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The Opium War and the Humiliation of China

Some of Platt’s villains, like the Scottish drug lords William Jardine and James Matheson, are worthy of soap opera. Others, Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, for example, take the banality of evil to new depths. Worlds apart from Rufus Sewell’s urbane, ironic portrayal of Melbourne in the PBS television series “Victoria,” Platt’s Lord M unleashes the Opium War on China apparently with scarcely a second thought. There is pathos aplenty as Charles Elliot, the British superintendent of trade in Canton, falls apart under Chinese pressure in 1839, eventually beginning to doubt his own sanity. Good men do bad things, roads to hell are paved with good intentions and golden opportunities are missed. In short, “Imperial Twilight” is a ripping yarn.

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And yet Platt’s story also has a thesis, even if he makes it explicit only in his final few pages. “It is important to remember just how arbitrary and unexpected the outcome of this era really was,” he says. The war was “not part of some long-term British imperial plan. … Neither did it result from some inevitable clash of civilizations.” Rather, “Imperial Twilight” is overflowing with individuals precisely because it is the individuals who drove everything. In the age-old debate over the historical roles of Very Important Persons and Vast Impersonal Forces, Platt comes down firmly on the side of the people.

“If Charles Elliot had not let his panic get the best of him when he so dramatically overreacted to Lin Zexu’s threats,” Platt speculates. “Or if Lin Zexu himself had been more open to working with, rather than against, Elliot; if they had cooperated on their shared interest in bringing the British opium smugglers under control. Or if just five members of the House of Commons had voted differently in the early hours of April 10, 1840 — we might be looking back on very different lessons from this era.” And just in case we misunderstand, Platt closes with a coda on the business relationship between the Chinese merchant Houqua and the American John Murray Forbes, which “had always been informal, based on trust and affection.” Everything could have been different — and better.

“Imperial Twilight” is a masterpiece of the “If Only” school of history, which holds out the tantalizing prospect of a world that, with the right choices, could be made perfect. Edmund Morgan’s magnificent “American Slavery, American Freedom” is a classic of this kind, insistently hinting that if a few people in 17th-century Virginia had chosen differently, the cancers of slavery and racism would not have entered America’s bloodstream. So too, in a different way, is Niall Ferguson’s “The Pity of War,” arguing that Britain could have avoided entering World War I — in which case there would have been a European war but not a global one, the British Empire would have survived, and fascism and Communism would never have taken off.

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