what’s so free about free trade?

Like many late 19th century Britons, E. J. Eitel saw the East India Company (EIC) as the economic equivalent of the Qing Dynasty, asserting, “However galling this stolid assertion of self-adequacy and supremacy, and this persistent exclusivism of the Chinese Government, must have been to the East India Company’s officers and to the Ambassadors specially commissioned to bolster up the position of the East India Company in China, it must not be forgotten that the East India Company was, within its own sphere, just as haughty, domineering and exclusive a potentate, as any Emperor of China (19).”

Untitled - caption: 'The East offering its riches to Britannia.'

Spiridione Roma (1778) The East offering its riches to Britannia. Painting that was commissioned by the British East India Company and displayed in its headquarters.

Eitel’s equivalence between the EIC and the Qing government was wrong on so many levels that it is difficult to begin to know where to begin our objections. Do we object to his relegation to the EIC to a strictly “economic” sphere, when for centuries they had acted as the de facto representative of the British crown, deploying its private armies to pursue its economic interests? Do we object to Eitel’s belief that British traders were everywhere free to trade whatever they wanted despite local laws? Do we object to the flat out hypocrisy of perceiving arrogance when Chinese Mandarins acted in their own interest and perceiving nobility and a desire for equality when British traders acted in their’s? This kind of misunderstanding runs so deep that Eitel overlooked the fact that the British were peddling opium, praising their initiative and “bold spirits.”

Like the gendered and racial double standards that shape everyday life in the contemporary United States, Eitel despised his perceived inferiors for the same actions that he admired in his perceived equals. Case in point: when Chinese Mandarins acted in their own interest against British traders (including the EIC), Eitel perceived arrogance. However, when private traders acted in their own interest against the EIC monopoly, Eitel saw the desire of equality and freedom. Edmund Burke called this particular double standard “geographic morality.”

Eitel’s geographic morality allowed for a twisted logic that was hard to refute because it functioned at the level of emotions and self-respect, rather than being rational. In Eitel’s analysis of the EIC, for example, he equated dissolving the EIC and allowing independent traders to freely compete with each other to sell opium in Canton with advancing the cause of more equality in Great Britain. Because he equated EIC economic tyranny with Qing sovereignty in their own ports, he interpreted military actions as a blow for “freedom,” ultimately claiming that the first Opium War (1839-1842) wasn’t even about opium, but rather about whether or not British subjects in China should be granted privileges of extraterritorial jurisdiction.


This panorama of the factories at Canton was painted by an unknown artist, circa 1800. For more images and analysis of how westerners visualized Canton, check out the MIT Visualizing Cultures website, Rise and Fall of the Canton Trade System.

By equating the EIC with the Qing, Eitel did more than slam the East India Company for acting like “Oriental despots.” I’m concerned with the way this equivalency not only transformed communities into economic factors, but also only granted political agency to British citizens qua free traders. On the one hand, the only value that Eitel saw in China was Free Trade (and yes, he used capital letters) because that would allow for the country and its people to find their proper place in the world. On the other hand, Eitel was convinced that free trade in opium would make the selling of opium more efficient. He saw clearly that rationalization of the opium market was necessary because opium was the commodity which made colonialism profitable.

Eitel seems to have understood the use of military force to create monopolies in India and China as a kind of “national investment.” To the extent that British citizens paid for colonial occupations they deserved free access to the profits that could be earned therein, regardless of the effect of colonialism and its attendant markets on Indian and Chinese societies. Indeed, that’s what galls—breaking up the EIC didn’t actually bring more political freedom to British citizens in Britain, but only in India and China, where the “extraterritorial rights” of British citizens allowed them to do whatever they wanted on foreign territory. In this context, “free trade rights” did not mean increased political agency, but rather the right to get rich in subjugated territories.

What distresses me is not so much the fact that we already knew that colonialism was cruelly self-serving, but rather that British citizens experienced this self-serving cruelty as “boldness,” “self-respect” and “honor.” In other words, I don’t know how one would have made Eitel realize how deep the hypocrisy went because his life’s meaning depended precisely on how he navigated this contradiction as it presented in church, in school, and at home. In other words, for Eitel to admit that pushing opium on Chinese people wasn’t about human liberty, but rather just a sordid means of getting rich through the suffering of others would entail a refutation of his life’s work, begging the question: how do learn to see ourselves clearly when we can’t actually see our blindspots?

note: In a series of postcards, I read within and against the emergence of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. I am not so much interested in providing a comprehensive history of the SEZ  as I am in tracking Shen Kong, a form post-Mao post-coloniality that is one of the roots of the Belt and Road initiative. As I read, I note associations that link contemporary Shenzhen and colonial Hong Kong. In those flashes of awareness, the norms and forms of contemporary global restructuring make uncanny and distressing sense. Page citations are noted in parentheses and refer to the 1895 of E. J. Eitel’s Europe in China: the History of Hongkong from the beginning to the Year 1882.

3 thoughts on “what’s so free about free trade?

  1. Pingback: 大材小用: rumors from angola | Shenzhen Noted

  2. How delightful to find a historian of this era. I’ve been collecting apologias by British politicians for the opium dumping, and more Peking Daily News articles. This is gorgeous content!

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