Category Archives: economics

L.A.’s Railroad Boom, 1887

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 261-267:

Always before, the Santa Fe’s arrival in a new town set off metaphorical fireworks. But at Pueblo, Raton, and the many other towns along the Santa Fe line, the display had amounted only to a bang and a shower of sparks. L.A. was the ultimate, and the Santa Fe’s arrival there produced a grand finale of thunderous booms and sizzling meteors and bursting flower blossoms and dazzling curlicues and startling zigzags that lit up the sky not just for the spectators gazing up from below but for the whole country watching from afar. The trains unleashed a torrent of newcomers like nothing America had ever seen, or ever would see again. Four jam-packed Santa Fe trains a day pulled into its spanking new L.A. station, and, not to be outdone, the Southern Pacific sent in no fewer. Between them, the two lines brought in 300,000 people just over the first six months, ten times the city’s resident population. The new arrivals filled hotels and boardinghouses as fast as they could be put up, some of the guests reportedly sleeping in bathtubs. And plenty of these newcomers built houses and stayed. Two thousand real estate agents saw to that. By 1890, the L.A. population had shot up to over 150,000, more than five times what it had been five years before, with most of the growth coming since the Santa Fe’s arrival in 1887. It made for the biggest surge in population of any city in the history of the United States.

Of all the places in the West, Los Angeles was least likely to disappoint. That was its appeal. It was not paradise, but by eastern standards, it came damn close. It had a superb climate—not too hot, not too cold, but just right practically all year round.

The grand vision took few years to fully settle in. Initially, the frenzy for Los Angeles real estate, sparked by the miracle of California for a dollar [thanks to cutthroat competition between the two railway companies], was oddly formless but was such an electrifying phenomenon that it acquired a new word to describe the frantic buying: “boom!” (usually with the exclamation mark included). There had been real estate bubbles before, but they had always popped. L.A. real estate, and the land around it, really was worth buying at ever-higher prices—and, indeed, they’ve almost never come down since. The boom had its publicists in town—every real estate salesman and developer doubled as one—but the unusual thing was that it had infinitely more boosters all over the country. It seemed an entire industry had sprouted up to promote the wonders of L.A. in printed matter of every type—brochures, posters, features, editorials, newspaper items, all adorned with copious illustrations of the good life and detailed maps showing potential real estate buyers what was where. Of all the endorsements, though, by far the most effective were the letters back home from people who actually had moved to L.A. They were so delighted with their new lives in the warm air, they wanted their friends and family to join them. In just the first six months of 1887, a staggering $100 million worth of Los Angeles property was sold. A typical lot on Seventh Street in downtown L.A. zoomed from $11,000 in 1886 to $80,000 a year later, post Santa Fe. The venerable pueblo turned itself into a true city almost overnight, as plans almost immediately came forth for a new city hall, a new courthouse, more schools, proper sewers, and, finally, paved streets.

Between January of 1887 and July of 1889, sixty brand new towns came into existence in Los Angeles County, twenty-five of them along the Santa Fe tracks to San Bernardino. They appeared “like scenes conjured up by Aladdin’s lamp,” went one contemporary account. They popped up everywhere—“Out of the desert, in the river wash, or a mud flat, upon a barren slope or hillside.” It seemed the Santa Fe created a land boom wherever it went, creating handsome, thriving places like Lincoln Park, Monrovia, Glendora, Altadena, Duarte, and Pomona, whose Congregational Church sprouted a college that then spawned Claremont and four more. In his excitement, [William Barstow] Strong sent tracks nearly everywhere in greater L.A. He ran a line out to the Pacific coast to build up Santa Monica, turning the site of the early American colony into a hotspot, and another southwest to Redondo to inspire a spectacular hotel on the beach. He sent yet another southeast to Santa Ana and then farther down the coast to San Diego to give that city a second train, along the way building up Anaheim, previously just a vineyard tended by a few hundred German immigrants, the Quaker-founded Whittier, and the new city of Orange. He even sent a train out just to do a crazy loop around newly burgeoning Riverside.

The BNSF Railway’s Southern Transcon route from Chicago to L.A. was later roughly paralleled by U.S. Route 66, the “Mother Road” that carried so many people west during later decades.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, industry, migration, travel, U.S.

Central Pacific Railroad’s “Big Four”

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 203-205:

WHILE JUST ABOUT EVERY OTHER railroad in America was customarily topped by just one man, be it Strong, Palmer, or Jay Gould, the Southern Pacific had four, the “Big Four” as they were known, when they weren’t more dryly referred to as “The Associates.”

The Big Four had all once been Sacramento shopkeepers who’d come west in the gold rush, only to realize that the real money was not likely to come from panning for gold, but in selling dry goods to the fools who didn’t know any better. “I never had any idea or notion of scrambling in the dirt,” said the best-known of them, Collis P. Huntington. When the gold showed signs of petering out, the Big Four turned to the next big thing: the Central Pacific Railroad, which, unlike the gold, could be all theirs, every bit of it.

With the Federal government on the hook for so much of the construction money, the Big Four needed to scrounge up just $300,000 among them to buy a controlling interest in the railroad and win a broad swath of federal land on either side of the tracks. That land amounted to one-eighth of the state—the most valuable one-eighth, since it was the portion served by the railroad. Once they snapped up the subsidiary lines to control the state’s traffic, they effectively took charge of the state itself. Even in its earliest incarnation as the Central Pacific, the company was called the “third party” that actually ran the state, topping whichever of the two political parties foolishly imagined it was in power. It was said that before an elected California official went to Washington, the Central Pacific placed a collar around his neck bearing the words “Central Pacific” “so if he is lost or strayed he may be recaptured and returned to his lawful owners.” When the state created a three-man railroad commission to investigate the monopoly prices imposed by the Big Four, two of them were on the Central Pacific payroll. Rates, needless to say, remained untouched.

On the all-important greed scale, Mark Hopkins ranked lowest of the Big Four. He was a gaunt, lisping vegetarian of abstemious habits and a bookkeeper’s caution. He was also the first to go, dying in his sleep in his private railroad car in 1878. Then came Charles Crocker—or Charley, the only Associate personable enough to get a nickname—a former newsboy who turned lazy with wealth. “His feet are more often on the desk than under it,” the San Francisco Examiner once wrote. Shortly after, Crocker cashed out and went off on a two-year sojourn to the honey spots of Europe before buying back in. He was best known for putting up a $2.3 million house on a solid block of San Francisco’s Nob Hill, where he installed a forty-foot “spite fence” facing his neighbor, a Chinese undertaker who’d refused to sell him his parcel. (The undertaker retaliated by placing a coffin atop his roof and flying over it a flag of a skull and crossbones.) Next came the handsome, confidently full-bearded Leland Stanford. He had a touch of public-spiritedness, trying for the governorship before becoming a US senator, as well as enlisting the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge to take the now-famous shots of galloping racehorses that led to moving pictures. He also created Stanford University to memorialize a son who died young. He had a gargantuan Nob Hill mansion of his own, albeit a more tasteful one, with Italianate architecture and a stone entrance hall inlaid with signs of the zodiac in black marble.

Collis P. Huntington was without question the greed champion. The Great Persuader to some, the great conniver to others, he stood a robust six feet, with metal-gray eyes, and dressed in funereal black, as if preparing to bury his many enemies. The only speck of cheer on him was a gold pinky ring. If there was ever a trace of human sympathy on his face, his heavy beard concealed it. Born to a broken-down farmer in Poverty Hollow, Connecticut, Huntington went West via Panama to get in on the gold rush. But there were no carriages waiting to carry the ship’s passengers across the isthmus, and, stranded in the boiling heat for two months, passengers fell to famine and disease until Huntington hacked thirty-nine miles through the jungle to find food to sell to starving customers for a three-fold markup. The money bankrolled his first store. Collis P. Huntington.

With Huntington leading the way, the Big Four used their railroad monopoly to preserve their influence, forcing communities to pay exorbitant fees for tracks, and then charging outrageous prices to use them. And death to any invader. The first to try was Tom Scott, the domineering head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then the country’s largest train company. Two years before the Pacific Railroad was complete, Scott wanted to join the Pennsylvania to the Central Pacific at Denver to create the nation’s second transcontinental. Huntington got his friends in Congress to kill his bid.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, industry, migration, travel, U.S.

Rail Tourism on the Santa Fe Railway

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 192-193:

While both [William Barstow] Strong [of Sante Fe RR] and the General [Palmer of Rio Grande RR] sought a certain elevation in the travel experience, only Palmer associated it with exclusivity. Strong was not trying to appeal to a privileged few, but to a receptive many. His impulse was democratic, a matter of numbers. Strong always trusted volume.

The Santa Fe was not the first railroad to carry tourists, but it was the first to cater to them. The Harvey Houses were the first to develop the postcard for their guests to show off the local scenery to friends back home. Harvey soon added full tourist books that gave the West a romantic gloss for eastern consumption, and organized tours of the nearby countryside playing up the local color.

To enhance a sense of place, he displayed the indigenous architectural styles of the Southwest in his hotels, rather than adopt European standards as Palmer had done. In the city of Santa Fe, for instance, Harvey built La Fonda in the Spanish pueblo tradition, solidifying the adobe character of the city. And he made Native American culture a selling point. At some of his hotels, Harvey organized “Indian Tours” of the nearby Indian lands, where he arranged for natives to be on display, and created in-hotel retail shops to sell the jewelry, artwork, and other artisanal creations of the local tribes. He used an Indian thunderbird emblem for the Harvey House logo, and slapped it on every plate, bowl, and piece of cutlery in his eateries. He also brought in anthropologists to record the traditional ways of these vanishing tribes and encouraged artists and photographers to capture their spirit before it was lost. The movement ultimately brought artists such as Georgia O’Keefe to Taos.

As Strong pushed ever deeper into the West, he gained for his railroad the Harvey House aura of service—reliability and good taste. Advertising “Fred Harvey Meals All the Way,” the Santa Fe made clear it was not just another railroad. And Strong was now poised to take the Santa Fe brand all the way to the sea.

The Far Outliers indulged in a rather luxurious rail-tour vacation around the Canadian Rockies earlier this month, including four days aboard Rocky Mountaineer trains. The first-of-the-season train from Vancouver to Jasper (via busy Whistler and quirky Quesnel) had fewer cars and about 200 passengers; while the train back from Banff to Vancouver (via sprawling Kamloops), had many more cars and about 800 passengers. Pent-up travel demand is swelling passenger counts this season (May to October). We saw lots of fantastic scenery and learned a lot of fascinating history, but the two highlights of our trip were a private nature walk (dodging elk) through the hills above Jasper with multitalented Marie-Pierre Flip0-Bergeron of All Things Wild, and a private sunrise photography tour around Banff with sharp-eyed adventurer Nick Hardinge of Rocky Mountain Photo Adventures. The best of my photographic attempts on the trip can be found on my Flickr site.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, democracy, economics, education, food, industry, labor, migration, travel, U.S.

Wild West Law Enforcement, c. 1880

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 160-161:

At the end of 1878, Colorado had been a state for only two years. Most of its western neighbors were still territories and would remain so for decades more. While the Colorado governor held the power to call out the state militia, it was a largely untrained force of irregular volunteers. There was no police force worth the name, just city marshals with a few deputies, who concerned themselves with individual crimes like murder, fraud, and theft. Horse theft was still on the books as a hanging offense, and, in mining camps, a five-dollar theft was enough to earn a noose from Judge Lynch. There was no state police, let alone any FBI, to deal with the larger-scale crimes of more powerful interests. In 1864, an innovative Denver city marshal named Dave Cook had the idea of creating a regional police force, the Rocky Mountain Detective Association, to counter broader-scale criminality, relying on cable communication to coordinate crime fighting across the West from Wyoming to Texas. At its height, it consisted of over a hundred cowboy detectives, most of them city marshals, and accounted for several thousand arrests over the thirty-five years of its existence.

But even that effort was somewhat ad hoc, designed to solve only the crimes for which there was reward money. While the Wild West was often thought to be populated by murderers and desperadoes, such criminality was mostly confined to seedy hotbeds like Deadwood, Tucson, and Dodge City that were filled with drunken cowboys out for a good time. Elsewhere, life was fairly sedate; people needed to be good neighbors to survive.

In the territories, and in fledgling states like Colorado, government was not designed to serve voters so much as the powerful moneyed interests who controlled the fortunes of the elected officials. The railroad men were at the top of this list, but cattlemen, developers, miners, and wholesalers had plenty of say. When those interests were threatened from below by, say, a miners’ strike, the governor might dispatch the militia to preserve order. But discord was much harder to contain when two powerful interests clashed, for each could usually call on friends in government to take their side, making the conflict nearly impossible to resolve.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, industry, labor, migration, travel, U.S.

Origins of the Santa Fe Railroad

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 83-85:

It no longer needed a visionary. It needed moneymen from the great capital centers of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

Of the three, Boston was the most railroad minded. It had been the nation’s first major hub, with any number of lines running in and out of the city. For a small city on a stub of a peninsula, Boston was surprisingly worldly. The first great Boston fortunes were made in the China trade, then amplified by investments in the textile mills of early industrialization, only to be compounded by provident marriages to the daughters of other wealthy Bostonians. The investors were referred to as the Boston Crowd because of this interbreeding. They were mostly drawn from that class of Bostonians—Brahmins was the derisive term—whose members were, in the main, Harvard-educated Episcopalians, with the occasional Unitarian thrown in, who lived for their clubs and thought of themselves as existing on a social plane only slightly down from God. They were like honeybees in a hive—industrious but interchangeable.

From this esteemed collective about the only one to emerge with a distinctive personality was Thomas Jefferson Coolidge—and he on the strength of a surprisingly frolicsome memoir he had privately printed, the copies limited to just forty-eight—who served as the Santa Fe president for a year starting in 1880. Coolidge took his middle name from the American president, his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, but his lineage could be traced back to a Coolidge who settled in Watertown, just downriver from Boston proper, in 1630.

Coolidge grew up in Canton, China, where his father was a partner in a Boston trading firm that dealt tea and opium in the China Trade. After Harvard, he married the daughter of William Appleton, clipper ship owner, European trader, president of Boston’s Second National Bank, congressman, president of the Massachusetts Hospital, and one of the richest men in the city.

Coolidge served as the ambassador to France, and on any number of important national commissions, but he prized above all else his membership in The Friday Club, which, he noted, had once blackballed the eminent Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the Supreme Court Justice, for fear he would dominate the conversation. His memoir is rich in frivolity—meeting the actress Fanny Kemble at a monastery in the Alps, touring the Caribbean aboard his eighty-foot yacht, riding a donkey to the temple of Ramses in Egypt.

In recounting his life, Coolidge mentioned his yearlong presidency of the Santa Fe railroad only in passing. In October of 1878, he wrote, he took his son and namesake for an extensive tour of the West that covered almost ten thousand miles, particularly enjoying the Colorado portion aboard the Santa Fe Railroad with one William Barstow Strong. Coolidge did not mention that he was a director of the company at the time. When he returned to the West two years later, he noted that he again boarded a Santa Fe train, but this time stepped off at Topeka, where “I was elected president of the Atchison Railroad at the annual meeting.”

Six sentences later, he was done with it. “I resigned as soon as I could,” he wrote. “I think in about a year and a half.” He failed to mention that on assuming the presidency, he had purchased $700,000 worth of the company. The point being, he presided over the Santa Fe only as an investor. The moment the investment seemed unpromising, he sold it and got out.

None of the Boston Crowd served as presidents for more than a few years. But this was the way of the modern corporation as they came to define it. They were not managers, but investors, and that inclined them toward caution in a business that demanded daring.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, democracy, economics, migration, opium, religion, travel, U.S.

Railroad Boom and Panic, 1870s

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 66-68:

The western trains didn’t just build America out. They built it up, raising America into the industrial colossus that was well on its way to succeeding the British empire as the mightiest in the world. By 1873, the railroads had succeeded farms to become the nation’s largest employer, the repository of most of its capital investment, the near-total basis of the stock market, and the creators of the most spectacular private fortunes the world had ever seen. The nation’s preeminent railroad man, Cornelius Vanderbilt of the New York Central and other railroad holdings, was well on his way to accumulating a fortune of $100 million, requiring a new word, tycoon, to describe someone so unimaginably rich. Many more tycoons would follow.

The speed of the transformation was simply staggering. The Northern money that had previously been bankrolling the Civil War shifted to building trains. By 1873, the total railroad investment had tripled after the close of the war to $3.7 billion, taking the total number of train companies operating in the US to an astounding 364. They pulled the entire economy along with them, raising the number of businesses in America by 50 percent in one year, 1870, alone.

No one demonstrated this shift—and its hazards—more than the financier Jay Cooke. He had been a major player in financing the war effort, dispatching thousands of salesmen into the northern countryside to sell $1 billion in war bonds to villagers who wanted to do their bit. Now that the war was over, Cooke switched to selling Northern Pacific railroad bonds on a similar basis, creating a bank in Philadelphia as his repository. The Northern Pacific had been created by Congress as a second Union Pacific—a private corporation relying on federal funding—but it suffered from the same flaw, much magnified. If there had been little immediate market for the lands of the Union Pacific, there was even less for the lands of the Northern Pacific that ran farther up along the chilly outback of the north. Tracklaying went so slowly, and the returns were so meager, that the company was still a thousand miles short of completion when the Crédit Mobilier scandal broke in 1873, exposing the Northern Pacific’s massive vulnerabilities.

Alarmed, the partner who ran Cooke’s New York City branch frantically shifted his holdings to his wife’s name to preserve his fortune, then shuttered the bank to keep other Northern Pacific investors from retrieving their funds. Cooke then closed the main Philadelphia branch, causing the big bag of air that was the Northern Pacific to suddenly burst. “If I had been struck on the head with a hammer, I could have not been more stunned,” said one Northern Pacific executive. The Cooke bank’s collapse sparked a run on banks throughout the East, driving forty of them into bankruptcy, and shaking financial institutions everywhere. The president of the Bank of California killed himself when his bank collapsed. Five thousand businesses went under, taking $250 million in debts with them, dragging down lenders and driving up national unemployment to fourteen percent. A “mad terror” so convulsed the stock market, it had to close for ten days. Western Union stock dropped by half, railroads as a class by a third. A quarter of them, eighty-nine in all, went out of business.

In the past, there had been regular economic “panics”—the word for financial disruption—but they had been relatively brief. This one, the Panic of 1873, extended all the way through 1879. For its length, severity and sweep, it would rival the Great Depression as the greatest financial catastrophe in American history. This was the downside of the spectacular railroad boom: while both the railroads and the country grew together, they shrank together, too. Duluth, Wisconsin, had largely been created by the Northern Pacific, and when the railroad went into bankruptcy, Duluth became a ghost town, its population plunging from five thousand to thirteen hundred as refugees left to hunt for work elsewhere. The ruin stoked fury all along the railroad routes, culminating in the biggest job action in American history, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when eighty thousand railroad employees went out across the country, and a half million other workers followed in sympathy. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Railroad strikers set fire to the roundhouse, igniting the train station and starting a conflagration that burned down three square miles of the city.

1 Comment

Filed under economics, migration, travel, U.S., war

Origins of the Union Pacific Railroad

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 35-37, 47:

The first train to venture into the uncharted West was the Union Pacific, a new railroad company that had been created by Congress solely for the purpose. Extending out from the Midwest, the UP had linked up with another federal creation, the Central Pacific, coming in from California. Together, they created that first transcontinental, the Pacific Railway. May 10, 1869, was a glorious day for the young country, as it marked the occasion when the two lines met at Promontory Point in the Mormon country north of Salt Lake City. It was a fantastic engineering achievement and a triumph of heroic perseverance, especially by the track layers, mostly Irish going west, mostly Chinese coming east, who engaged in a spirited competition to outdo the other. (That honor fell to the Chinese.) But when judged purely on commercial terms, the line was a dismal failure. It was the moonshot of the railroad era, an accomplishment that was only symbolically significant. It was all too telling that when Leland Stanford, one of the four powerful money men behind the Central Pacific, tried to slam home the Golden Spike with a monstrous hammer, he missed it entirely. This was especially embarrassing since the blow was to complete an electric circuit that would automatically send the thrilling news out over the telegraph wires that accompanied the tracks. A telegraph operator had to key in the word that flew around the world—“DONE!”—setting off a chorus of bell-ringing all across the country, led by Philadelphia’s cracked Liberty Bell. In San Francisco two hundred and twenty cannons boomed forth; Washington, D.C., fired a hundred more. Chicago greeted the news with the biggest parade of the century. And so it went, total jubilation all around the country. It was as if these intrepid Americans had discovered a new continent, come up with a spectacular invention, or won a world war. And, indeed, they had done all of these. What they had not done was find a sound business rationale for the endeavor.

A railroad to the Pacific had first been proposed by a New York merchant, Asa Whitney, back in 1844, and was long championed by the visionary engineer Theodore Judah. But it was the former railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln who pushed the initiative through as president in the war year of 1862. Lincoln had also set the width of track for the railroad, establishing the peculiar distance of four feet eight and a half inches as the national standard for a train system.

[Endnote:] Previously, American trains ran on a maddening hodgepodge of track widths. When Lincoln went by train from Springfield, Illinois, to New York City to receive the Republican presidential nomination for president in 1860, his trip took four days because of all the delays in transferring to trains on five different widths of track. If he had ridden a single width of track, the trip would likely have taken one.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, nationalism, travel, U.S., war

Nationalizing the Opium Trade

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

With the advent of a free, legal, and open Asian commerce in opium, the native merchants of India and China moved to dominate the trade, squeezing out the Europeans who had acted as go-betweens in the past. By the 1870s, the India-China opium trade was so firmly locked up in the hands of native traders on both sides that there was no longer much money to be made by the Western firms that had pioneered the “country” trade in the early part of the century. In the face of declining profits, Jardine, Matheson & Co. (now run by a slew of nephews and other descendants of the founders and their partners) pulled almost entirely out of the opium trade in 1873, joined by other large Western firms. Domestic production in China, meanwhile, kept rising—ultimately to such stupendous heights that it would dwarf the continued imports of the drug from India. The dawn of the twentieth century would find China producing ten times as much opium internally as it imported from abroad, an explosive abundance of cheap domestic narcotics that would create a public health emergency worlds beyond even the most exaggerated estimates of what had existed in the 1830s prior to the Opium War. So much for the virtues of legalization.

In spite of the best efforts of moral activists at home, the British government would ultimately do nothing to scale back the dependence of British India on opium revenues or otherwise try to help prevent the growth of the drug’s use in China. Meanwhile, the Qing dynasty would continue in its failure to suppress or even regulate the use of opium by the general public in China, wallowing in a quagmire of official corruption it could not escape. Up to the twentieth century, though, Britain’s role in that process would be dwelled upon more by westerners than by the Chinese. It was the English-speaking world that condemned it as “the Opium War” from the beginning, while Chinese writers through the nineteenth century, including Wei Yuan, simply referred to it as a border dispute or foreign incident. To them, opium was a domestic problem and the war was a minor affair in the grand scheme of China’s military history. Only after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 did historians in China begin to call this war “the Opium War” in Chinese, and only in the 1920s would republican propagandists finally transform it into its current incarnation as the bedrock of Chinese nationalism—the war in which the British forced opium down China’s throat, the shattering start to China’s century of victimhood, the fuel of vengeance for building a new Chinese future in the face of Western imperialism, Year Zero of the modern age.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, economics, India, nationalism, opium, war

Opium-funded Philanthropy in India

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 432-433:

Funneling the vast fortune from his China trade back into real estate in Scotland, Matheson would die the second-largest landowner in the entire United Kingdom.

Neither James Matheson nor William Jardine went in for significant philanthropy as John Murray Forbes’s uncle Thomas Handasyd Perkins had done in Boston, but a loftier place in public memory was reserved for Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Jardine’s longtime associate in Bombay. With a fortune made by dominating the opium and cotton export trade of western India, Jeejeebhoy poured his own money locally into Parsi charities, famine relief, schools, hospitals, and public works, establishing himself as one of the leading figures (the leading figure, by some fawning accounts) who turned Bombay from a colonial backwater into a modern global metropolis. A director of banks and newspapers along with managing his business empire and funding many charitable works, Jeejeebhoy was a steadfast supporter of British rule, and on February 14, 1842, just as the war in China was nearing its end, Queen Victoria knighted him. “I feel a high, I hope a justifiable pride,” he said at the time, “in the distinction of being enrolled in the knighthood of England, marked as that order has ever been by the brightest traits of loyalty and honor.”

Jeejeebhoy was the first Indian to become a British knight, and in 1857, Victoria would make him a baronet as well. The name of “Sir J. J.,” as he is known colloquially, adorns schools and hospitals in Bombay to this day, the great philanthropist of the city’s Victorian past. As one Gujarati newspaper rhapsodized at the time of his death in 1859, “His hospitals, rest houses, water works, causeways, bridges, the numerous religious and educational institutions and endowments will point to posterity the man whom Providence selected for the dispensation of substantial good to a large portion of the human race.” Of the fact that so much of that “substantial good,” dispensed to such a “large portion of the human race,” was made possible by Jeejeebhoy’s sale, through Jardine and Matheson, of Indian opium to Chinese smugglers, little is said.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, economics, India, NGOs, opium

Parliament Debates the Opium War

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 405-407:

The motion finally came to a vote at four o’clock in the morning of April 10 [1840] after three grueling nights of debate. Five hundred and thirty-three weary parliamentarians filed out into the division lobbies, and when their votes were tallied, it turned out that Palmerston had prevailed by the slimmest of margins. A majority of just nine votes—271 to 262—allowed Melbourne’s government to escape censure and effectively gave Palmerston’s war in China a sanction to proceed as planned. The outcome was so close that if the very cabinet ministers whose conduct was on trial had not been permitted to vote in their own favor, the motion to condemn them would have passed. For that reason it had been said that if the majority were fewer than ten votes, Palmerston and the other ministers would still agree to resign. It was, but they did not.

It is impossible to measure exactly how much influence George Staunton had on that outcome, but at least seven or eight of the Whig lawmakers had openly expressed their willingness to defy their party and oppose the China war if the debate should convince them it was morally unjust. If Staunton had declined to support Palmerston, or even had spoken against him, it would have taken just five of those waverers to change their votes and the entire outcome would have been reversed. James Graham’s resolution of censure would have passed, Melbourne’s government would have been brought down, and the Opium War might have been prevented.

An angry opposition press hunted for parties to blame. Some faulted Graham for couching his resolution in such political language of “negligence” rather than targeting the war head-on: if the Conservatives had “proposed to stop the war at all events, and to prevent every infraction of the laws of China with respect to opium—so surely would Parliament have gone along with them, in censuring the conduct of the Ministers,” said the Spectator. Another paper observed that though the ministry survived the vote of censure (barely), nevertheless “they are condemned by two hundred and sixty-two of the people’s representatives, and by the nation at large the principle of the war is all but universally condemned.” A majority of just nine votes out of more than five hundred “would have been fatal to the existence of any preceding Administration,” said one critic, “and it argues a contempt of the opinion of Parliament, and a degree of assurance never equalled, to persevere in plunging the country into war on the strength of such a vote.”

Any lingering hopes that the closeness of the vote in the House of Commons might still derail the war were destroyed a month later with the failure in the House of Lords of a much more explicit motion to blame the crisis on British opium traders. Palmerston’s Conservative antagonists had a clear majority in the upper house, and the motion was expected to pass until the elderly Duke of Wellington—the general who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, Britain’s greatest living military hero, a former prime minister, and a Conservative—broke with his party to deliver an adamantly pro-Palmerston speech that silenced the motion’s supporters and sent it to a quick death.

Wellington said he had looked into the cause of the war and was positive that “it could not be opium.” The lanky, seventy-one-year-old “Iron Duke” argued that it was entirely about the protection of British lives in the far corners of the world, an unquestionably fair use of military power. The dispatch of a naval fleet was the only fitting and just response, he believed, to the rash and violent actions of Lin Zexu against Elliot and the British merchants.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, democracy, economics, military, nationalism, opium, war