The Opium War Syndrome Continues

Writer and historian Amitav Ghosh writes about the Opium Wars of the later part of the 1800’s, a time where not unlike today, the western world had wracked up a great trade deficit with China.  And also just like today, the dominant discourse that was proselytized like the answer to all ills, was what they called free trade.  The benefactors of this trade were some of the largest corporations of that era, the British East India Company and names like that.  They all claimed that free trade was their goal and insisted that empires in the east adopt this practice for the good of the world.  But with this good came a long list of problems, as western traders pushed Opium on Chinese traders, and eventually triggered the Opium Wars.

Opium War MuseumIn the US education system, both primary and higher education, the Opium Wars are hardly mentioned. Children are taught that it was a British problem, a disagreement with the Chinese, and has nothing to do with the United States or these modern times we live in.  But in fact, the opposite is true.  The US played a major role, with relatives of presidents Thomas Jefferson, Calvin Coolidge, and even the Delano (Roosevelt) family being major investors in the Opium trade. And once we again we find ourselves in an era where nations claim free trade will solve the problems of the world, while at the same time pushing, secretly or overtly, monopolies and other “unfree” business tactics.

As people around the United States and throughout the western world occupy and retake public spaces and confront centers of business and trade, I wonder if they know how far back the practices they are raging against go.  The lives we know, for well over a century have been built on top of deep traditions connected to corruption and greed at the expense of massive groups of people. How do you halt or change a system so deeply ingrained in how things function? I think its a good time to revisit the Opium Wars, especially for those of us who don’t know the lessons that were never learned.