What happens when two nations try to rule the world without war?
|The valet led him to the dining room on the southern end of the factory, bowing again as he opened the ill-fitting Victorian doors. McKendree found himself in an immense room opening to a terrace; the width of the room obviously filled the width of the building completely. A large, rectangular dining table with enough room to seat twenty-four was situated in the middle of the room completely furnished with numerous silver plates, goblets, and utensils. Golden candelabras placed intermittently along the length of the table were decorated, ironically, with poppy garlands, and the candles were all lit despite the ample light supplied by the massive window separating the room from the verandah. Three colossal chandeliers hung from ceiling, one directly above the dining table and the other two over smaller card tables and chairs on either side of the room. Also suspended from the ceiling was a large punkah with ropes leading out to the verandah where a Chinese servant waited to begin his work. The east wall was entirely covered in bookshelves containing books of all sizes, and on the west wall there were hung several portraits: the center portrait was of Emperor Daoguang in all his yellow livery; and on either side of him rested King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and a King George IV of Britain with his crown and scepter.
Nearly two dozen Europeans were mingling near the bookcases while several Chinese servants finished preparations on the dining table. McKendree spotted Gaskill already engaged in conversation with a man with a deep widow’s peak and cherry red complexion, his brown coat lending to his identity as a resident merchant. He also spied Seth Trunnell seated in a leather armchair, flipping his way through a book, his ever-inquisitive eyes no doubt searching each word for some meaning. He spied only three other captains in the room, Gaskill included, and four maritime officers. The remaining individuals were either resident merchants or clerks.
McKendree strode into the room just as a bell was rung, catching the attention of every man in the room and summoning them to the table. Being closest to the table, McKendree had the fortune to choose his seat, taking one on the west side that allowed ample view of the door and the terrace without the somber stares of the monarchs present in his sight at all times. To McKendree’s left sat one of the other naval captains, and to his right an Scotsman with a pale, cherub-like face and the dress of a successful merchant, his white collars stiff and his fingers displaying several gold rings. With everyone seated, only one space was empty, and directly, an entourage of Chinese servants appeared carrying covered trays of food. As each one was uncovered, McKendree began to understand Houqua’s earlier comment concerning the chef’s diversity in culinary preparations:
There was some dish from every corner of Britain, and surely enough of it to feed half the kingdom. There was pheasant and shepherd’s pie, devilled kidneys, steak and kidney pudding, beef Wellington, dumplings, and peach chutney. Besides the assortment of cheeses, including everything from Lancashire to Stilton to cheddar, there were custards, gypsy tarts, spotted dick, and Saffron cake. There was a plate entirely covered in fruit, most of which was unfamiliar to the captain but looked pleasing enough to the eye. The long-term residents, savvy to the operations and customs, began heaping their plates full of the gourmet. McKendree caught Trunnell’s eye and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “What feast have you ever had that compared to this one?” Trunnell returned his look with a sheepish grin as though responding, “You should best taste the food before you sing its praises.”
Its praises were definitely worth being sung. After two months of galley food, a meal prepared with fresh ingredients was a delight comparable only with homecoming. Just as the first bites were taken, the servants reappeared, their footsteps silent as a creeping tiger, and placed a bottle of wine before each diner, uncorking each in a swift, synchronized motion. Noticing his look of shock, McKendree’s right-hand neighbor leaned over and said, “Keep your crew from this knowledge. I’ve heard of many a mutiny that started because of captains unable to keep the alcohol a secret. After dinner, you can request as many beers as you can stomach!” He put down his fork and extended his hand. “Jardine. William Jardine of Jardine, Matheson, and Company. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, captain.”
McKendree clasped the man’s hand and returned, “Captain Everett McKendree of the Discretion, formerly of the HMS Mercury.”
The captain noticed the man’s face light up at this mentioning. “Then you no doubt served in the wars?” He stared at McKendree’s face as though simply looking would help him discern where he served. “Mediterranean, no?
McKendree responded in the affirmative. He meant the Napoleonic Wars, of course. “I captained her starting with its commissioning in July of 1805 through the end of the war in 1814. She was a beautiful monster, a thirty-eight gun fifth-rate frigate.”
“A desirable assignment, was it not, on a fifth-rate?” Jardine asked.
The captain grinned. “Yes, desirable to say the least, and at the time I did not deserve that right. Our first cutting-out was nearly an accident within a month of sailing. We ran across a grounded French brig in the Gulf of Taranto. It took a full night under constant fire from the shore, but we salvaged her and lost not a single man, though Roger Dyer was shot in the knee. But the surgeon fixed him up nicely, and you have to look closely to spy the limp. We came away with half a dozen 24-pounders, full with their carriages, not to mention the brig.” He paused to place a dumpling in his mouth. “But that is ancient history.”
Jardine had nearly forgotten his food by this point, listening so intently to the naval captain like a child hearing for the first time of King Arthur. He regained some composure before saying, “I had only just received my medical diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburg and signed onto the service of the British East India Company as a surgeon when the wars began. I was eighteen and hearing of magnificent battles and war heroes as I found myself being carted to and from Asia. Tell me, did you serve in Alexandria?”
McKendree began to relate his oft-repeated war stories to this man who, though nearly fifty, captured each word as though he were still eighteen. He told of the 1807 expedition to Alexandria; of the bittersweet campaign in the Bay of Rosas where he alone had lost three men and five were wounded severely enough so as to never be able to sail again, though two warships and two transports were captured; of the capture of Augusta and Carzola with the help of Lieutenant-Colonel Robertson and his entourage of troops; of the Corfu incident where the Mercury, in the process of seizing four French ships, was attacked by a gunboat that wounded several who were taken to shore, following which the boats bravely fought off four attacks, though only one man was lost as a prisoner; of the surrender of the island of Paxos whose martial inhabitants were caught off guard at the appearance of McKendree’s ship and an army detachment of 160. Through all of this, the merchant man listened intently—had he pen and paper, he no doubt would have been taking notes.
After a quarter of an hour, McKendree came to a conclusion of his war gests. “Then in September of 1814, she finally brought us home to England where she became an ordinary, a reserve. She was hulked several years later.”
“And now,” Jardine began, his words slow as his mind processed all that the captain had said, “here you are, captaining a tea clipper with only mounted cannons. What foul string of luck took you away from the navy?”
McKendree laughed. “My own free will,” he answered vivaciously. “I had had enough of naval life, seen more than enough for one captain. But,” and he put his left elbow on the table as he turned in his chair toward Jardine, raising his right with his pointer finger extended, “there is something about the sea. The Greeks call the Sirens creatures on the shore, but I say that the sea itself is a Siren. It calls to you, and if you respond, there is no going back. You embark on the seas in any ship, not just one like the Mercury with its navigable nimbleness and awe-inspiring firepower, any seaworthy vessel of might, and stand on the bow and gaze out into the endless waters, setting out to find where the horizon lies, smelling the salt breeze, feeling the wind brush your face that not another man can feel . . . that is the Siren’s call. You cannot resist it, not without shattering everything you believe in.”
Jardine pondered this for a moment before speaking. “It must be different as a seaman than a surgeon. I fell down to kiss the earth at every port!”
Both laughed. “I firmly believe every man has his Siren,” he continued. “Yours was obviously not the sea. But a man cannot live for long without finding something, experience some event perhaps, that pulls his heart so forcefully, he feels as though his sternum may break and his ribs may crack. These Sirens become to us as ambitions, goals, means and ends. For some, the Siren’s call is one of power, for others it is of love, for some wealth and affluence, others a profession. But just as they sing out a call for one to find his meaning, so they also can rip a man to shreds against the shore of his aspirations, leaving behind a madness in him that is devoid of and in conflict with any and all life. The Sirens can lead a man to his dreams, or they can feast on his soul.” McKendree finished his monologue as he cleared his plate, following it with a mouthful of wine. “Now, how about you? How does a young surgeon turn into a merchant trader? I did not know science of the brain had progressed so far as to change one’s entire personality.”
The former surgeon rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I left the company a decade and a half into it. Medicine on the seas was not for me, and I had become very familiar with Asian economics. Nine years ago, I became a partner of Magniac and Company. Magniac retired and left the company in the hands of myself and my colleague, James Matheson.” He motioned to a gentleman at the opposite end of the table who was in the middle of a humorous anecdote, the attentions of six others gathered on him. “I am the humble, meticulous one, and he is the rich, gregarious bloke with an inheritance. Together we make quite a company.”
“If you would be so good to humor me,” McKendree slowly began, thinking on the earlier conversation with Houqua, “I have a question that no seaman could hope to uncover on his own.” Jardine’s eyebrows rose in inquiry, signaling for the captain to continue. “My fellow captain Gaskill and myself had the,” he searched for a word, “pleasure of speaking with Houqua, and he mentioned Britain’s lessening of trade of late and equated the American merchants to mere nuisances. He placed a great measure of faith in the revocation of the Royal Charter and praised Mr. Clarkson, our employer, as a god. You obviously have a greater knowledge of the goings-on of trade than I do. What do you make of this?”
Jardine cocked his head in thought for a moment before answering. “I have thought much of this of late, especially concerning the charter business and Mr. Clarkson’s hand in it. Call me alarmist, but I have a sense of foreboding in terms of all of this. I have been intricately involved in the particulars of commerce for over a decade, and I can tell you that it brings me more fear than any warmongering. Were Clarkson any ordinary merchant, I would not feel this way. But his power in Britain is ever increasing, and while I distrust politics more than the Chinese, a businessman I trust even less.
“Houqua and I are not on the friendliest of terms. His wealth is dependent on my success, but my success is dependent on the opium trade, which evidently is his enemy. I feed him customers, and he provides the Chinese goods. However, the opium comes directly through Jardine, Matheson and Company to be allocated to private agencies for distribution. But what can he do to stop this? He requires my services, especially due to my good standing in the British East India Company.”
“But surely he knows that opium is being traded right under his nose?” McKendree asked.
Jardine sipped his wine while thinking of an appreciable way of responding. “Houqua is straddled in between the worlds of China’s wealth and his own prosperity. I guess you could say that is his Siren,” he remarked, looking for the first time since speaking directly at McKendree. “He must maintain the standards of his administration while fully aware of where this trade inevitably comes from. Not only is opium trade illegal by foreigners but also the exporting of silver by the Chinese. When you traded your opium for silver, both sides of the trade, you and the Chinese, were offending parties.”
“So Houqua merely turns a blind eye to this operation, knowing full well that it is creating his fortune while sapping resources from his nation?”
“Some would say he does is begrudgingly.” He paused as they both saw Matheson rise with his enraptured audience, Trunnell included, from the table and settle around a card table. “Come, let us take a short hiatus before we come to the essence of this conversation.” He stood up, and so did McKendree, the former leading the way to two leather armchairs resting in the northwest corner of the room. A small, ornamental table with a mother-of-pearl hummingbird set on its face. Both reclined as a Chinese servant appeared with beer, to which both obliged.
“The ends justify the means,” Jardine spoke again after a minute of silence. “Houqua has to secure trade for the tea in any way possible. Without it, China loses out on their primary export, tea. He is compelled to do that which he is supposed to hate, yet I believe he could not care less.”
McKendree interrupted him here. “How odd this system is. It is built upon a crumbling foundation, and surely every Chinaman involved must see this.”
“And they do, but they do not care,” he responded with a sort of pity in his voice. “It is working for them now, and the people are happy. They are selling what they produce, and the people are earning incomes. The only ones who truly care are those magistrates in control of the royal treasury.”
The captain took a long draught of the rich ale. Everything was better here, the food and the drinks. “Soon enough, then, the Chinese will find themselves in an economic rut. If they continue to lose revenue through imports, how else will the Chinese survive in this commerce-based world?”
“Ah,” Jardine coughed, placing his mug on the table and leaning back comfortably in his chair, crossing his right leg over his left as he did so, “This leads perfectly into your question.” McKendree noticed his voice change from that of casual conversation to one of instruction. “British import of tea in the last few years has remained around thirty million pounds annually at a price of £6,000,000 sterling. Your Mr. Clarkson assured Parliament that an additional ten million pounds of tea could be bought £1,000,000 sterling less. His reasoning was this: while a higher demand for tea would initially raise prices, the rate of tea production in China would increase to meet our demands for it, leveling off the price to match what it had been before, but not taking into consideration the increase in exports. As soon as supply met demand, the prices would drop considerably. The same thing occurred when India’s trading monopoly was dropped: the revenue from British exports increased exponentially while the cost diminished.”
“So it was in both England’s and China’s best interest to open up the market to the private sector.”
“Exactly! However, the biggest concern our government faced, quite unnecessarily as you just pointed out, was the fear that China would close its port if we manipulated the terms of our trading agreement to allow this. Evidence Mr. Clarkson revealed from American agencies proved that the Chinese were tolerable of a private system, but he did not stop there. He also reasoned that China was dependent on British trade. They are a commercial people. Without British trade, they would be sitting atop thirty million pounds of molding tea, not to mention a lack of our imports. Out of fifteen million imports into Canton from all companies, over two-thirds were opium. The Chinese cannot manage without this drug. It is illegal, but I have heard even the emperor himself partakes of it without shame—in fact, its illegal nature is wholly in consequence of the change in revenue flow from going into China to going out of it. And once one forges an opium habit, it is nearly impossible to shake it. The Chinese would be devastated without this . . . commodity. It is, therefore, in their best interest to both buy and sell. Besides, Singapore and Indonesia both export tea, granted not nearly to the same levels, but they could certainly rise to the challenge if China’s port was closed to the British.
“This is where the Americans come in. American companies are currently exporting tea and other goods to England and her colonies. The same is true of the Dutch. The latter exports 100,000 pounds of tea to England at increased prices, and the former more than 1,000,000. With an increased British import of tea, we would be able to sustainably supply our colonies with tea, pushing America and Holland out of the tea market. This would invariably be devastating to both nations for two reasons: First of all, their consumption of tea is far less than England’s, not to mention their nonexistent demand for Chinese goods; and even more importantly—or perhaps more devastatingly—the flow of revenue out of these nations would greatly diminish, exports would be greatly reduced, and inflation would inevitably follow. I have talked with several American merchants concerning this, and this is their greatest fear! Their country’s success depends on exports, just as most any nation. Already, the value of their exports are decreasing as industry finds cheaper methods of production. While export from America has remained relatively the same over the past few decades, the amount of imports have nearly halved. Their nation has founded itself on selling, and while the imports are simply commodities and not needed, what brings them in is necessary. Everyone from the merchant to the supplier to the seller would be hit if this developed far enough. Of course, that is the worst case scenario. In terms of just Eastern trade, the excess of supply would cause their prices to deflate, giving England the upper hand around the globe. The same event happened in 1813 in India—the Americans have negligible trade with them now compared to before the change, all of their exports heading to China afterward and continuing to today.
“So, what does this all mean for Mr. Clarkson and Houqua? Increased competition in the Chinese market leads to an increase in commission for the Hong, not to mention a greater power both in China and abroad, as we all know goods marked with Houqua’s approval always cost more. He has strong ties with the emperor and nearly complete control over the trade here in Canton, though no one will admit it. Mr. Clarkson obviously has the opportunity to control the entire trade from purchase through final sale and collecting capital in the West. So, together, they can dominate not only the tea trade but also all of international commerce. And not simply England’s, mind you, but the rest of Europe, even America. The Dutch and Americans may soon be thrown out of Canton, leaving a near-British monopoly of the trade of Eastern goods in the world. That is simply the beginning. China’s cheap labor costs and need for commerce could morph China into an international supplier with Clarkson at its head. And with Houqua’s standing in the Chinese dynastic government and Mr. Clarkson’s strong presence in Parliament and trade, they could very easily overturn the world economy as it is known, at least as far as naval trade is concerned.”
McKendree finally interrupted. “Surely this is too improbable to come to pass. To think of two individuals controlling the entire world’s economy? That would require one massive monopoly and a near obliteration of every commercial agency on the globe!”
“Yes,” Jardine nodded, “just as two merchants, they could only do so much. Competition would stay afloat for some time, perhaps indefinitely. In any case, it would take decades if everything went their way.” He leaned forward and spoke with a sense of urgency. “But suppose they became something more? The world has been changed since the wars, and men like these have a great opportunity to thrust themselves into voids where no power has ever existed. A collaboration like this of two merchants is worrying but not terrifying; however, a collaboration like this of two nations with a business objective would be petrifying. All it would take would be China’s closing off of Canton to all but the British. If the British control the East, they can control the West as well.”
“But surely,” McKendree retorted, not wishing to believe a word, “the world would realize this and take action against them, would they not? Just as the Royal Charter was revoked, it is doubtful that some amount of force would not coerce Canton to open port to the rest of the world.”
Again, Jardine nodded. “That is true, no doubt the nations would rally for their own survival. China alone is not strong enough to defend itself. But with a close ally from the West, one with colonies that supply every good imaginable in a self-sustainable manner, China would survive. England would have the benefit of commerce control, and China would have the advantage of becoming a world supplier, both of which would reap the benefits of extreme affluence. China has enough silver to negate any need of South American minerals. Already in America, civil unrest is unfolding due to their main export, cotton. America has become a one-crop nation following Whitney’s cotton gin invention. While India does not have the capacity to entirely match America’s cotton exports, China has not only the land but also the manpower to outproduce the States. You have seen how fertile this land is. What happened to the Dutch perfectly reveals what devastation to a nation a lack of trade can cause. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch war caused trade to slacken to a standstill due to the French and British blockades, and as of 1815, their economy is in shambles. Deprived of commerce, all industry in their nation collapsed to nothing.” He laughed in realization of something. “And with some military coercive power, they could easily conquer the world and become more than just wealthy. In fact, I would not be surprised to learn that the two of them, Houqua and Clarkson, have been in cahoots for some time, the Chinaman pulling his strings in the East and your employer in the West.” He paused for a single moment. “The two largest empires of the world, dominating the world not through military might but through economics, what a thought. The wars proved that world domination by a single force is nigh impossible on its own. But to control the world by its economy, that is something else. To control each nation by regulating trade: the world would never be the same.”
McKendree started. He could stand it no more, Jardine’s final statement sending his mind over the edge. “Excuse me,” he mumbled as he rose from his chair and walked toward the verandah. The afternoon heat soaked through his clothes and bit his skin, but a wandering breeze alleviated some of the physical discomfort, if not leaving his mental anguish intact. It all began to make sense: Houqua’s words, his excessive attention to Far East Goods, even Clarkson’s hasty departure and endless lobbying for this opportunity. It no doubt had been planned for some time, long before the fight to end the charter. That was the result, not the drive. Clarkson’s employment as a middleman no doubt set him in contact with the East, surely with Houqua, balancing demands with availability. All it would have taken was a spark in a message to bring forth the flames, the other confirming what one already thought. The gleam in the Chinaman’s eye—it was not mischief, nor was it playfulness. He knew now why it alarmed him so. He took in a slow, solid breath. He had seen it in Clarkson’s eyes before. He exhaled through pursed lips, a small whistle like the ocean wind threading its way over the bustling river before him. It was a Siren’s song.