The EIC versus free traders
in Creating the Opium War
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This chapter examines a significant debate on China and the Chinese market held within the British mercantile community in the early 1830s. Occurring in the years before the East India Company’s monopoly over China trade was abolished in 1834, this debate has received much less attention than the Macartney embassy and the rise of the opium trade. This chapter shows that, in order to suit their own economic interests, supporters of the EIC and the ‘free traders’ presented rival images of China and the China trade to lead the governing authorities and the wider public to understand the country and its people in a way most favourable to themselves. Compared to the earlier European accounts of China, which examined different aspects of Chinese civilisation and were at least to some degree academic, this debate within the British mercantile community was clearly aimed at influencing the country’s commercial policy in China. Although neither side was genuinely interested in discovering the ‘real’ China, this competition in image-building was crucial to Britain’s relations with China in the era leading to the First Opium War.

Creating the Opium War

British imperial attitudes towards China, 1792–1840

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