimpeded access to Guangzhou, the Chinese, citing the violently anti-
foreign sentiments of the population, refused to comply. And considering that a
flourishing trade could continue outside of the city-walls, the British authorities had
grudgingly agreed to this arrangement.14
This state of affairs was not good enough for John Bowring, the new governor of
Hong Kong, and when he took up his post in 1854 he sought to convince the
Chinese to live by the agreement. Back in London, Bowring had established himself
as a man of letters and a translator of poetry. Acquiring a knowledge of the main
European languages, he published a string of anthologies of Russian, Polish,
Serbian, Czech and Hungarian verse.15 Getting to know Jeremy Bentham in the
1820s, he joined the Westminster Review as an editor, and wrote on literature but
also extensively on matters of free trade. Bowring soon became Bentham's
13 See, for example, Wong, Deadly Dreams, 25, 28-31.14 See Palmerston’s statement from July 20, 1848, quoted by Lord Derby in House
of Lords, 24 February 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1172.15 See Arthur Prudden Coleman, “John Bowring and the Poetry of the Slavs,”
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 84, no. 3 (May 31, 1941): 431-459.
confidante, his literary executor, and the, sometimes unreliable, editor of his
Collected Works in eleven volumes.16
To Bowring the free-trade doctrine was merely one aspect of a more general
principle of “free communication” which he applied to every aspect of social life.
“Communication is civilization in activity,” he explained. “He who can communicate
cheaply and rapidly with all his fellows must be elevated by the very fact of that
communication.”17 Indefatigably, Bowring canvassed support for his chosen causes.
In the 1820s he was elected foreign secretary of the Society for the Promotion of
Permanent and Universal Peace, and in 1838 he was, together with Richard Cobden
and John Bright, a founding member of the Anti-Corn Law League.18 His translations
of poetry too were a part of this larger project: thanks to Bowring’s efforts, speakers
of even small European languages would be able to communicate their ideas freely
with the much larger English-speaking world.19
In 1835, after several unsuccessful attempts, Bowring became a member of
parliament, but, having lost money in the railway mania of the 1840s, he was forced
to look for a more lucrative position. In 1848 he was made Consul in Guangzhou
and in 1854 Governor of Hong Kong and British plenipotentiary in the East. Arriving
in China, Bowring was appalled by the Chinese attitude to outsiders. By restricting
intercourse with the rest of the world, the Chinese had assured their own
backwardness and stagnation. Besides, they limited the opportunities for everyone
else. As many British merchants convinced themselves, if they only could gain
access to the potentially enormous Chinese market their fortunes would be made.
The country constituted a market “so vast that all the mills of Lancashire could not
16 On the unreliability of Bowring as an editor, see Pitts, A Turn to Empire, 296-297.
17 Quoted David Todd, “John Bowring and the Global Dissemination of Free Trade,” The Historical Journal 51, no. 02 (2008):388. Bowring’s defense of free communication went as far as to reject quarantine regulations put in place during outbreaks of contagious diseases.
18 Ibid, 374.19 Coleman, “Poetry of the Slavs,” 431.
make stocking-stuff sufficient for one of its provinces.”20
Bowring quickly identified himself as the person who was going to open the
door to this endless emporium. Writing increasingly emotional dispatches both to
London and the Chinese, the gates of Guangzhou became the symbol of everything
he opposed.21 And, as befitting Bentham’s editor, his demands embodied a
profoundly Benthamite logic. Compare the “Panopticon,” Bentham’s notorious
blueprint for a prison, in which a “central inspector,” by making the prisoners
perfectly visible and himself perfectly invisible, easily could control any number of
inmates.22 In Guangzhou, “central inspection” was exactly what Bowring was
denied. Walls, after all, block visibility, and blocked visibility allows secrets to be
kept and prejudices to spread. Not surprisingly, the Chinese were famous both for
their walls and for their “inscrutability.” They had no interest in Bowring, the British
or their manufactures.
Bowring, in other words, started out as a British liberal of the classical type.
Like Bentham, his mentor, he believed civilization would spread quite naturally as a
consequence of free exchange — Bowring was simultaneously a member both of
the Anti-Corn Law League and the Peace Society. Once in China, however, he came
into contact with people who denied these truths. A classical liberal, working from
first principles, would have had to accept this state of affairs, but to Bowring the
commercial potential of the seemingly unlimited Chinese market was too much of a
temptation. The transfer to China had transformed his liberalism into a more
aggressive type. When the Arrow was seized by the Chinese authorities on October
8, 1856, he had just the pretext he had been looking for. When no apology was
20 According to a skeptical report: W.H. Mitchell, Parliamentary Papers, 33, 1859, Session 2, 2571:243-251.
21 See House of Commons, Correspondence Relative to Entrance into Canton, 1850-1855 (London: 1857).
22 Jeremy Bentham, “Panopticon; or, the Inspection-House: Containing the Idea of a New Principle of Construction Applicable to Any Sort of Establishment, in Which Persons of Any Description Are to Be Kept Under Inspection; and in Particular to Penitentiary-Houses,,” in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 4, ed. John Bowring (London: W. Trait, 1843), 37-172.
forthcoming from the Chinese authorities, he coxed the Navy into action.
the Great China Debate of 1857
When news of the war in China reached London, Bowring’s conduct was discussed
in both Houses of Parliament during no fewer than six session between February 24
and March 3, 1857. Bowring’s critics were well-prepared and eloquent, and he was
attacked from all sides — the right, the left and the center. As his detractors
insisted, Bowring had acted immorally, illegally, and in blatant contradiction with
the instructions he had received from London. A government which condoned such
conduct must be censored by parliament.
In the Lords it was Edward Smith Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby, who first
raised the issue.23 Derby was the leader of the Conservative opposition and himself
a former Prime Minister. He feared public opinion and regarded parliament, elected
by a restricted franchise, as the only legitimate voice of the British people. In the
1840s he had defended the protectionist Corn Laws on the grounds that they served
as a bulwark against social change. Like all proper English aristocrats, Derby loved
horse-racing, and he helped establish the rules which still regulate the sport.24 It
may indeed have been his sense of fair-play which prompted him to raise the
question of Bowring’s conduct: “I am an advocate,” as he put it, “for perplexed and
bewildered barbarism against the arrogant demands of overweening, self-styled
civilization.”25 And the fact that he had to launch this defense in front of an English
audience did not deter him in the least since he trusted in the sense of “equity and
justice and of humanity” of his fellow lords.
In the House of Commons it was Richard Cobden who led the attack. He was in
all respects the opposite of Derby: a radical and a self-made man, a founding
member of the Anti-Corn Law League and the most vocal proponent of free trade
23 Thomas E. Kebbel, Life of the Earl of Derby, K.G. (London: W.H. Allen & Co, 1893), 303-332.
24 The Times, July 11, 1857, issue 22729.25 Lord Derby, House of Lords, 24 February, 1856, Hansard, vol 144, cc1155.
both in and outside of parliament. Cobden believed in all the radical causes: a
broadened franchise, abolition of the church rates, and Catholic emancipation. He
was also active in the peace movement and a supporter of disarmament and
negotiated settlements of international conflicts. On the question of the new China
war, however, he and Derby drew identical conclusions: Britain’s reputation in the
world required them to stand up for justice and for the Chinese.
Combining forces, Derby and Cobden began with the question of the Arrow. It
should be perfectly evident, they insisted, that Bowring's conduct was outrageous.
The ship, first of all, was not British. Built by the Chinese, with a Chinese owner and
a Chinese crew, the only thing British about it was the hired hand ― a 20 something
run-away apprentice ― who served as its nominal captain.26 Our officials in Hong
Kong acted in contradiction with our own laws when they registered this ship as a
British vessel. As everyone knew, the only reason this practice persisted was to
protect illicit trade ― and the Arrow was a notorious salt and opium smuggler.27
Even more damagingly, Lord Derby continued, at the time of the arrest the Arrow's
registration had lapsed and the ship was for that reason no longer entitled to British
protection.28 While Bowring acknowledged as much when dealing with British
officials, he had continued, in correspondence with the Chinese, to demand an
apology. “I ask you,” said Derby, turning to his fellow lords, “whether in your hearts
and consciences you are satisfied to rest a declaration of war, or still more, war
without a declaration, upon such a flimsy case?”29 If we fail to censor Bowring’s
conduct, as Cobden concluded, we make ourselves party to his guilt. ”What I ask is,
that we shall inquire who were the authors of this war, and why it was commenced?
and that I ask not in the interest of the Chinese, but for the defence of our own
26 The Englishman on-board, “as he very candidly admits in his deposition,” was only the nominal master. Lord Derby, House of Lords, 24 February 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1167.
27 Wong, Deadly Dreams, 58.28 Lord Derby, House of Lords, 24 February 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1169.29 Ibid, cc1165.
The second issue concerned access to the city of Guangzhou. Here the
accusations against Bowring were equally serious. It was true, Derby
acknowledged, that the Nanjing Treaty had granted foreign powers unimpeded
access to five Chinese ports, including Guangzhou, but given the hostility of the
inhabitants, it had been wise of British authorities not to press the point. For
practical purposes the question was immaterial since Britain just as easily could
trade outside of the city-walls. Our trade with China is flourishing, Cobden noted,
not least since China, in contrast to everywhere else in the world, sets tariffs at a
flat 5 percent rate. “I only wish that we had, not five ports but, one port in France,
Austria, or Russia, where we should have the same low tariff as we now have in
China.”31 The war, said Cobden, concerned nothing but Bowring's ludicrous desire
to enter the city itself, “in one costume or another,” in order to meet with the local
officials.32 Surely, said Derby, his obsession with the city-walls of Guangzhou
constitutes a “monomania.” “I believe he dreams of the entrance into Canton, I
believe he thinks of it first thing in the morning, the last thing at night, and in the
middle of the night if he happen to awake.”33
In pursuing the issue in this way, Derby continued, Bowring had gone against
his instructions since, before leaving for China, he had explicitly been told not to
“resort to measures of force without previous reference home.”34 Cobden, however,
was not so sure. Perhaps, it seemed to him, Bowring had not really acted on his
own. When the present government came to power in 1853, “there seemed to be
some slackening of the rein, leading to the inference that the check previously held
over our representative was withdrawn.” “I believe,” Cobden concluded, that “there
30 Richard Cobden, House of Commons, 26 February, 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1393.
31 Hobson elaborates on this point in a letter, see John A. Hobson, Richard Cobden: The International Man (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1919), 198.
32 Richard Cobden, House of Commons, 26 February, 1857, Hansard, vol. 144, cc. 1414. See also Hobson, Richard Cobden, 217.
33 Lord Derby, House of Lords, 24 February 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1177.34 Quoted in Ibid.
was a preconceived design to pick a quarrel.” This was a point expanded on by
Benjamin Disraeli in his intervention. Noting that Bowring made his opinions very
widely known, Disraeli concluded that the government “were, therefore, cognizant
of his views, and I think it is not going too far to assume that they approved of
But Bowring and the government were not only attacked from the right and the
left but also from the center — by MPs like John Russell and Sidney Herbert. Russell,
was a grandee of the Whig party and a former Prime Minister whose position
eventually had been eclipsed by the slow but inexorable rise of Lord Palmerston.36
Russell was a free-trader, like Cobden, and a reformer — an active force behind the
Great Reform Act of 1832 — but he was no democrat and there were strict limits to
the kinds of reforms he was willing to contemplate. John Russell spoke on the first
night of the debate, and he did not miss this opportunity to assert his
independence.37 Bowring, said Russell, acted far too rashly, he should have
consulted with London, and the parliament should have been involved in the
decision from the start. Now that the matter finally had come before the House, we
cannot be a party to this attempt to “prostitute the British flag” and sell our honor
for commercial advantage.
Sidney Herbert agreed. He was a Tory and a conservative, but of liberal
persuasions.38 In the 1840s, Herbert had supported Robert Peel in abolishing the
Corn Laws but in the Great China Debate he, and other fellow Peelites, joined Derby
in opposing the government. He was a great friend of British exporters, Herbert
declared, but he was not willing to compromise Britain’s honor. As for the Chinese
he believed them to be “most precocious” and to possess “an extraordinary degree
35 Benjamin Disraeli, House of Commons, 3 March 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1836.
36 John Prest, “Russell, John,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
37 John Russell, House of Commons, 26 February 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1465-1474.
38 Athur H. Stanmore, Sidney Herbert, Lord Herbert of Lea: A Memoir (London: Murray, 1906), 74.
of refinement,” but also to be capable of “great cruelty, selfishness, and the most
degrading vices.”39 “I am one of those who think you ought not to treat Orientals as
you would treat Europeans,” but you must first make sure that you are in the right.
“I confess I see with the deepest sorrow force exercised with so little mercy, upon a
pretext so transparent.”40
In arriving at their shared judgment from such diverse starting-points,
Bowring’s critics followed traditional lines of argumentation. Lord Derby, a
Conservative and a skeptic of free trade, reacted against the very idea of a
civilizational mission. British liberties were rooted in British culture and could not
simply be dug up and exported abroad. Derby was proud of British traditions, but
for this very reason he understood the importance of respecting the traditions of
others. Cobden, a Radical and an advocate of free trade, strongly supported the
liberal values he associated with European civilization, but as he saw it civilization
cannot be spread through war. The world economy is a seamless web of exchange
where there are no privileged players. If trade is to remain free it cannot be forced.
It is only through our success that we can show the Chinese the advantages of open
borders. Meanwhile, said Cobden, China deserves our respect:
If, in speaking of them, we stigmatise them as barbarians, and threaten them with force because we say they are inaccessible to reason, it must be because we do not understand them; because their ways are not our ways, nor our ways theirs.
The critics at the center — Russell, Herbert, and the Peelites — combined these two
positions: they were in favor of cultural values but also in favor of free, unforced,
trade. As such they had double reasons to criticize Bowring’s conduct and to stand
up for the Chinese.
39 Sidney Herbert, House of Commons, March 2, 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc.1670-1671.
40 Ibid, cc1679.
Palmerston’s speech, and the vote
The Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, spoke on the last day of the debate, on March
3. Starting out as a Tory, Palmerston had been elected to parliament in 1806; he
joined the government in 1809, and continued in power, in various positions and
with only short periods in opposition, for over half a century.41 In the latter half of
the 1840s, he was Secretary of State and from 1852 he was Prime Minister.
Although a strong supporter of the liberal, nationalist, revolutions on the Continent,
Palmerston was no domestic reformer, yet his personal qualities nevertheless made
him popular.42 He was approachable, jovial, and more than willing to meet with
deputations of workingmen to discuss their grievances.43 His popularity was also
boosted by his stance on foreign policy. He was an aggressive advocate of British
interests, most famously expressed, in 1850, in the so called “Don Pacifico speech”
where he had defended the right of the Royal Navy to intervene in order to make
sure that “a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that
the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice
In his speech on March 3, 1857, Palmerston began by vouching for Bowring’s
personal qualities and then went on to vilify Yeh Mingchen, the Governor of
Guangdong province. Yeh, Palmerston said, “is one of the most savage barbarians
that ever disgraced a nation.”45 Within the last couple of months alone, “he has
executed some 70,000 of his own subjects, leaving thousands of corpses to rot right
41 David Steele, “Temple, Henry John, Third Viscount Palmerston,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
42 Indeed Sidney Herbert referred to him as an “old-fashioned ultra-Tory leading the Liberal party,” who “hates Reform as he hates the Devil.” Stanmore, Sidney Herbert, 80, 89.
43 Antony Taylor, “Palmerston and Radicalism, 1847-1865,” The Journal of British Studies 33, no. 2 (April 1994):176-179.
44 Lord Palmerston, House of Commons, 25 June 1850, Hansard, vol 112, cc380-444.
45 Quoted in Huang Yen-yu, “Viceroy Yeh Ming-ch'en and The Canton Episode (1856-1861): 1. Hsieh Fu-ch'eng (1838-1894),” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 6, no. 1 (March 1941): 37-45.
where they were beheaded,” and he, moreover, has put a price on the heads of all
Englishmen in Hong Kong. To defend such a character is surely both unpatriotic and
immoral. There was in Cobden’s speech, Palmerston continued, “an anti-English
feeling,” and “an abnegation of all those ties which bind men to their country and to
their fellow-countrymen”; “everything that was English was wrong, and everything
that was hostile to England was right.”46
As for the Arrow, Palmerston avoided legal subtleties since they do not “touch
the bottom of this matter.”47 The point is not what actually was the case, but what
the Chinese believed was the case, and they clearly thought the ship was British.
“We have a treaty with China, and that treaty says that British vessels shall not be
boarded, and men taken out of them without a previous application to the British
Consul.”48 Consequently it was not wrong to demand an apology. We cannot carry
on our commerce with China if our vessels are “liable to all the caprices of Chinese
police or Chinese authorities, and to have their whole crews carried off at the
moment of sailing.”49 We could perhaps have solved the issue through negotiations,
but that is precisely the problem — the Chinese have no regular diplomatic
intercourse with the rest of the world.
There are people in this House, Palmerston noted, who insist on respecting the
Chinese, but we cannot trust them to judge British subjects fairly and this is why we
cannot treat that country the way we treat others. “In all our treaties with nations
less civilized than those in Europe” we need to make special arrangements in order
to protect the interests of British subjects. This is how we deal with Turkey and
Persia, and in the case of China, with their “ferocious system of administration,”
such stipulations are even more necessary.50 Ancient Rome defended its citizens
against arbitrary treatment, and we insist on the right to do the same. The words
46 Lord Palmerston, House of Commons, March 4, 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1832.47 Ibid, cc1813-1814.48 Ibid, cc1814.49 Ibid, cc1820.50 Ibid, cc1822-1823.
Palmerston used here —“Civis Romanus sum,” “I am a Roman citizen” — invoked
the Don Pacifico speech where he had used that exact phrase to great effect.
We are not trying to make China into a colony, Palmerston insisted. To
establish “free commercial intercourse” with the Chinese does not mean that “their
independence would be invaded.” On the contrary, it would be “to the great and
manifest advantage of the people of China if a larger commercial intercourse were
established between them and other countries.”51 The Treaty of Nanjing did not go
far enough, and this is proven by the fact that our trade has not improved as much
as we expected. We know there is an enormous market in China which would allow
“an immense augmentation of European commerce,” but as long as access to that
market is denied us we are forced to sell opium since we have no other way of
paying for our imports.52 If we apologize to the Chinese and censor our officials,
then Yeh, “raising a song of triumph,” can say that “[t]hese cowardly Englishmen
are afraid of me.”53 This would give him a license to go on bullying us and put all
British subjects at risk. By voting for this resolution you will pass a sentence of
death on Englishmen in China and assure the destruction of their property. “The
honour, the dignity, and the interests of the country” are at stake.54
In responding to the critics, Lord Palmerston, formulated a doctrine which
combined nationalism with civilizational goals. He was in favor of free trade, but at
the same time he believed that free trade could be forced. International exchange
was not a seamless web; there were privileged players who organized the system
through political and military action. Just as in Bentham’s prison, some people were
inspectors and others were inspected. Only once the system was set-up in this way
could free exchange take place. Free markets, in other words, were created through
state action.55 Since Palmerston, like all liberals at the time, equated free exchange
51 Ibid, cc1827.52 Ibid, cc1828.53 Ibid, cc1830.54 Ibid, cc1833-1834.55 Compare Polanyi's discussion of the role of the state in creating domestic,
national, markets in the nineteenth-century. Karl Polanyi, , The Great
with the spread of civilization, this was also a civilizational mission. Civilization
would be spread through the gradual extension of British influence in the world.
On March 3, the motion was finally put to a vote: “this House considers that the
papers which have been laid on the table fail to establish satisfactory grounds for
the violent measures resorted to at Canton in the late affair of the Arrow.”56 The
motion was defeated in the House of Lord, but carried, by sixteen votes, in the
House of Commons. Palmerston dissolved the parliament on March 5 and called for
an election to the House of Commons to be held on March 27.57
the “Chinese election” of 1857
Once parliament was dissolved, the election campaign began immediately. Initially
both Cobden and Palmerston were perfectly confident of their chances. “I am sure
there is no safer battle-ground than the Chinese business,” Cobden wrote to James
Graham, a Derbyite, on March 16. “Our opponents will try to escape the issue, but
we must rub their noses in it.”58 Palmerston was equally sure of success. After all,
the coalition opposing him looked perfectly ridiculous — Derby, the conservative
Corn Law defender had teamed up with Cobden, the radical Corn Law opponent and
with the Peelites. There was no way they could form a government together. In
Palmerston’s mind, the election was not about choosing a new government as much
as a referendum on him personally.59 And he knew he was popular with the voters.
Palmerston pursued a simple strategy: the choice was for or against him and for
or against Britain. While he, Bowring, and the government, had stood up for their
country, Cobden, Derby and their supporters had koutou-ed to foreigners. This was
Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).56 House of Commons, March 4, 1857, Hansard, vol 144, cc1832.57 The voting was actually spread out between March 27 and April 24, with most
results being available during the first week of April.58 Quoted in Gavin B. Henderson, “The Pacifists of the Fifties,” The Journal of
Modern History 9, no. 3 (September 1937):340. Cf. Hobson, Richard Cobden, 205-206.
59 Edwin Hodder, The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, K.G. (London: Cassell & Co, 1886), 43-44.
a spineless, academic and unmanly posture of which all true Britons should be
ashamed. And just as in the House of Commons, Palmerston poured abuse on the
Chinese — and on Yeh in particular — arguing that it was both immoral and
dangerous to defend the rights of such people. Through their ill-conceived
humanitarianism, the opposition had undermined the position of British officials and
put the lives of British subjects at risk. The leading newspapers, including The
Times and The Economist, gave strong backing to Palmerston, amplifying and
expanding on these points.60
Once they came face to face with the voters, the opposition quickly realized the
trouble they were in. Several MPs who had voted against the government were
deselected by their constituencies, and Cobden himself abandoned his seat in West
Riding and moved to Huddersfield where he thought he had better chances. In the
City of London, John Russell was not given an official endorsement and had to run as
an independent. And even where the opposition’s candidates were chosen, they
were subject to heckling and suspicion. Up and down the country “Palmerston For
Ever”-rallies were organized by supporters of the government and their arguments
had a strong populist appeal.61 John Bowring was introduced as a man of the
people, who liked his beef and his ale, and Palmerston became a friend of the poor
and a great reformer.62 To the opposition this was absurd. It could never be in the
national interest to get involved in expensive, far-away, wars, they argued, and
Britain’s international standing had suffered from Bowring’s irresponsible actions.
As for Palmerston, to portray him as a friend of the workingman was a cruel joke.63
60 See, for example, “Lord Palmerston's Address to the Constituency ...,” The Times, March 24, 1857, 22636 edition; "The Election: Its Issues and Its Opportunities,” The Economist, March 21, 1857. Cobden insinuates that both papers were paid off by the government. See Hobson, Richard Cobden, 218-219.
61 Taylor, “Palmerston and Radicalism,” 176-177.62 “The ‘Great’ City Meeting, Convened with so Much Solemnity ...,” The Morning
Chronicle (London, March 14, 1857), 28151.63 Cobden openly admitted his bafflement at Palmerston’s success with working-
class audiences after his tumultuous reception at Glasgow: “There is no doubt that the demonstration was shared with the working-class, which is certainly one of the most singular and inexplicable of public incidents.” Quoted in Taylor,
Yet nothing the opposition said seemed to help. “I might almost say the universal
opinion, is in favour of Palmerston at any price,” Sidney Herbert reported from
Warminster.64 “I am very much alarmed at the state of things in Manchester,” wrote
Cobden. “There is terrible rottenness and apathy, and desertions almost by
The election was held on March 27, and Palmerston’s government was returned
in a landslide. The Liberals received 64.77% of the vote — up 7% — and the Tories
got 34.45% — down 7.1%. More significant still was the composition of the two
parties. While pro-Palmerston candidates overwhelmingly were returned, the
leading anti-Palmerston candidates were all beaten, including Cobden and Bright,
and many Peelites received the same treatment. John Russell survived in the City of
London, but only thanks to his personal popularity. Clearly, they had all been
seriously out of touch with the feelings of the voters. Cobden tried to put a brave
face on things, insisting that he was sad not for himself but for his many friends who
had lost their seats.66
learning our lessons
As a result of the Chinese Election of 1857, a number of lessons were learned. The
first lesson, lets argue, concerned the power of nationalism. The candidates who
defended their country, no matter what, won favor with the voters; the candidates
who stood up for foreigners, no matter how justified, were punished. Palmerston
had hit on a winning formula. It was easy to portray British officials as honest and
well-intentioned, and equally easy to portray foreigners, not least Chinese, as
corrupt and murderous. And if the evidence was lacking, it could easily be made
“Palmerston and Radicalism,” 178.64 Stanmore, Sidney Herbert, 80; Hodder, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, 43-44.65 Hobson, Richard Cobden, 205-206.66 Ibid, 207-208.67 See Cobden’s warnings in Ibid, 210.
The success of nationalistic appeals was particularly significant in relation to
the question of the expansion of the franchise. The more “popular” the
constituency, the more enthusiastically they responded to Palmerston’s rhetoric.
For Cobden, who always had seen himself as a defender of the common man, this
was hard to swallow. “The most warlike returns,” he admitted, “have come from the
most popular constituencies, the least warlike from the most aristocratic
counties.”68 Cobden was in favor of a universal franchise but he was also in favor of
peace, and as the election results showed, these could be contradictory
objectives.69 For traditional elites, however, the power of nationalistic appeals
provided a means of expanding the franchise while they simultaneously could retain
political control. The lesson the Chinese Election taught them was that the votes of
ordinary people were easily manipulated. Palmerston hates reforms, as Sidney
Herbert concluded, and this is why he dislikes peace: wars make it possible to
postpone reforms, while peace makes reforms inevitable.70
A second lesson concerned how to deal with Orientals. Late in May, 1857 —
only three months after the Great China Debate — native troops in British India rose
up in rebellion. The rebels captured large parts of the northern plains of the
subcontinent and for a while they seriously threatened British control. When news
of the uprising reached London, the situation was discussed in parliament, but this
time the outcome was very different from earlier the same spring. The radicals and
pacifists — Cobden, Bright and their friends — were no longer present in the House
and the few remaining Peelites were thoroughly cowered. “The verdict of the
country,” Sidney Herbert concluded, “imposes quiescence on us.”71 As they knew
by now, there was nothing to be gained by defending foreigners and peace was not
a workable strategy. Even Cobden, in the privacy of his retirement, worried about