The Opium Wars: how Scottish traders fed the habit





The beginning of the 19th century was a good time if you were ambitious, male and British. There was money to be made in the Empire for those willing to travel in search of opportunity. Two young Scots, William Jardine and James Matheson set up a company that became hugely successful then and is still flourishing today. They also stand accused of starting the Opium Wars.

Born in Dumfriesshire in 1784, Jardine left Scotland after completing his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh to work onboard ship as a surgeon's mate. Realising that there was more money to be made in trade he began importing and exporting goods from India to Britain.

Matheson was born in Sutherland and started out as an employee of the East India Company. When he and Jardine met they both wanted to escape the stronghold of the company. The place to do this was in China.

A great proponent of Adam Smith, Matheson saw in China the obvious necessity for free trade.

"Did not the laws of nature," he asked, "oblige all people to mingle freely with each other?" His conclusion was obvious. China must open and he believed Britain would do it.

So began a process which historian and broadcaster Saul David considers to be one of the most unforgivable acts of empire, saying:

"It was one of the blackest marks in the Imperial story, capitalism and mercantilism at its worst."

The enormous problem facing traders in China was the inequality of trading options. This imbalance was soon to be answered.




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