The stench of opium and empire
Wednesday 12 December 2012
Did I ever tell you about “The Boer,” my mother’s great-uncle? And how the son of the richest man in Scotland offered him a poisonous reward for his bravery?
The Boer was a soldier, nicknamed after the campaign in which he fought in the service of the British empire.
He apparently saved the life of his officer, who happened to be a close young relative of the landlord of Lewis in the Western Isles.
Lewis a century ago was an overpopulated and desperately poor island from which people like my great-great-uncle were transported in droves to the colonies to seek work – or to fight.
Some time after the war he was called in by the landlord to be asked what he would like in return for his brave act.
The Boer needed nothing for himself, but his sister and her husband from the mainland, like many others, were desperate for some land to make their living on. The landlord said it would be done.
We inherit memories from people who tell us stories. One of mine is the image seen by a very young girl, of a carriage drawn by white horses coming over from the great house in Stornoway with the landlord Major Matheson and his factor where they evicted a family whose rent was in arrears from the croft next door and gave the land to the Boer.
The casual cruelty of that image, passed on to me from my granny whose parents were meant to take the place of their now landless neighbours, can’t be erased.
The whole village had to get on with it afterwards, but much division and damage was done.
I was reminded of this by another image which will now stay with me from a BBC documentary called Addicted To Pleasure – part two of which looked at opium.
The image is of James Matheson and William Jardine, young, rich Scottish merchant playboys, meeting each other while, as the programme put it, “sampling the pleasures of a Chinese brothel in 1817.”
The pair hatched a plan for enriching themselves further through the application of free trade, and quite illegally, by supplying the insatiable Chinese market with opium from Bengal.
The British government, its interest in turning the balance of trade with China whether legal or illegal, and restocking the Bank of England with silver, launched the opium wars at the behest of these men.
With a saltire for its logo, their company, Jardine Matheson, became one of the biggest in the world through their poisonous dealing in opium, after the iniquitous Treaty of Nanking was forced on the Chinese by British gunboats and troops in 1840.
It made James Matheson one of the richest men in Scotland directly though the misery of millions of Chinese addicts and thousands of Chinese fatalities in the assault on the Pearl River.
He bought the Isle of Lewis, with all its crofting tenancies, in 1843. He died a celebrated great Victorian in Menton on the French Riviera in 1878. It was his son who gave the Boer his bitter reward.
Jardine Matheson is still one of the world’s most powerful companies, on the Fortune 500.
The documentary covers the whole opium story from poppies in ancient Mesopotamia to heroin from Afghanistan sold on the streets of Scotland today to our 55,000 addicts.
It is on the BBC iPlayer till Christmas Eve and – if you can tolerate the theatrical presentation by Dundee thespian Brian Cox – it’s well worth watching, if only to remember what evil was done by the bloody British empire and its great free-trade philosophy.