Thinking Men and Ideals Betrayed: Bentham, Coleridge and British Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China
“There are two men to whom their country is indebted,” John Stuart Mill wrote in 1840, not only for “the important ideas which have been thrown into circulation among its thinking men in their time,” but also for “the revolution in its general modes of thought and investigation.”1 The two were Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bentham was a progressive, Mill explained, and Coleridge a conservative: Bentham's skill was to discover truths which were at variance with the accepted consensus, whereas Coleridge focused on truths that “lay neglected in the existing doctrines and institutions.“ And although both were ignored - or even “held in contempt” - by ordinary readers, Bentham and Coleridge were the “teachers of the teachers” of their age: there is hardly to be found in England an individual of any importance in the world of mind, who (whatever opinions he may have afterwards adopted) did not first learn to think from one of these two.2 Two of these “thinking men” were John Bowring and James Bruce, the Eighth Earl of Elgin. Bowring worked closely with Bentham on the Westminster Review, the journal he started in 1823. Bowring was also Bentham's literary executor and the editor of his Collected Works. Lord Elgin, for his part, “fully mastered” Coleridge's thought when in college, and as a statesman he made continuous references to Coleridge in his diaries and letters. By a curious coincidence, in the 1850s, both men found themselves working for the British government in China. Between
John Stuart Mill, “Bentham,” in Dissertations and Discussions, Political Philosophical, and Historical. Reprinted Chiefly from the Edinburgh and Westminster Reviews, Volume I (London: 1859), 330. Ibid. 330-331.
1849 and 1853 Bowring served as British consul at Canton (Guangzhou), and between 1854 and 1859 as plenipotentiary and governor of Hong Kong. In 1857, after recklessly starting a war with the Chinese, Bowring was replaced as plenipotentiary by Lord Elgin. Elgin negotiated a treaty with the Emperor in Beijing, but he too made war on the Chinese. Bentham and Coleridge held opposing views on the colonial system, although neither of them was completely consistent in their positions. In the main, Bentham was critical: he believed colonialism to be a mistake and an injustice imposed both on the colonized and the colonizers. At the same time he was a great defender of free trade and firmly believed that commerce would contribute to assuring “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Coleridge, for his part, had a keen appreciation of the devastations brought about by colonialism, yet he saw colonies as Britain's “imperative duty.” By contrast, he remained unconvinced regarding the virtues of free trade, which he called “solemn humbug,” and saw as a threat against the vitality, and long-term viability, of the country. Meeting up in China, Bowring and Elgin clashed repeatedly with each other over matters of policy. More surprisingly perhaps, they both ended up betraying the ideals of their mentors. Very far from respecting the views of the Chinese, as Bentham would have insisted, Bowring imposed his own version of their interests on them. He began by demanding that they open up the gates of Canton, and when the Chinese authorities refused, he ordered the city to be bombarded. The result was the Second Opium War. Lord Elgin, for his part, betrayed his mentor’s most famous dream - the vision of the imperial palace which Coleridge had described in the poem “Kubla Khan.” To Coleridge the palace had been an earthly version of paradise, as it indeed had been to the emperors who lived there. Yet on October 18, 1860, Lord Elgin decided that paradise had to be destroyed. He burned down the imperial palace complex, known as the Yuanmingyuan, located in 2
the north-western suburbs of Beijing. Comparing Bentham and Coleridge we can survey the spectrum of ideas regarding colonialism as it existed in Britain in the first decades of the nineteenthcentury. Comparing Bowring and Elgin we can grasp how these ideas had changed by the 1850s. What we want to explain are the betrayals. What turned Bowring the arch-Benthamite - into an aggressive imperialist? And what made Elgin - the mild-mannered Coleridgean - into a destroyer of imperial palaces? Looking for answers we will question Mill's thesis on the seminal importance of Bentham and Coleridge for the “thinking men” of the age. Or rather, we want to know which other, and ultimately more important, considerations that came to influence the statesmen of the 1850s. As we will argue, by mid-century, new social forces were at work, most notably an intensely competitive form of nationalism backed up by theories of race and social evolution. These new social forces, the argument will be, are what made both Bowring and Elgin betray the ideals of their mentors.
For Bentham, said Mill, arguments always started from first principles. His modus operandi was to set up a rational standard and proceed to judge existing social arrangements with its help. Institutions and traditions that survived the test of his “felicific calculus” were accepted; those that did not were condemned, and usually in the most energetic prose. Thus it was easy for Bentham to show, for example, that freely moving interest rates increased the greatest happiness of the greatest number whereas usury laws decreased it.3 Or that free trade ultimately was to everyone’s benefit. Or consider the “Panopticon,” Bentham’s notorious solution to the problem of penitentiary reform.4 By placing himself in the
3 Jeremy Bentham, “Defence of Usury; Showing the Impolicy of the Present Legal Restraints on the Terms of Pecuniary Bargains; in Letters to a Friend,” in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 3, ed. John Bowring (London: 1843). Jeremy Bentham, “Panopticon; or, the Inspection-House: Containing the Idea of a New Principle of Construction Applicable to Any Sort of Establishment, in Which
“inspector’s lodge” at the center of this construction, a single person could easily survey the whole prison, and since all prisoners were visible while the inspector was hidden, the prisoners would never know if they were under scrutiny or not. This, Bentham insisted, was a more humane, more felicific, solution than traditional forms of incarceration. The “central inspection principle” made it easier, and cheaper, to control prisoners; riots and escapes were prevented and inmates were more effectively reformed.5 According to Bentham’s critics, such a priori reasoning gave his philosophy a “cold, mechanical, and ungenial air.”6 Proceeding not from individual cases but from general principles meant that Bentham risked ignoring local variations and historical circumstances. Bentham was legislating not for England or for Britain, but for the world. This was not only extraordinarily pretentious, his critics argued, but fraught with dangers. “The same laws,” as Mill pointed out, “would not have suited our wild ancestors, accustomed to rude independence, and a people of Asiatics bowed down by military despotism,”7 Bentham defended himself vigorously against such accusations. Indeed, he wrote an entire essay - “On the Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation” - emphasizing the fact that social reformers always had to take local contexts into account.8 Yet despite his own protestations, it was as a legislator for the world that Bentham celebrated his greatest triumphs.9 To his students, the power of his argument rested in its general principles, and any restrictions on these principles would for that reason
Persons of Any Description Are to Be Kept Under Inspection; and in Particular to Penitentiary-Houses,” Works, vol 4. 37-172. On Bentham’s rejection of alternative modes of punishment see R.V. Jackson, “Bentham's Penal Theory in Action: The Case Against New South Wales,” Utilitas 25, no. 2 (1998): 226-241. 5 On the “central inspection principle, see Jeremy Bentham, “Panopticon Versus New South Wales: Or, the Panopticon Penitentiary System, and the Penal Colonization System, Compared,” in Works. vol 4. 212. Quoted in Mill, Bentham, 386. Ibid. 375. Jeremy Bentham, “Essays on the Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation,” in Works, vol 1. Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: 2006), 103-22.
6 7 8 9
always appeared as ad hoc and as unjustified. Bentham's work had a particularly powerful impact in India.10 Finding their careers blocked in the British civil service, many of his followers - James and John Stuart Mill included - joined the East India Company or the Indian colonial service. India, it turned out, was full of unexamined prejudices and entrenched institutions.11 Besides, the despotic power which the British legislators had created for themselves meant that there were no obstacles blocking the implementation of their plans. The banning of sati, the custom of widow burning, in 1829, was one reform for which the Benthamites were quick to take credit.12 Considering the imperialist zeal of Bentham's students it may come as a surprise that Bentham himself was skeptical of colonialism.13 Starting in the 1790s, in essays like “Emancipate Your Colonies!,” “Rid Yourself of Ultramaria,” and “Plan for an Universal and Perpetual Peace,” Bentham repeatedly made the case against colonial possessions.14 Empires, he argued, undermined the greatest happiness of the greatest number in both Europe and the colony. The unlimited power given to colonial administrators was conducive to corruption; colonies were financially unsound and inefficient; they exacted a tax on the poor for the benefit of the wealthy; they encouraged unnecessary growth of the state's military expenses but left the home country exposed; and they were founded on misguided conceptions of glory.15 Colonies could not be profitable without being oppressive
10 11 12 Eric Stokes, The English Utilitarians and India (New Delhi: 1989). James Mill, The History of British India, vol. 1 (London: Baldwin: 1817) Nancy G. Cassels, “Bentinck: Humanitarian and Imperialist: The Abolition of Suttee,” Journal of British Studies 5, no. 1 (1965): 77-87; Martha Kaplan, “Panopticon in Poona: An Essay on Foucault and Colonialism,” Cultural Anthropology 10, no. 1 (February 1995): 85-98. Pitts, Turn to Empire. 107-114. According to Wagner, Bentham's anti-colonialism was inspired by Josiah Tucker and James Anderson. See Donald O. Wagner, “British Economists and the Empire I,” Political Science Quarterly 46, no. 2 (June 1931): 256-57. Jeremy Bentham, “Emancipate Your Colonies!: Addressed to the National Convention of France, Anno 1793,” in Works, vol 4. 407-18; Jeremy Bentham, “A Plan for an Universal and Perpetual Peace,” in Works, vol 2. On the status of the latter source, see Pitts, Turn to Empire, n. 43, 296-97. Cf. the summary in Pitts, Turn to Empire, 108.
and the oppression would sooner or later result in wars of national liberation. As Bentham asked the French National Convention in 1793: You choose your own government: why are not other people to choose theirs? Do you seriously mean to govern the world, and do you call that liberty?16 Despite Bentham’s anti-colonial stance, colonies nevertheless fascinated him as a location where his ideas might find an application, and to this extent at least he acknowledged that British colonialism might have a beneficial impact on the yetto-be-enlightened parts of the world. His pet-project, the Panopticon, provides an example. After unsuccessfully lobbying the British government to construct a prototype of the prison, he turned his eyes on India.17 In a letter to the Indian reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1828 he insisted that the “central inspection principle” would work very well in India, and he returned to the topic no fewer than three times in the same letter. “What say you,” he suggested to Roy, “to the making singly, or in conjunction with other enlightened philanthropists, an offer to Government for that purpose?”18
Coleridge's philosophy, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, began not with rational principles, like Bentham's, but instead with the world as it was given to the senses, and it proceeded towards the ideal and the unattainable. This basic mode of thinking remained the same even as Coleridge's political outlook changed. In his youth, he had been a purveyor of radical utopias: inspired by the socialist program of William Godwin, Coleridge and his friend Robert Southey, devised a
16 17 Jeremy Bentham, Emancipate Your Colonies, 408. In 1812 the government decided to go ahead with an alternative penitentiary building. Although Bentham was awarded 23,000 pounds in compensation for his efforts, the plans came to naught. Jackson, Bentham's Penal Theory, 241. Jeremy Bentham, “Bentham to Rammohun Roy,” in Works, vol 10. 589-92, quote p. 92. Compare John Bowring, “Ram Mohun Roy,” Autobiographical Recollections of Sir John Bowring (London: 1877) 394-396. On actual cases of Panopticons in India, see Kaplan, Panopticon in Poona, 85-98.
scheme for an ideal, “Pantisocratic,” community where private property was abolished and men lived in perfect equality with each other.19 Making increasingly concrete plans, their eyes fell on the Susquehanna river in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. What they wanted to construct here was a pastoral idyll, à la Rousseau, where they could escape the corrupting influences of society. But the scheme foundered after a quarrel: Southey wanted to bring servants with him to America whereas Coleridge rejected this as contrary to their egalitarian ideals. Doing research for his Pantisocratic community in the 1790s, Coleridge read a large number of accounts of European explorations in far away locations: Samuel Purchas, Purchas Pilgrimage; William Bartram, Travels; James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, among them.20 The poetry he wrote in subsequent years was also heavily inspired by exotic images, a tendency accentuated by his increasing reliance on laudanum.21 One of his most famous poems, “Kubla Khan,” subtitled “A Vision in a Dream,” usually dated to 1797, was such an opium-fueled description of the imperial palace in Shangdu built by Kublai Khan, the thirteenth century Mongol emperor of China:22 In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree, where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.
19 On Coleridge's thought in a colonial context, see James C. McKusick, “'Wisely Forgetful': Coleridge and the Politics of Pantisocracy,” in , ed. Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson (Cambridge: 1998). Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimage: Or Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered ... (London: 1614); William Bartram, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida ... (London: 1794); James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773, Volumes 1-4 (Edinburgh:1790).The definitive work on the sources relied on by Coleridge's is John Livingston Lowes, The Road To Xanadu: A Study In The Ways Of the Imagination,  (Edinburg: 2008), 356-434. Scholars have long disputed the extent to which opium “inspired” or “caused” the change in Coleridge’s poetry in the mid-1790s. Lowes, Road to Xanadu, 414-425, provides a convincing case against such an interpretation. The remains of the palace are described in Lawrence Impey, “Shangtu, the Summer Capital of Kublai Khan,” Geographical Review 15, no. 4 (October 1925): 584-604.
In his Introduction à l'histoire des Mongols, Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, the fourteenth-century Persian statesman and historian, describes how this palace came into being.23 Kublai Khan, says Rashid-al-Din, first saw the palace in a dream and when he woke up he ordered the vision to be constructed. As Luís Borges has pointed out, these two dreams - Kublai Khan’s and Coleridge's - form a strange pair, not least since Coleridge could not have been aware of the origin of the Emperor’s vision.24 What seems eternal, says Borges, is the dream while the palace, its concrete manifestation, is quite ephemeral. Kublai Khan's palace, as Coleridge describes it, is surely a vision of paradise, but the setting is no longer a pastoral, Rousseauesque, idyll, and the palace is not, like the Pantisocratic community in Pennsylvania, an ideal intended to be realized. Instead the images are violent, sexual and narcotic; the description is quasireligious, not quasi-political. Paradise, for Coleridge, is not a dream to be constructed as much as a dream to which we passively have to submit. “Kubla Khan” describes a sublime, Oriental, non-place, located beyond the reach of reason, inspiring both longing and dread. A savage place! As holy and enchanted as a'er beneath a waning moon was haunted by woman wailing for her demon lover. And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.
23 Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, “Contemporary Notices of Cathay under the Mongols: Retracted from the Historical Cyclopædia of Rashiduddin,” Cathay and the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Volume 2, edited by Henry Yule (London:1866), 260. As Borge’s points out, Introduction à l'histoire des Mongols, was translated into European languages only by mid nineteenth-century. Jorge Luis Borges, “Coleridge's Dream,” in Selected Non-Fictions (Harmondsworth: 2000), 369-372. The first person to notice the “curious” similarity between the two dreams is Henry Yule. See Yule, Cathay, volume 1:134, n. 2. The parallels between the dream include details like the fountains produced by water “imprisoned in the bowels of the earth.” Rashid-al-Din, Contemporary Notices, 261.
Politically speaking, by the end of the 1790s Coleridge had turned sharply to the right. As he now saw it, radical experiments were doomed and only by accepting society’s existing traditions and institutions could an ideal political community be constructed.25 The loneliness of man in the contemporary world could only be remedied by belonging to a state which unified society and granted meaning to individuals. From the 1820s onward, Coleridge increasingly praised the “national church” - the Church of England - as the physical and spiritual embodiment of such a national community, and he identified “the clerisy” - a leading class of guardians - as the moral and intellectual teachers of the rest of society.26 Not surprisingly, Coleridge opposed Bentham on matters of free trade which he regarded as nothing but a “solemn humbug.” Free trade was either a truism which is how Coleridge regarded the “felicific calculus” - or a dangerous scheme which might undermine the vitality of the nation. You talk about making this article cheaper by reducing its price in the market from 8d. to 6d. But suppose, in so doing, you have rendered your country weaker against a foreign foe; suppose you have demoralized thousands of your fellow-countrymen, and have sown discontent between one class of society and another, your article is tolerably dear, I take it, after all. Is not its real price enhanced to every Christian and patriot a hundred-fold?27 The entire tendency of modern political economy, said Coleridge in an aphorism, works against the nation. “It would dig up the charcoal foundations of the temple of Ephesus to burn as fuel for a steam-engine!” 28 On the question of colonies, however, he was more equivocal. His eventual conclusion was in favor, at least as long as colonialism served to unite the British state and the British people: Colonization is not only a manifest expedient for, but an imperative duty on, Great Britain. God seems to hold out his finger to us over the
25 26 27 28 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, On the Constitution of Church and State According to the Idea of Each (London: 1839). Ibid, xv-xvi. “There could,” Coleridge added in his Table Talk, “be no order, no harmony of the whole, without them.” Coleridge, Table Talk, April 10, 1832, 2:41. Ibid, 17 March, 1833, 2:131. Ibid. 20 June, 1834, 2:327.
sea. But it must be a national colonization, such as was that of the Scotch to America; a colonization of Hope, and not such as we have alone encouraged and effected for the last fifty years, a colonization of Despair.29 What Coleridge approves of are communal projects similar to the Greek colonies of Antiquity, not the market-driven “imperialism of free trade” practiced by contemporary British merchants.30 Coleridge was only too aware of the costs which colonialism imposed. His essay, “On the Slave Trade,” 1796, contrasts the plight of the slaves with the rural idyll which was Africa before the Europeans arrived.31 In fact the original African village was remarkably similar to the Pantisocratic community which Coleridge wanted to establish: the Africans who are situated beyond the contagion of European vice, are innocent and happy. The peaceful inhabitants of a fertile soil, they cultivate their fields in common, and reap the crop as the common property of all. Each family, like the peasants in some parts of Europe, spins, weaves, sews, hunts, fishes, and makes baskets, fishing tackle, and the implements of agriculture;32 As a conservative, Coleridge is clearly more respectful than his liberal contemporaries of established institutions, even those of non-European societies. Indeed, at least when under the influence of opium, he reverses the relationship between Europe and the non-European. The “Kubla Khan” of the famous poem is clearly not the kind of ruler you trade with, bully, and then occupy. The exact opposite is true: after you have drunk the “milk of Paradise,” and “closed your eyes in holy dread,” you are yourself quite helpless. And the experience is pleasurable. This is not a dream of colonial possession but of being possessed, of passively and blissfully submitting to a sublime, Oriental, overlord.
29 30 31
Ibid, May 4, 1833, 2:165-166. Coleridge was, for example, against a continued British presence in Ireland. Ibid, December 17, 1831, 2:14-15. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “On the Slave Trade,” in Essays on His Own Times, Volume I, from The Watchman, no. 4, Friday, March 25, 1796. (London: 1850), 137-53. Coleridge, Slave-trade, 143.
John Bowring and the walls of Canton
John Bowring began his career as a linguist and translator of poetry.33 He learned French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese from an early age and published a string of anthologies of Russian, Polish, Serbian, Czech and Hungarian verse.34 Getting to know Bentham in the 1820s, he joined the Westminster Review as an editor in 1824, and wrote on literature, but also very extensively on matters of free trade. Bowring soon became Bentham's confidante; for a while he lived in Bentham’s home and when he eventually moved out he became Bentham’s neighbor. The friendship was evidently not hurt by Bentham's dismissal of poetry nor by Bowring’s ardent, Unitarian, religiosity.35 After Bentham had died in “his arms” in 1834, Bowring became his literary executor and the, sometimes unreliable, editor of his Collected Works in eleven volumes.36 In the late 1820s financial difficulties forced Bowring to look for a more secure employment.37 He landed a job as a commissioner charged with writing reports on the state of trade with various European countries, and to assess the health of their public finances. Bowring interpreted the job description as a license to preach the virtues of free trade to anyone he came across on the Continent.
For biographical data see Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections; Gerald Stone, “Bowring, Sir John,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: 2004), http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3087. A highly critical portrait is provided in George Borrow, , “The Old Radical” in The Romany Rye (London: 1907), 381-392. For an assessment see Arthur Prudden Coleman, “John Bowring and the Poetry of the Slavs,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 84, no. 3 (May 31, 1941): 431-459. Not everyone was equally impressed with Bowring’s linguistic powers. He was, said Borrow, “slightly acquainted with four or five of the easier dialects of Europe, on the strength of which knowledge he would fain pass for a universal linguist.” Borrow, Romany Rye, 388. His attempts to learn Chinese seem to have been largely unsuccessful. Wong, Deadly Dreams, 86-87. Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections, 388-89. On Bowring’s religion, see R. K. Webb, “John Bowring and Unitarianism,” Utilitas 4, no. 01 (1992): 43-79. On the unreliability of Bentham as an editor, see Pitts, Turn to Empire, n. 43, 29697. In 1827 his firm, Bowring & Co, exporting herring to France and Spain, went bankrupt leaving him without means of supporting his eight children. Stone, Bowring.
35 36 37
Between 1832 and 1834 he toured the French countryside talking to assemblies of merchants, wine growers, newspaper editors, and to liberal political activists. Swaying public opinion, he had learned from Bentham, was the way to spread the liberal revolution.38 Yet his efforts backfired: rather than seeing the benefits of free trade, many Frenchmen saw only so much pro-British propaganda.39 To Bowring the free-trade doctrine was merely one aspect of a more general principle of “free communication” which he applied to every aspect of life. “Communication is civilization in activity,” he explained. “He who can communicate cheaply and rapidly with all his fellows must be elevated by the very fact of that communication.”40 Bowring’s defense of free communication went as far as to reject quarantine regulations put in place during outbreaks of contagious diseases. Quarantines, he argued, was an unwarranted abuse of state power.41 And when he himself temporarily was detained by French authorities during a trip in 1822, he was outraged.42 Indefatigably, Bowring canvassed support for his chosen causes. In the 1820s he was elected foreign secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace, and in 1838 he was, together
Cf. the importance of “counter-efficient influence,” in Jeremy Bentham, Observations on the Restrictive and Prohibitory Commercial System; Especially with a Reference to the Decree of the Spanish Cortes of July 1820 (London: 1821), 31-40. Bowring’s activities are discussed in B.M. Ratcliff, “Great Britain and Tariff Reform in France, 1831-1836,” in Trade and Transport (Manchester: 1977), 98135. For his own account, see Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections, 132-148. Todd, Global Dissemination, 381-382. Quoted in ibid, 388. On the use of metaphors of “circulation,” “exchange,” and “trade,” and the connection to “civilization,” see David Porter, “A Peculiar but Uninteresting Nation: China and the Discourse of Commerce in Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 184-86. As an MP Bowring returned to the question again and again. See, for example, “Quarantine,” House of Commons Debate, March 15, 1842, Hansard, vol. 61, cc. 608-618; “Quarantine Laws and Regulations,” House of Commons Debate, July 23, 1844, Hansard, vol. 76, cc. 1292-1310. For Coleridge's speculations regarding quarantines, see Coleridge, Table Talk, April 7, 1832, 2:37-40. Sir John Bowring, Details of the Arrest, Imprisonment and Liberation of an Englishman By the Bourbon Government of France (London: 1823). His outrage was cruelly lampooned, in French doggerel, in “Épitre a John Bowring, Arrêté Et Détenu Illégalement Par Les Autorités Françaises, Puis Mis En Liberte Sans Jugement,” The Morning Chronicle, December 26, 1822, issue 16750.
with Richard Cobden, a founding member of the Anti-Corn Law League.43 His translations of poetry too were a part of this larger project: thanks to Bowring’s efforts, speakers even of small European languages would be able to communicate their ideas freely with the members of the much larger English-speaking world.44 In 1835, after several unsuccessful attempts, Bowring became a member of parliament, and from 1841 he occupied a safe seat as the MP for Bolton. However, renewed financial difficulties forced him again to look for a more lucrative position. In 1848 he was made Consul in Canton and in 1854 Governor of Hong Kong and British plenipotentiary in East Asia. China, at the time, had very limited intercourse with the rest of the world: foreigners were not allowed to settle freely, to trade, or to preach their religion; the country had no permanent diplomatic relations and little apparent interest in the rest of the world. Clearly, China’s attitude clashed with Bowring’s most cherished beliefs. And taking up his new post he was fully determined to do something about it. In the latter part of the eighteenth-century, an insatiable demand for tea had given Britain a trade deficit with China. The problem was solved, however, once the Chinese in the first decades of the nineteenth-century became thoroughly addicted to opium, exported from British-controlled India. Although the Chinese authorities repeatedly banned the trade, and even appealed to Queen Victoria to have it stopped, they were powerless against British smugglers.45 By midnineteenth-century, the financial viability of the British government in India depended entirely on its ability to sell opium to the Chinese.46 Eventually two wars - the First and the Second Opium Wars - were fought over the issue. The
43 44 45 Todd, Global Dissemination, 374. Coleman, Poetry of the Slavs, 431. For assorted documents “on the opium question,” see Hosea B. Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, Volume 1 (New York: 1900), 171212. On the appeal to Queen Victoria, see ibid:194. Wong, Deadly Dreams, 434-454. Cf. Bowring, John Bowring, “Colonization and Commerce in British India,” The Westminster Review, no. 11 (1829):337; Karl Marx, “Articles on China,” Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/china/index.htm.
first of these, concluded through the Treaty of Nanjing, 1842, did not explicitly mention opium, but it opened up five Chinese ports to British merchants and it gave Britain a permanent foothold in Hong Kong.47 Yet for Bowring this was not enough. He wanted full and unimpeded access, including the right to freely sell opium. Although he as an MP had voted against the drug trade, he was now supporting it, indeed his son was a partner in Jardine Mattheson & Co, the largest opium dealer in the East.48 And once he permanently returned to Britain in 1859, Bowring toured the countryside, much as he had done in France thirty years earlier, making his case at public meetings. The use of opium, he admitted, was certainly “most deleterious,” but “compared with the social evils, and the crimes resulting from intoxicating liquors in this country, the results even of the abuse of opium in China are as nothing.”49 The opium smoker “dreams and fancies delightful visions,” but he does not, like a drunken Englishman, become a “perfect ruffian.” As plenipotentiary in China, the walls of the city of Canton became his particular obsession.50 The British traded with the city each year, and they had a presence in the “factories” located outside the city wall, but Bowring insisted that Britain should have the right to trade permanently in the city itself and that British officials could come and go as they pleased. Citing the strongly anti-British sentiments among the population, the Chinese authorities rejected these demands. Their refusal pushed Bowring to the brink. In increasingly emotional dispatches, both to London and to the Chinese, he demanded that the gates of
47 48 49 Morse, International Relations, 1:298-318. As pointed out in a letter to the editor by An Old Resident in China, “Sir John Bowring and the Opium Question,” The Times, October 5, 1859, issue 23429. “Sir John Bowring on the Opium Trade,” The Newcastle Courant, September 23, 1859, Issue 9639 edition. For objections see ibid as well as Henry Richard, “Sir John Bowring and the Opium Trade,” The Leeds Mercury, December 6, 1859, Issue 7039 edition. John Bowring, “Dr. Bowring to the Earl of Clarendon (Received June 14),” in Correspondence Relative to Entrance into Canton, 1850-1855 (London: 1857), 310. On the creation of this vocabulary as applied to China, see Porter, Peculiar but Uninteresting, 183-184, 187-192.
Canton give way.51 The Chinese did not want free communication with the rest of the world; they were “proud,” and it was their pride which Bowring sought to break. In October 1856 Chinese officials seized the Arrow, a Chinese opium smuggling ship flying the British flag.52 Despite the fact that the boat's registration had lapsed, and it no longer enjoyed British protection, Bowring seized on the incident as a casus belli. Insisting that the Chinese provide an apology which they naturally refused - Bowring convinced the navy to lay a siege on Canton. The city was shelled from British war-ships, and from a fort across the harbor, and eventually a breech was made in the wall. But although the army entered the city, they did not have enough men to occupy it. It was a pointless victory. Indeed, since the European factories outside the city were burned down by the Chinese, the victory caused a substantial loss in trade revenue.53 Several members of the British parliament were highly critical of Bowring's conduct, foremost among them traditional conservatives like Lord Derby, and liberals, like Richard Cobden, who wanted free trade, but not colonies and not war.54 Other MPs resented Bowring’s recklessness. “[M]any of his own associates,” the newspaper editor Frederick Moy Thomas remembered, “became estranged from him when, departing from all the tradition of his life, he forced upon the country a military expedition to China.”55 Lord Derby, who brought up
51 52 53 See Correspondence Relative to Entrance into Canton, 1850-1855 (London: 1857). Wong, Deadly Dreams, 84-108. Wong’s meticulous research replaces all previous work on the Second Opium War. Bowring does not mention the Arrow and the bombardment of Canton in his autobiography, merely stating that “My career in China belongs so much to history, that I do not feel it needful to record its vicissitudes. I have been verely blamed for the policy I pursued, yet that policy has been most beneficial to my country and to mankind at large.” Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections, 217. Wong, Deadly Dreams, 103-08. John Morley, Cobden’s biographer concludes that Bowring “was a man without practical judgment, and he became responsible for one of the worst of the Chinese wars.” John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London, 1903), http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1742/90545. Frederick Moy Thomas, Fifty Years of Fleet Street; Being the Life and Recollections of Sir John R. Robinson (London: 1904), 91.
the issue of the new China war in the Lords on February 24, 1857, questioned the “monomania” of Bowring's obsession with the walls of Canton. “I believe he dreams of the entrance into Canton," Derby said, "I believe he thinks of it first thing in the morning, the last thing at night, and in the middle of the night if he happen to awake.” I do not believe he would consider any sacrifice too great, any interruption to commerce to be deplored, any bloodshed almost to be regretted, when put in the scale with the immense advantage to be derived from the fact that Sir John Bowring had obtained an official reception in the yamun [administrative office] in Canton.56 Clearly Bowring had gone against his instructions.57 Britain had already accepted the status quo in Canton for over a decade and, as his superiors explained to him, it was necessary to proceed with “much caution,” and not to use “menacing language,” let alone military force, lest Britain suffer damage to its trade.58 Bowring's demands were particularly unreasonable given that they would result in no additional benefits neither for Britain nor for the merchant community in Hong Kong. As Cobden pointed out in the House of Commons, Britain already traded with the Canton merchants and nothing more would be gained from entering the city itself. I will ask the House, is it worth while fighting for this, that Sir John Bowring should have the right to go into Canton in one costume or another, especially when the Governor was ready to meet him half way out of the town?59 In his monomania, Bowring did not only ignore the instructions from his
56 57 Lord Derby, “Debate 24 February, 1857,” House of Lords, Hansard, vol. 144, cc. 1177. Ibid, cc. 1192. Already in 1852, the Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Granville, felt compelled to remind Bowring that “you will not push argument on doubtful points in a manner to fetter the free action of your Government; and you will not resort to measures of force without previous reference home ...” “Earl of Granville to Dr. Bowring,” January 19, 1852, in Correspondence, 3. Lord Derby, Debate, cc. 1192. Richard Cobden, “China War. House of Commons, February 26, 1857,” in Speeches on Questions of Public Policy: Vol. 2 War, Peace, and Reform, ed. John Bright and J.E. Thorold Rogers (London: 1908), 384; Richard Cobden, “Debate 26 February, 1857,” House of Commons, Hansard, vol. 144, cc. 1414.
government but also the teachings of his mentor. Surely a principled Benthamite would have respected the wishes of the Chinese. After all, the felicific calculus prescribes no particular substantive content to people’s preferences; it does not tell you what actions you are supposed to prefer. If a closed-door policy makes the greatest number of Chinese happiest, that conclusion should be respected by an objective observer. But Bowring was no objective observer. He was sure that completely unimpeded trade would benefit Britain, but also that it would make the Chinese happier still - and his actions were designed to prove it.60 Indiscriminate bombings of defenseless civilians was a price even the Chinese themselves, if they considered the matter carefully, would be prepared to accept. And yet Bowring's obsession with the walls of Canton embodies a profoundly Benthamite logic. After all, Bentham's brand of radicalism insisted on unimpeded access - of enlightenment, of reason, of first principles, of trade. Bentham's was a penetrative form of liberalism: it was through unlimited access that both free communication and control were to be assured. Compare the “central inspection principle” which guaranteed order and reform in his Panopticon. In Canton central inspection was exactly what Bowring was denied. Walls, after all, block visibility, and blocked visibility allows secrets to be kept and prejudices to spread. Not surprisingly, the Chinese were famous both for their walls and for their “inscrutability.” Bowring had no idea what the Chinese were up to, and it drove him, as the MPs in London worriedly remarked, close to madness.
Lord Elgin and the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan
In the end, Bowring was removed from office. He was censored by the House of Commons and although he formally remained as governor of Hong Kong until 1859, he was replaced as plenipotentiary in 1857 by James Bruce, the Eighth Earl
60 For an analogous argument applied to India see Bowring, Colonization and Commerce, 328.
of Elgin. Elgin’s task, as Harriet Martineau put it, was “to repair, or to turn to the best account, the mischiefs done by Sir John Bowring's course, and by the patronage of it at home.”61 Elgin, the son of the Seventh Earl, who robbed the Pantheon of its marbles, had already served the British government in Jamaica and Canada and he had proven himself both resourceful and measured in his actions.62 Like Bentham, Elgin was a religious man, yet far from a dissenter, he was a man of the established, Anglican, church. Politically, he was a Tory, yet of a liberal bent; and although he looked every bit the colonial administrator, he often, in letters home to his wife, complained about the ruthless actions of British merchants and insisted that he “hated war.” More than a conservative, Elgin was a Coleridgean. At Oxford, according to his brother, “his intellect was attracted to high and abstract speculation”; he read Plato, Milton, and Coleridge, the philosophy of the latter “he had thoroughly mastered.”63 Like Coleridge himself, Elgin firmly believed in the benevolent actions of a patriarchal state. “I am a Conservative,” he declared when successfully running for parliament in 1841, because I believe that our admirable Constitution ... proclaims between men of all classes and degrees in the body politic a sacred bond of brotherhood in the recognition of a common welfare here, and a common hope hereafter. ... because I believe that the institutions of our country, religious as well as civil, are wisely adapted, when duly and faithfully administered, to promote, not the interest of any class or classes exclusively, but the happiness and welfare of the great body of the people.64 Elgin opposed the Reform Bill of 1832, and his first political pamphlet, “Letter to
Harriet Martineau, “Memoir of the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine,” in A British Friendship and Memoir of the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, reprinted from Daily News, Dec. 12th, 1863 (Windermere: 1866), 28. The main biography is Theodore Walrond, Letters and Journals of James, Eighth Earl of Elgin (London: 1872) which makes extensive references to Elgin’s letters; George McKinnon Wrong, The Earl of Elgin (Toronto: 1906) is derivative of Walrond, and John George Bourinot, Lord Elgin (Toronto: 1903) only deals only with Elgin’s time in Canada. Martineau, Memoir, is a contemporary hagiography. Walrond, Letters and Journals, 3, 8. Ibid, 9-10.
the Electors of Great Britain,” 1834, was a staunch defense of the truly reactionary, and at the time deeply unpopular, policies of the Duke of Wellington.65 Like Coleridge, Elgin worried about the ravages brought by capitalism, and although he in principle supported the idea of free trade, he worried about the impact a reduction in tariffs would have on “the rights of the labouring classes.” We must remember, he said, that “the only capital of the labourer is his skill in his own particular walk, and it is a mockery to tell him that he can find a satisfactory compensation elsewhere.”66 Like other conservatives Elgin was morally uncomfortable with the opium trade, a view strengthened by his first experiences from the East.67 In Singapore in June 1857 he visited “some of the horrid opium-shops, which we are supposed to do so much to encourage.”68 They are “wretched dark places,” and the smokers “are haggard and stupefied, except at the moment of inhaling, when an unnatural brightness sparkles from their eyes.” Elgin also objected strongly to Bowring's free-booting style of diplomacy. The question of the Arrow, which had served as the pretext for the 1856 war, was, Elgin insisted, a “wretched” business, and “a scandal to us, and is so considered, I have reason to know, by all except the few who are personally compromised.”69 “I have got to fight everybody’s battles, and make myself sponsor for everybody’s follies.”70 Once in Hong Kong, Elgin made up excuses to avoid having to visit Bowring, and the two clashed repeatedly over issues of day-to-day policy.71 On the larger question of the war, however, Elgin
65 66 67 Wrong, Earl of Elgin, 14. Ibid. A particularly ardent opponent was Lord Shaftesbury. See Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, Suppression of the Opium Trade; the Speech of the Right Hon. Lord Ashley, M.P, in the House of Commons, on Tuesday, April 4, 1843 (London: 1843). James Bruce, Earl of Elgin, Extracts from the letters of James, Earl of Elgin to Mary Louisa, Countess of Elgin, 1847-1862 (Edinburgh: 1864), 29. Ibid, 62. Ibid, 64. See, for example, ibid, 60, 62. On the disagreement over how to administer Canton once it was occupied, see Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections, 26.
68 69 70 71
felt he had no choice but to stay the course. We should have done things differently, but “we cannot look back. We must do for the best, and trust in Providence to carry us through our difficulties.72 At the end of December, 1857, the British once again attacked Canton, and although Elgin was responsible for drawing up the plans, he was a reluctant warrior. “I hate the whole thing so much, that I cannot trust myself to write about it.”73 Looking at the British warships anchored in the harbor, “I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life ... I feel that I am earning for myself a place in the Litany, immediately after ‘ plague, pestilence, and famine.’”74 And when the final attack for a while was deferred until December 29, he immediately noticed that this was the day when Herod, in the Bible, massacred the innocents. In the end, the city was captured with only a few hundred, official, casualties, and Elgin was much relieved.75 Elgin, in short, was a sensitive soul. He was fond of quoting Romantic poetry - in addition to Coleridge, Tennyson was a favorite - and an emotionally stirring book which his wife had sent him, he confessed, ”is too touching for me, and I have been obliged to lay it aside.”76 He was also something of an Orientalist, with a perceptive eye for the sublime. When visiting Egypt, en route to China, for example, he made a night-time excursion to the pyramids - a classical setting for sublime experiences.77 And as we would expect from a well-educated gentleman I touch with his Romantic side, Elgin was duly awe-struck. The sight of the sphinx left a particularly strong impression:
72 73 74 75 76 77 Elgin, Extracts from Letters, 63. Ibid, 68. Ibid, 65-66. Ibid, 68. The number of casualties are given as “between 200 and 300.” Ibid, 77. Referring to “that little pretty book of Guizot’s.” Ibid, 48. “The sight of the Egyptian pyramid ... moves one far more than one can imagine from all the descriptions ...” Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime,  (Berkeley: 2004), 49. A contemporary account emphasizing the sublime nature of the pyramids is Robert Ferguson, The Shadow of the Pyramid, a Series of Sonnets (London: 1847).
The mystical light and deep shadows cast by the moon, gave to it an intensity which I cannot attempt to describe. To me it seemed a look, earnest, searching, but unsatisfied. For a long time I remained transfixed, endeavouring to read the meaning conveyed by this wonderful eye ...78 China, however, inspired no similar sublime feelings. All in all, Elgin was thoroughly unimpressed with what he saw. Chinese towns, and people, tended to be ugly, poor and dirty. And he was scathing about Chinese religion: Buddhist monks, invariably, “seem particularly stupid,” and temples contain “a parcel of hideous idols behind altars, somewhat resembling those of Roman Catholic churches.”79 Not even the imperial institutions were worthy of much praise. Government offices were invariably in a bad state of repair, giving impressions of decay rather than splendor. Surprisingly this was true even of the imperial palace itself. In June of 1858 a settlement, the Treaty of Tianjin, was finally concluded between Elgin and his Chinese counterparts. The treaty opened up eleven new Chinese cities to foreign trade, and gave Western powers, inter alia, the right to establish permanent missions in Beijing, and the right to travel up the Yangtze [Chang jiang] river. The opium trade was also legalized under a fixed tariff.80 His business concluded, Elgin left for home. In 1859, when ratifications were to be exchanged, the British decided to bring a military force. They attacked the forts at Dagu, which protected Beijing from the sea, but they were beaten back by the Chinese defenders. In order to obtain the sought-for ratification, and get revenge for the humiliating defeat, Lord Elgin was once again called into action, and he set off at the head of a combined Anglo-French army. On August 21, they successfully seized the Dagu forts and negotiations recommenced.81 Yet Elgin
78 Elgin, Extracts from Letters, 178. By contrast, when Bowring visited the pyramids in 1837, his only comment concerns how he was robbed “in one of the dark chambers.” Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections, 187. Elgin, Extracts from Letters, 76, 27. Morse, International Relations, 1:512-538. The capture of the Dagu Forts were famously captured by Felice Beato, one of the
79 80 81
believed the Chinese were stalling for time, and after little hesitation he decided to march on the capital itself. On September 18, the Chinese took 39 Allies hostage, including twenty Indian soldiers and Thomas Bowlby, the correspondence for the Times.82 They would be returned, the Chinese promised, but only once the Europeans were on their way back home. In the evening of October 6, 1860, the army reached the gates of the Yuanmingyuan, what the Europeans referred to as the “Summer Palace” of the Chinese emperor.83 Built by Emperor Kangxi in 1709, the Yuanmingyuan was a
vast complex of palaces, pagodas, pavilions, temples, lakes, gardens and groves, including a European style palace built by Italian architects in the 1740s.84 In addition it contained a major library and it was the place where tributary gifts from foreign princes were stored, making it one of the most extraordinary collections of artefacts ever assembled. The Yuanmingyuan was, the Chinese insisted, “the garden of gardens,” and just like Kublai Khan’s palace in Coleridge's poem, it was a vision of Paradise. The Yuanmingyuan was already well-known in Europe. In the middle of the previous century a description of the palace by a Jesuit priest, Father Jean Denis Attiret, was widely disseminated among the reading public and it inspired Chinesefirst war photographers. See David Harris, Of Battle and Beauty: Felice Beato's Photographs of China (Berkeley: 2000). On the war itself, see Morse, International Relations, 1:593-608; For French sources see Henri Cordier, ed., L'Expédition de Chine de 1860, histoire diplomatique, notes et documents (Paris: 1906), 255-282. 82 See Stanislas D'Escayrac de Lauture, “Récit de la captivité de M. le comte d'Escayrac de Lauture par les Chinois, fait par lui-même,” in Nouvelles annales des voyages, de la géographie et de l'histoire, tome 2, vol. 182, 6 (Paris: 1864); Henry Brougham Loch, Personal Narrative of Occurrences During Lord Elgin's Second Embassy to China, 1860 (London: 1869). The best primary source is Garnet Wolseley, Narrative of the War with China in 1860; to Which Is Added the Account of a Short Residence with the Tai-Ping Rebels at Nankin and a Voyage from Thence to Hankow (London: 1862). See also Robert Swinhoe, Narrative of the North China Campaign of 1860: Containing Personal Experiences of Chinese Character, and of the Moral and Social Condition of the Country; Together with a Description of the Interior of Pekin (London: 1861); D.F. Rennie, The British Arms in North China and Japan: Peking 1860, Kagosima (London: 1864). Carroll Brown Malone, History of the Peking Summer Palace under the Ch'ing Dynasty (Urbana: 1934), 43-44.
style gardens to be constructed throughout the Continent.85 Attiret’s account prompted the architect William Chambers, responsible for the pagoda in Kew Gardens and himself a visitor to China, to publish a manual on Chinese garden art. In its combination of dread and irresistible attraction, Chambers description was nothing short of Coleridgean. Chinese gardens, Chambers insisted, combine delightful vistas with “scenes of terror”: Bats, owls, and every bird of prey flutter in the groves; wolves, tigers and jackalls howl in the forests; half-famished animals wander upon the plains; ... and in the most dismal recesses of the woods, where the ways are rugged and overgrown with weeds, and where every object bears the marks of depopulation, are temples dedicated to the king of vengeance, deep caverns in the rocks, and descents to subterraneous habitations, overgrown with brushwood and brambles ...86 To visit the Yuanmingyuan, in short, was a sublime experience. And many of the soldiers who suddenly appeared here in 1860 agreed. “I was dumbfounded, stunned, bewildered by what I had seen,” wrote one, “suddenly Thousand and One Nights new seem perfectly believable to me.”87 In order to properly depict the palace, wrote another, I would need to “dissolve all known precious stones in liquid gold and paint with a diamond feather whose bristles contain all the fantasies of a poet of the East.”88 Elgin, however, was far less impressed. “It is really a fine thing,” he admitted, “like an English park. Numberless buildings with handsome rooms, and filled with Chinese curios, and handsome clocks, bronzes,
Reprinted in English as Jean Denis Attiret, A Particular Account of the Emperor of China's Gardens Near Pekin: In a Letter from F. Attiret, a French Missionary, Now Employ'd by That Emperor to Paint the Apartments in Those Gardens, to His Friend at Paris, M. Cooper (London: 1752). William Chambers, A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (London: 1772). In light of Lowes’ thorough scholarship, it is impossible to add additional “sources” to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Yet Chamber’s work was widely read in the last decades of the eighteenth-century. Another possible inspiration is the account of George Macartney’s visit to the palace of the Chinese emperor in 1793. See George Leonard Staunton, An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China, Volumes 1 & 2 (London: 1797). Armand Lucy, Lettres intimes sur la campagne de Chine (Marseille: 1861), 96. Hérisson, Journal d'un interprète en Chine (Paris: 1886), 306. Cf. the reactions of the French general Montauban, quoted in Cordier, L'Expédition de Chine, 354.
etc.”89 But clearly, once you have come to regard something as “fine” and “handsome,” you can never regard it as sublime.90 Elgin did not, like Coleridge, “close his eyes in holy dread” and he drank no “milk of Paradise.” He did not submit, instead he demanded submission. On October 8 the first of the European hostages were returned by the Chinese authorities. They showed signs of torture and told horrific tales of their treatment. Next the bodies of dead hostages were returned, and in the end only 18 of the 39 men came back alive.91 Outraged and offended, Elgin decided to teach the Chinese a lesson. The best way, he decided, was to burn down the Yuanmingyuan: Having, to the best of my judgment, examined the question in all its bearings, I came to the conclusion that the destruction of Yuen-mingyuen was the least objectionable of the several courses open to me, unless I could have reconciled it to my sense of duty to suffer the crime which had been committed to pass practically unavenged. I had reason, moreover, to believe that it was an act which was calculated to produce a greater effect in China, and on the Emperor, than persons who look on from a distance may suppose.92 It took the army two days to destroy the palace complex. "The clouds of smoke," wrote one eyewitness, "driven by the wind, hung like a vast black pall over Pekin."93 “Nous, Européens, nous sommes les civilisés, ” as Victor Hugo famously concluded, “ et pour nous, les Chinois sont les barbares. Voilà ce que la civilisation a fait à la barbarie.”94 This is how Elgin, the Coleridgean, came to destroy the physical manifestation of the dream which his mentor had shared with Kublai Khan. And yet this is not
89 90 Elgin, Extracts from Letters, 220. “By beauty,” said Burke, “I mean, that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love”; whereas “a mode of terror, or pain, is always the cause of the sublime.” Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful,  (Oxford: 1998): 83, 124. Cf. Kant, Observations, 47. Morse, International Relations, 608. Walrond, Letters and Journals, 366. Cf. Wolseley, Narrative, 282. Loch, Personal Narrative, 274. Victor Hugo, “L'Expédition de Chine: Au Capitaine Butler,” in Oeuvres complètes de Victor Hugo: Actes et paroles pendant l'exile, 1852-70 (Paris: 1880), 270.
91 92 93 94
to say that his action cannot be given a Coleridgean rationale. Coleridge, after all, was a great believer in the state, and it was the British state which Elgin was serving. What blinded him to the splendors of Yuanmingyuan was his attention to the duties of his office. Elgin had no time to dream; he had revenges to exact, concessions to extract and wars to win. He destroyed one Coleridgean idea - the emperor’s palace - while defending another - the idea of imperative duty. In December 1857, at the time of the bombardment of Canton, such Realpolitik had caused him great moral anguish, but in October 1860 he expressed no such scruples. However, and very strikingly, he completely forgot to mention the destruction of the palace in any of the letters he wrote to his wife. Perhaps, after all, he was ashamed of his action. As Elgin himself had put it in 1857, after the bombardment of Canton: Whose work are we engaged in, when we burst thus with hideous violence and brutal energy into these darkest and most mysterious recesses of the traditions of the past? I wish I could answer that question in a manner satisfactory to myself.95
nationalism, evolution and ideals betrayed
There are two men to whom we are “indebted for the revolution in our general modes of thought,” wrote John Stuart Mill: Jeremy Bentham, the critical rationalist, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poetic communitarian.96 On matters of colonies, as we have seen, the two held opposite views, although neither was completely consistent. Bentham’s felicific calculus indicated to him that colonies were detrimental to the greatest happiness both of colonizers and colonized, although he admitted that colonialism could have beneficial effects, at least if guided by his own principles. Coleridge, for his part, saw the importance of colonial expansion for the vigor and unity of the state, although he was aware of
95 96 Elgin, Extracts from Letters, 101. This is a dichotomy which clearly serves Mill's own agenda. What he really wants to tell us is how he proposes to unite these two disparate bodies of thought into a more coherent whole. Cf. Pitts, Turn to Empire, 135.
the heavy costs it imposed on the subject peoples. Yet, as we have seen, there are good reasons to question Mill's conclusions. Bentham died in 1832 and Coleridge in 1834; Mill wrote his essay in 1840. In the middle of the following decade, however, the two “teachers of the teachers” no longer defined the spectrum of political opinions. The world had already changed too much and new factors, not considered by either man, had come to the fore. This is not least the case when it comes to the question of colonialism. Accounting for this transformation, a first thing to remember is that the original impetus for both Bentham’s and Coleridge's writings on colonialism can be located in the 1790s. Bentham's “Emancipate Your Colonies!” was written in 1793, at the same time as Coleridge began planning his Pantisocratic move to the United States. In the 1790s, universal values were still dominant: the main current of Enlightenment thought made few distinctions between Europeans, Asians and Africans since everyone, everywhere, if to varying degrees, suffered under the yoke of prejudice and irrationality. Non-European peoples too were worthy of respect, and fit for self-governance, as long as they sought cast off this yoke.97 Bentham’s letter to Raja Ram Mohan Roy took for granted the ability of the Indian reformer to understand, and act upon, rational arguments. And Coleridge insisted that Africans, with their “variety of employment,” have a greater “acuteness of intellect” than Europeans who the division of labor has condemned to mechanically repeating a few simplistic tasks.98 By the 1850s, however, this universalizing creed had largely been replaced by a new ideology which made sharp distinctions between nations, peoples, and their respective historical trajectories.99 Social development, “thinking men” now
97 Compare the notice issued by William Bentinch, Governor-General of India, in 1829 for addressed to “all native gentlemen, landholders, merchants, and others” for suggestions “tending to promote any branch of national industry.” Discussed in Bowring, Colonization and Commerce, 331. Coleridge, Slave-Trade, 143. For comments on this shift, see Pitts, Turn to Empire, 133-162; K. Theodore Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation 1846-1886 (Oxford, 1998), 472-510. Or,
generally tended to believed, is a result of social evolution.100 Evolution has placed some societies and some people at a higher level of development than others; some societies and people are “civilized,” others are “barbarian,” and a few in the middle are “semi-barbarian.” It was James Mill who first brought the utilitarian and the colonialist projects together.101 In an essay on China from 1809, he discredited one Chinese achievement after the other with the aim of depriving the country of its status as a “civilized.”102 In the six volumes of his History of India, 1817, Mill père gave India the same treatment. Indian, he concluded, was a hopelessly backward society and Indians could not help themselves. Commenting favorably on Mill’s work in the Westminster Review in 1829, John Bowring endorsed this conclusion:”A power, a stupendous power, of good is in our hands, and the chances of happiness for the Indian people are greater from our dominion than from that of any masters to whom it is likely they will be transferred....”103 In his celebrated essay, “On Liberty,” written as news of Bowring’s China war reached Britain, Mill fils took the logical further step of arguing that “if [the Chinese] are ever to be farther improved, it must be by foreigners.”104 The contrast with Mill’s earlier essay, “Civilization,” from 1836, is dramatic.105 The two essays cover essentially the same ground - emphasizing the importance of “individuality” and of free expression as the engine of social improvement. Yet in
more generally, the contributions to Duncan Bell, ed., Victorian Visions of Global Order: Empire and International Relations in Nineteenth-Century Political Thought, 1st ed. (Cambridge: 2008). 100 Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859, and drew on evolutionary ideas current at the time. See Gregory Claeys, “The "Survival of the Fittest" and the Origins of Social Darwinism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, no. 2 (April 2000): 223-240. 101 Pitts, Turn to Empire, 123-133. 102 “There is not one of the arts in China in a state which indicates a stage of beyond the infancy of agricultural society.” James Mill, “Review of M. de Guignes, Voyages à Peking, Manille, et l’Ile de France, faits dans l'intervalle des années 1784 à 1801,” The Edinburgh Review 14 (July 1809):424. 103 Bowring, Colonization and Commerce, 328. 104 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: 1859), 129. 105 John Stuart Mill, “Civilization, ,” in Dissertations and Discussions, Political Philosophical, and Historical. Reprinted Chiefly from the Edinburgh and Westminster Reviews, Volume I (London: 1859), 160-205.
1836 the foil for Mill's argument was a rather abstract, Hobbesian, state of nature, whereas in 1859 the foil was an eternally stagnant, and history-less, China. This evolutionary mode of thinking was accompanied by a new emphasis on questions of race.106 From being occasional remarks scattered in the pages of the writers of the previous generation, racism had, by mid-century, developed into a full-fledged theory which explained differences between individuals, societies, even the general course of world history itself. It is clear that the representatives of the British government in China shared these views. “It is a terrible business,” said Lord Elgin in a letter to his wife, “this living among inferior races.”107 And John Bowring condemned the rampant miscegenation taking place in the Portuguese colony of Macao: “you can barely fancy,” he wrote to his son, “how any European race could by mingling with Malayan, negro & Chinese blood degenerate into such extreme ugliness.”108 This is thus how the secretary of the “Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace” came to make war on defenseless civilians, and how a conservative supporter of time-honored institutions came to act like a barbarian overrunning Rome.109 In the end Bowring and Elgin were not Benthamites and
106 An early work is Robert Knox, The Races of Men: A Fragment (Philadelphia: 1850). See Gregory Claeys, “The "Survival of the Fittest" and the Origins of Social Darwinism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, no. 2 (April 2000): 223-240. And more generally Tzvetan Todorov, On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought (Cambridge: 1998). 107 Elgin, Extracts from Letters, 44-45. Compare the rampant sinophobia of Coleridge's friend and fellow opium addict, Thomas de Quincey. See his“The Chinese Question in 1857,” in The Collected Writings of Thomas de Quincey, Volume 14, ed. David Masson (London: 1897), 345-367. 108 Letter to his Son, 12 May, 1850, quoted in Todd, Global Dissemination, 390. 109 “No man,” says Bowring in his Autobiographical Recollections, “was ever a more ardent lover of peace than I.” Yet “the powers of reason fail when coming in contact with the unreasoning and unconvincible”; “with barbarous - ay, and sometimes with civilized nations - the words of peace are uttered in vain.” Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections, 217-218. As general Hope Grant, military commander of the British forces in 1860, admitted:“I don't know whether I shall be justified at home for committing this, what may be called barbaric act, but in my opinion it is a just retribution.” James Hope Grant, “Hope Grant to Sidney Herbert, October 17, 1860,” in Athur H. Stanmore, Sidney Herbert, Lord Herbert of Lea: A Memoir (London: 1906), 349.
Coleridgeans as much as employees of the British state.110 And yet, there are important respects in which the two remained faithful to their mentors. What has taken place is not a break with, but rather a winnowing down of, the original themes. In Bentham's mind, panopticism and anti-colonialism easily co-existed, just as Coleridge combined Orientalist fantasies with metaphysical speculations about the organic unity of the state. Fifty years later, however, these combinations were no longer possible and their disciples were forced to emphasize some parts of the legacy while turning their backs on others. Bowring and Elgin were Benthamites and Coleridgeans not within an internationalist, but within a nationalist, framework.
architecture of our imagination
Dreams strikingly often take architectural form. We first build things in our fancy which we later go on to build in real life.111 Kublai Khan and Coleridge dreamed of an ideal palace and Bentham of an ideal prison. Kublai Khan, Rashid-al-Din reported, wanted a building fit for an imperial ruler which could “spread his own fame” - symbolize and aggrandize his power.112 Bentham wanted power too. The building he so desperately sought to construct was to assure a centrally placed observer - himself, or a colonial administrator - complete control over the movements of the people subject to him. Coleridge's dream, by contrast, is not a dream of power but of how to relinquish it. It is a renunciation of “the white man’s burden” and, perhaps, a subconscious plead for colonizers and colonized to trade places.
110 That these conclusions were not inevitable, or the only ones, is proven by the contributions to the China debates in the Houses of Parliament in February and March, 1857. Here Lord Derby provided a traditional, and respectful, conservative defense of Chinese institutions and Richard Cobden, taking a universalist liberal view, argued that no rationale existed for treating China different from any European country. Lord Derby, Debate, cc. 1155-1195; Cobden, China War, 1908. 111 The classical account is Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: 1994). 112 Yule, Cathay, 2:258.
Reading letters and diaries of nineteenth-century colonial administrators one occasionally hears echoes of Coleridge's poem, and it is possible to hear them in Lord Elgin’s private correspondence. Yet these subconscious voices, to the extent that they existed, are never loud enough. And even Lord Elgin, when he came face to face with the sublime apparition itself, did not submit to it but destroyed it. He clearly never recognized it for what it was; he identified too closely with his official role. Once the Emperor’s palace was reduced to a smoldering heap, it was instead the Benthamite vision which came to be constructed. And eventually China was completely opened up to inspection, and its markets, its people and its land became subject to foreign control.113 And yet, as Borges pointed out in his essay on Coleridge, the dream of Kublai Khan’s palace is far more powerful than its dreamers. In the future the same dream will surely be picked up by others - Europeans, North Americans and Asians - and dreamed and re-dreamed over and over again: Perhaps this series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last will be the key… Perhaps an archetype not yet revealed to mankind, an eternal object, is gradually entering the world.114 Since the mid-nineteenth-century it is the Benthamite vision which has guided European relations with the non-European world. On the whole these relations have been unhappy and exploitative. Trusting in dreams, and in Borges, however, we can perhaps look forward to the day when the archetype imagined by Kublai Khan and Coleridge once again enters the world.
113 In the end, Morse concludes, “the Chinese learned, and they accepted as their law, that, whereas formerly it was China which dictated the conditions under which international relations were to be maintained, now it was the Western nations which imposed their will on China.” Morse, International Relations, 1:617. 114 Borges, Coleridge’s Dream, 372.