Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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The Addiction Trade Wars: Peace Deals and Imperial Occupation

by: Pushpam Sabapathy (a pseudonym)

Hong Kong was occupied by the British in 1841.  The 99 year British lease on Hong Kong, as we all know, expired in July 1997.  Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China.  'Red' China promised that it would apply the formula of “One country, two systems” to Hong Kong and, thereby, China’s socialist economic system would not be imposed.  For the next fifty years (until 2047), a high degree of autonomy in all matters except foreign and defence affairs will be enjoyed by Hong Kong.

The answer to the question, however, as to how England first gained control over this beautiful peninsula still lies buried. 

Surprisingly, this search first leads us to Baghdad.

Saleh Sassoon, a wealthy banker, attained a highly influential position as “court financier ” to Ahmed Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Baghdad.  Ahmed was overthrown in 1829 due to corruption and the Sassoon family fled to Bombay, India.  Bombay was, of course, on the trade route not only to the interior of India, but, most strategically, to the Far East.  Owing to his high connections, the British granted Sassoon “monopoly rights” to manufacture silk and cotton goods.  In addition to that, another lucrative and secretive deal was struck.  Sassoon was given monopoly rights to distribute opium in port cities.  Sassoon had the ambition to acquire the “right to sell” the addictive drug to the entire Chinese nation.

The Jewish Encyclopaedia (1905) reveals that Sassoon’s opium trade successfully expanded into China and Japan.  His eight sons were put in charge of various opium exchanges in China.  In 1830-1831 alone 18,956 chests of opium were trafficked, earning millions.  Part of the profits went to Queen Victoria and to the British Imperial government.  In order to gain more profit, in 1836 the trade quota was increased.  That year over 30,000 chests of opium were sold in coastal cities of China.

The Opium Triangle

In 1839 however, the Manchu Emperor having seen the effects of addiction in society, he ordered this trade halted immediately.  He appointed Lin Tse-hsu as the Commissioner of Canton, one of the main Chinese coastal cities.   Lin led a campaign against opium.  He seized 2,000 chests of Sassoon’s ‘precious cargo’ and threw it into the river.

This enraged David Sassoon (Saleh’s son) and he managed to convince the British government, in light of their share of the profit, to retaliate.  As a result the Opium Wars began.  The Chinese proved no match for the British forces, because the Chinese army had already been decimated by rampant opium addiction and other forms of neglect.  Hence, the war ended by the signing of “The Treaty of Nanking” in 1839.

The ‘peace treaty’ included the following provisions:

1) Full legislation of the opium trade in China

2) Compensation from the opium stockpiles confiscated by Lin of 2 million pounds.

3) Territorial sovereignty for the British Crown over several off-shore islands.

In response to such a lucrative treaty, British Prime Minister Palmerston wrote to the Crown Commissioner, Capt. Charles Elliott, complaining that the treaty did not go far enough.  “We must demand the admission of opium into interior China,” he wrote, “as an article of lawful commerce and increase indemnity payments and British access to several additional Chinese ports.”

Prime Minister Palmerston declared that all of interior China must be open for opium traffic. The Manchus resisted such a move.  The Second Opium War was fought in 1858 – 1860.  The British suffered a defeat at the Taku Forts in June 1859. An enraged Palmerston was reported as saying: “We shall teach such a lesson to these perfidious hordes that the name of Europe will hereafter be a passport of fear”.

Peking was besieged by the British in October 1859. The British Commander, Lord Elgin, ordered the temples and other sacred shrines in the city to be burned to the ground. The message of such action was to show the British's utter contempt for the Chinese.

On October 25, 1860 a “New Peace Treaty” was signed.  The Sassoons struck the best deal on behalf of the British.  In 1860 alone the Sassoons imported 58,681 chests of opium to China.  The sales skyrocketed by 1880 to 105,508 chests, making the Sassoons the richest Jews in the world.   

Owing to thriving business deals, Hong Kong was given to England in 1898 as a colony. 

Solomon Sassoon moved to Hong Kong and ran the family empire until his demise in 1894.The Sassoons were now licensing opium dens in each British occupied territory, which included large sections of Amoy, Canton, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai.  The Sassoon Company thrived, while the opium trade brought death and destruction to millions in Asia.  The British, however, were careful to include a “safety clause” in their contracts with the Sassoon business empire: Opium was not allowed to be imported into Europe.

Franklin D Roosevelt’s fortune was inherited from his maternal grandfather, Warren Delano.  It was their merchant fleet (Russell & Co - 1830) which carried Sassoon's cargo, bringing opium to China and tea to the US and Europe.  In 1851, Delano’s daughter Sara married James Roosevelt, the father of Franklin D Roosevelt.

On both sides of the ‘pond,’ the Sassoons’ source of vast wealth was never discussed.  The British monarchy honoured them with knighthood.

The perceptive reader by now would have seen through the underlying meaning of the text of the colonial history of Hong Kong and would have understood the nuances that reflect on to the current geo-political climate.  All would agree that it is indeed hilarious to hear Mr George W lecturing China on human rights during his recent visit, while his eye is firmly fixed on trade and nothing else.

The Eelam Tamil, however, would have quickly pencilled in several similarities of these historical experiences.  Tamil Eelam is a strategic gateway to South Asia, the Middle East and even Africa. Hence, it goes without saying, that the hackneyed “peace deals,” either from the Sinhalas or from any interlocution agents [the West or the ‘emerging regional power’], would not fail to have axes to grind.  That is to say, they will have their eyes on natural and human resources, in addition to other geo-political interests.  There are plenty of “Sassoons” around, even within the Tamil community.  The ONLY difference here, however, would be that the Tamil leader cannot be bought over with fancy treaties! If the love of money, wine, women and fame are the opiate of all addiction, then any divisive Power, playing that filthy game is bound to fail.  The recent Tamil emancipation history unmasks that.

In this shrinking global market, the high value ‘stock in trade’ is “peace and human rights.” 'Peace and human rights' have, of course, multiple meanings; but one is that it is a ruthless industry.  Hence, prior to any “new” peace deals, the Tamils must refuse to fall in to the trap which they were almost entrapped into in previous negotiations.  One would fervently hope that this time around, the Tamil Peace Secretariat would clearly articulate the non-negotiablility of certain issues. 

I have reflected on this history in the wake of the Chinese Premier’s recent state visit to Britain.  Yet again, all this pomp and circumstance is owing to the profitable change in trade winds.  The voices of the protesters for human rights from Tibet to Tiananmen Square were heard (but not listened to) loud and clear in Buckingham Palace. 

**Pushpam Sabapathy is a Native of Tamil Eelam.