A waste, really

Or, Won’t Anyone Please Think of the commodities!


So today, in my endless backpacking through the archives of early Sino-American relations, I ran across this passage in a despatch from the U.S. diplomatic representative to China, the notoriously obstreperous Humphrey Marshall:

When I look upon this noble country and especially upon its magnificent inland water communications, its broad valleys, and the vast productive capacity of its fertile plains, I can but deplore the woeful, criminal mismanagement, by a feeble despotism, of its abundant resources. I am convinced that there never has been in the history of Mankind a worse government than that which for some years past has afflicted China. It is without strength, spirit, or capacity – too vain to learn wisdom – too ignorant to behold its own gross want of intelligence. It sits, an incubus on the spirit and upon the prosperity of the people. But, really I see very little to prefer in those who essay its overthrow. It would be very important to the United States, indeed to the world, could western powers unite in sending their diplomatists to Peking, or to Nanking and so, by a timely interference, put an end to this internal strife which promises nothing half so much as the utter paralysis of trade for years to come. [emph added]

~Humphrey Marshall, U.S. Commissioner to China, to the William L. Marcy, Secretary of State, 21 June 1853

This is a fairly standard-for-the-time diatribe from a Westerner about China, and certainly one that is repeated often in the State Department’s China mission archives. Typical, too, in its callousness. And finally, it reiterates the themes so prominent in that American genre of justification for conquests, a popular series that had recently reached new heights (see: Invasión Estadounidense de México, 1846-1848).

(Oh, and Marshall’s comment about “those who essay its overthrow” is a reference to the recently begun Taiping rebellion, headquartered at Nanking (Nanjing). He feels it necessary to indicate that the rebels are not the lesser evil because many Western missionaries in China – especially Americans – at this point regarded the Christian-influenced mysticism of the Taiping as an indication that Christianity was finally sweeping China, and that their work had not, in fact, been for naught.)

Thus, the passage is in some (okay, many) ways unremarkable. But what I find interesting about it is how Marshall – a Kentucky Whig and staunch supporter of the plantation system in the U.S. – was able to shift the physiocratic “producer” rhetoric ( “broad valleys … and … fertile plains” ) in the service of a very different, if no less exploitative, kind of imperial conquest: one that focused on commerce.

That may not seem all that remarkable (and perhaps it isn’t — one needs markets to export the products of a plantation system, after all), but it nonetheless strikes my ear as profoundly unusual for a politician from anywhere but New York or Boston (and perhaps Philadelphia) to be expressing this kind of focus on cooperative international action in pursuit of commercial empire. Marshall’s other despatches indicate that he was a man profoundly concerned — at least while minister to China — with furthering American commerce all over the world, by force, if necessary.

(He was, in fact, continually asking Washington for a fleet of armed steamboats under his direct command, with which to patrol Chinese waters for pirates, and to threaten Qing officials. Commodore Perry had taken all the good ships to bully Japan with, you see.)

Incidentally, though the “internal strife” Marshall mentions — the Taiping Rebellion – did impede trade somewhat, it also claimed the lives of some 20 to 30 million people over the next ten years, making it by far the deadliest civil war in the nineteenth century, and perhaps ever (ours “only” killed around 620,000 and we’re still talking about it). This in a conflict largely, though not exclusively, fought using small arms. The rest of the world had to wait until the mid-twentieth century (WWII: 40-72 million) to surpass such a ghoulish mark, and then we had lots more toys to play with.

But yes, trade was impacted.

Image cite: Schilling 2, “What a waste, and so sweet,” Flickr, CC License