Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bahram nodded, 'Democracy is a wonderful thing, Mr Burnham,'

he said wistfully.  'It is a marvellous tamasha* that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance.  I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages - and China too, of course.'
'Let us raise a glass to that!'
 This conversation takes place on page 377 of River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh.  It takes place in 1839 in the foreign enclave (really the small island ghetto, the only place foreigners are allowed to live in Canton, China).  The occasion is a goodbye party for William Jardine who was returning to England, to lobby the British government to force the Chinese to open to more trade.  The Chinese were trying to shut down the opium trade which had made Jardine, the Indian trader in the book, and Burnham very rich. 

Wikipedia describes this event:
Jardine left Canton on 26 January 1839 for Britain as retirement but in actuality to try to continue Matheson's work. The respect shown by other foreign opium traders to Jardine before his departure can be best illustrated in the following passage from a book by William C. Hunter.
A few days before Mr. Jardine’s departure from Canton, the entire foreign community entertained him at a dinner in the dining room of the East India Company’s Factory. About eighty persons of all nationalities, including India, were present, and they did not separate until several hours after midnight. It was an event frequently referred to afterwards amongst the residents, and to this day there are a few of us who still speak of it.
The farewell dinner to Jardine was held on 22 January 1839 with several members of the Foreign settlement in Canton mostly traders. Among the guests were the Forbes brothers of the prominent Forbes family and Warren Delano, a senior partner in the trading firm Russel & Co. and maternal grandfather of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The Qing government was pleased to hear of Jardine's departure, then proceeded to stop the opium trade. Lin Zexu, appointed specifically to suppress the drug trade in Guangzhou, stated, "The Iron-headed Old Rat, the sly and cunning ring-leader of the opium smugglers has left for The Land of Mist, of fear from the Middle Kingdom's wrath." He then ordered the surrender of all opium and the destruction of more than 20,000 cases of opium in Guangzhou. He also ordered the arrest of opium trader Lancelot Dent, the head of Dent and Company (a rival company to Jardine Matheson) since the Chinese were more familiar with Jardine as the trading head and were quite unfamiliar with Matheson. Lin also wrote to Queen Victoria, to submit in obeisance in the presence of the Chinese Emperor.
It's interesting how Ghosh has developed in this reader an affection for the trader Bahran and the men who work for him.  Even though we know that his whole life is defined by smuggling opium into China.  I think the positive side of this, is that as human beings we can connect to the way have to fight to make their way in life and how they can do evil things, yet the path to getting there seems quite reasonable.  If we can have empathy and understanding for such people, surely the differences among American citizens are not insurmountable.

It seems that their view of democracy is shared by quite a few who hover around state capitals and Washington DC.  

* tamasha is defined in an earlier post I did on River of Smoke and the richness of the language

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