Today's selection -- from Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R. Platt.
In the 1860s, America was a huge market for British imports and exports, and notably imported most of the cotton for its all-important textile industry from the American South. The American Civil War, including the blockade of Southern ports, was therefore devastating for Britain's economy. There was every reason to expect Britain to provide significant financial and military aid to the Confederacy, which could readily have brought a different outcome to that war. But it did not. The reason? China:
"Americans should know about the Taiping Rebellion [the Chinese civil war lasting from 1850 to 1864] ... because it helps to illuminate the wider effects of the U.S. Civil War far beyond America's borders. The simultaneity of the Chinese and American civil wars was no trivial matter, and one of my underlying arguments in this book is that the launching of hostilities in the United States in 1861 helped shape the final outcome of events in China, by forcing Britain's hand. The United States and China were Britain's two largest economic markets, and to understand Britain's role in either war we need to remember that it was faced with the prospect of losing both of them at the same time. Order had to be restored on one side or the other, and while Britain could have intervened in the United States to reopen the cotton trade, ... it chose to launch itself into the civil war in China instead. In hindsight, the British prime minister would point to his country's intervention in China as being the reason why Britain could survive economic ruin while it allowed the U.S. Civil War to run its full and natural course unmolested. Or in other words, Britain's neutrality in the U.S. Civil War came at the expense of abandoning it in China. ...
A scene of the Taiping Rebellion
"The [London] Times' belie[ved] that China, together with India, would be Britain's salvation from the U.S. Civil War. 'If it be fated that America must pass away from us as a profitable customer,' its editors wrote a few weeks later, '... then China and India together promise to rise up in its place, and to help us to pass, although painfully, through our difficulty.' Britain could now break free of its dependence on the United States ('with her prohibitory tariffs, her smoking mounds of burning cotton, her impoverished people, and her inevitably approaching bankruptcy') by turning instead to Asia, where the real potential for the future lay. And although Britain was suffering from 'the evil effects of having relied too confidently' on the United States, thankfully, they wrote, 'the good seed we sowed, and harrowed, and watered in the Far East is springing up and bearing fruit.' ...
"The Times ... declared that the only route to Great Britain's economic survival lay down the path of the Taiping's [the rebels fighting against China's Qing rulers] annihilation. The rebels had become a 'dragon who interferes between us and our golden apples.' It was a simple humanitarian issue, as the editors now explained to their readers: if the tea market in Shanghai and Ningbo should be ruined by the Taiping, the British government would have to raise the tax rate on tea in order to preserve its much-needed revenue from the trade. That would bring great hardship to the tea-drinking lower classes of English society, including those who were already starving from the collapse of the textile industry in Lancashire. ... So intervention was a matter of humanitarian relief, not just for the peasants of China but also for England's own poor. And even putting aside the matter of the suffering of the common people, they insisted that the fundamental economics alone, 'as a matter of pounds, shillings, and pence,' dictated 'that this dragon who interferes between us and our golden apples should be killed by somebody.'
"But the editors of the London Times [claimed] that the Taiping were a humanitarian menace -- and that it would therefore be to England's honor to help the Qing government restore order to its empire -- quickly withered in the face of the dark news [of British atrocities] coming back from Asia. ...
"Anti-British sentiment in the northern states [of America] was running high in the summer of 1862, thanks to the obvious preference for the Confederacy on the part of Palmerston, Russell, and other leading members of the British government. Absent the as-yet-unissued Emancipation Proclamation, British sympathizers could frame the American war as being one of national liberation, rather than a war over slavery (which both sides still allowed). Many liberals in Britain celebrated the resistance of the South against northern tyranny, perhaps none quite so blatantly as William Gladstone, the chancellor of the Exchequer, who would all but throw in his lot with the Confederates the following October by telling a cheering audience in Newcastle, 'There is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and the other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either -- they have made a nation.'
"In contrast to the British government's clear sympathy for the southern rebels in the United States -- who at that point held the upper hand in their war -- northern journalists used the bloody news [of Britain's military intervention against the Taiping] in China to flog Britain ("John Bull") for being perfectly willing to hire itself out to a brutal, barbaric regime in order to put down a movement far more innocent than the slaveholding Confederacy.
"The Saturday Evening Post ... printed a passage from the account of [British] atrocities and concluded from it that 'it does not become Englishmen to affect any great degree of horror at the necessarily distressing incidents of the present American rebellion, when their own history -- from the first to the last -- is such a constant record of blood, blood, blood!' "
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Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
Author: Stephen R. Platt