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Opium War

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Introduction

For European observers, one of the most enduring nineteenth century images of the Chinese, whether in China or in Southeast Asia, was that of the opium “wreck.” The hollow-eyed, emaciated Oriental stretched out on his pallet, pipe in hand, stood as the stereotype of Asiatic decadence and indulgence. He was the image of all that was further than the light of Christian ethics and human decorousness. Even if we went beyond the picture to learn that it was Westerners, really English and Americans, who were most actively involved in selling the drug in Asia, the association between the “Chinaman” and his pipe was fixed. The victim had come to stand for the crime, and the image has acquired an extraordinary historical durability.

The irony of this perception so far as Singapore is concerned is that the average Chinese coolie had probably never tasted opium before coming to the British settlement. Thomas Stamford Raffles, who established the East India Company settlement on Singapore Island in 1819, actually had a great deal to do with creating the system that led to the addiction of millions of Chinese laborers. British colonial historians have neglected this aspect of their countrymen’s historical role in Asia. Instead they have presented the history of Singapore as a tribute to the enlightened liberalism that pushed back the night of barbarism, abolished slavery, and opened Asia to free trade and the rule of law. One might come away with the impression that Raffles worked for the liberation of Chinese opium wrecks.

Determining moral responsibility for the opium trade and for the long-term effects of colonial rule involves very complex issues. Raffles was part of a system that was in place before he came to Asia and that continued after he had returned home. Perhaps, if we are placing blame, the British administrators and merchants who succeeded him should also bear a share of the onus. But thousands of Chinese, both in Singapore and in China, actively participated in the enthrallment and exploitation of their fellows. The questions of blame, credit, and responsibility are difficult ones for the historian since the moral standards of the past seem so different from those of the present. Nevertheless, Raffles claimed responsibility for founding the British free port, and his successors have regularly found reason to praise his noble purpose. At the same time, voices of criticism were in fact raised against the opium trade even in the nineteenth century. So, perhaps modern standards applied to the drug traffic would not be entirely alien to the age in question. [1]

For the early decades of Singapore’s existence as a British port, the major item of trade was opium. It was carried to the Company’s free port of Singapore by British free traders from British India, where it had been grown under an East India Company monopoly by debt ridden Bengali riots. In Singapore, there were no taxes on trade, no port duties, and the port was open to the ships, peoples, and products of all nations. Opium in particular was traded freely, but only as a wholesale commodity for export. Smokable opium, known as chandu, was retailed under a strict government-sanctioned monopoly called the opium farm. For the first century of the colony’s existence, this privately held concession was responsible for the lion’s share of the state’s locally collected revenue. It rarely accounted for less than 40 percent and often made up over 60 percent. In other words, Raffles’s liberal, capitalist Singapore not only created the opium-smoking Chinese coolie; it literally lived on his back. He paid for free trade.

The relationship was crucial to guiding the forces that created Chinese society in nineteenth century Singapore. It became clear that the story of Johor and of Chinese pepper and Gambier planters who settled the state was simply a peripheral repercussion of the expansion of influences from Singapore. Singapore was the source and center of Johor’s people, of its economy, and of its history. The Japanese successfully invaded Singapore in 1942 through its back door, from Johor. It is necessary to make sense of the social, political, and economic institutions the Chinese themselves used to organize their activities in Southeast Asia and of the conflict among Chinese, European, and indigenous social institutions, political entities, and economic systems in colonial Singapore.

There have been several previous attempts to explain the outbreaks of violence among the Chinese in nineteenth-century Singapore. Normally, colonialist writers have treated outbreaks of secret society wars as indicative of inherent Chinese divisiveness. Lee Poh Ping, though, views these conflicts as evidence of class conflict between the pepper and Gambier society of Singapore’s interior and the free trade society of the colonial port. Lee offers an important insight; it is also believed the conflict was deep seated and went beyond mere ethnicity and clan loyalties.

The Chinese planters who came to Singapore brought with them an economic and political system with deep roots. The pepper and Gambier society, to borrow Lee’s term, was based on a shareholding partnership of planters, capitalists, and laborers known as a kongsi. It was organized to pool labor and capital to produce commodities for shipment back to China. Its political structure and ideology were derived from the triad societies of southern China, which were secret societies that bound members by blood oaths to ties of brotherhood. The kongsis thus were more than mere economic partnerships; they constituted a ritual community of single men who had ventured from their homelands to seek their fortunes among the “barbarians” of the South Seas, the Nanyang.

In Singapore the Chinese kongsis came into contact and conflict with the entrepôt society of European free traders and a colonial state possessed of a technological and economic strength hitherto unknown in the region. Both operated according to an economic ethic that stood in significant contrast to the fair-shares ethic of the kongsis. The Europeans found ready allies in the community of Straits Chinese, a group of creole and mestizo Chinese who had inhabited the port cities of Southeast Asia for centuries and often married into local societies but who continued to retain important aspects of their Chinese identity. They came to Singapore from Melaka and Pinang. [2]

The nineteenth century saw a progression of conflicts and compromises, growth and decay, in this confluence of systems. The two societies were founded on radically different assumptions about the value of labor, the nature of property, the sanctity of contracts, and the rights of the individual as against those of the social group. One drew its strength from control of labor and production, the other from its control of capital, weapons, and long-distance communications. Each possessed economic factors the other lacked, and each sought to exploit opportunities the presence of the other offered: Chinese needed access to European capital, and Europeans sought to gain access to Chinese labor.

The Chinese kongsis were organized to share the wealth among the workers and investors, who generally repatriated their products and profits to China. The kongsis were, however, commercial enterprises and had always been associated with a special group of Chinese merchants, or taukehs, who also joined the kongsis and swore oaths of brotherhood and received a share of the profits. These merchants, by necessity, lived and worked in the world of the ports and thus came into regular contact with the European merchants and Straits Chinese traders. The pivotal relationship of the pepper and Gambier taukehs with both the Straits Chinese and the kongsis lies at the heart of the economic struggles that raged in Singapore during the nineteenth century.

The field of conflict was the whole pepper and Gambier economy, which in fact was not limited to Singapore but also included the Dutch settlements in the Riau-Lingga Archipelago, where it had originated; Sumatra; the Malay state of Johor; and the other British-controlled territories of Negri Sembilan, Melaka, and even Sarawak. This economic system, which came to center at Singapore, included a Chinese population that numbered close to one million by the end of the century. The economy was characterized by a combination of monopolies and free enterprise in an atmosphere of unrestricted expansion. A large and increasing supply of Chinese labor was flowing into a mostly uninhabited and undeveloped region. This was the “dragon” the British lion had to ride if it wished to control Malaya.

Within this “free” economy, the opium farm lent itself to monopoly control. The connection between the British colonial state and Chinese labor was forged by the Chinese opium farmers. The farmers purchased the right to sell opium to the population of Singapore. The most important market was the large population of agricultural coolies on the pepper and Gambier plantations. This connection between the market and the consumers was vital to both the financial and political success of the British colony. Financially, opium capital underwrote both the state and the producing economy. Politically, it established a system of social control upon which the British administrative structure was based. The workings of the farm and its relationship to the economy, to the colonial state, and to the developing Chinese social order are thus central to this book. The farm brought colonial governors, Straits Chinese merchants, Teochew pepper and Gambier traders, secret society chiefs, and the masses of Chinese labor into the same arena. The fight for the farm was really the fight for Singapore, and it is the century-long struggle for control of that institution that I have attempted to reconstruct here.

This is not just an account of conflict between a few financial cliques; it is an important and hitherto neglected part of the history of European colonialism and of Chinese social and economic development. The opium farmers built a chain of indebtedness which connected the European economy of the entrepôt with the kongsi economies of the jungles while at the same time extending the power of the colonial state. Furthermore, the process by which this system of indebtedness and control was constructed actually lay at the roots of most of the secret society fights, riots, or conflicts that marked the history of Chinese Singapore. This account refutes standard European accounts that blame these disruptions on some inherently instable element in the “Oriental mind.” Conflict was essentially economic. It took place between the forces of labor and capital for control of the means of production and of the surplus product. The means of production were Chinese labor and British opium capital. This was the essence of the colonial class struggle. The result was clear. In the end, the only viable political structure in Singapore was the authoritarian apparatus of the colonial state. All other indigenous political institutions had been rendered incapable of reproducing themselves. This unfortunate result is the continuing inheritance of the people of Singapore. [3]

The tale of the opium trade and its position in the whole royal century has been almost completely abandoned. Understandably, British colonial historians have not been eager to probe deeply into what must now seem an entirely shameful aspect of their imperial adventure. For reasons that are less clear, Asian historians of every ideological persuade. The history of the Singapore opium farm, as an institution, unwholesome or not, is also important for other reasons. It spanned an entire century. It is really the only accessible thread of continuity in the history of the Singapore Chinese community. It may be the only overseas Chinese economic institution that can be said to have a history. As such, it provides a series of benchmarks and some further information on the identities of the cast of characters who created the social system of the present community. The events of the farm have made it possible to put the secret society conflicts in the correct context and at the same time highlight several important areas of European colonial administrative history. Recent studies in a similar vein, in other parts of Southeast Asia, show that opium farms and farmers played similarly important roles as agents of the colonial process. The farms provided a central core around which families, dynasties, and even classes were created.[4]

The 1860s were crucial for the kongsi brotherhoods of Singapore; for it was during this decade that the kongsis came almost completely under the control of a group of taukehs. Thereafter, they were dominated by monied interests rather than popular will. The taukehs that came into control of Singapore’s Chinese community were the heads of the revenue-farming syndicates.

In 1860 the syndicate formed by Lao Joon Tek and Cheang Sam Teo in the late 1840s collapsed as its leaders died or retired. There followed a war of succession among hopeful replacements, during which the secret societies were fragmented and the taukehs organized surname groups to serve as their “muscle” in the streets. The Ngee Heng, which seemed to have reemerged after the Hokkien-Teochew riots of 1854 as the area wide umbrella kongsi (although unity was probably no more than a formality), had begun to fragment along ethnic (speech group) lines. The appearance of surname groups from within the secret society or societies, which occurred in 1861 and 1862, seem to have been an entirely new phenomenon and marked a serious erosion of kongsi solidarity while signaling the rise of the opium farmers as the predominant forces. In fact, during the 1860s, the societies regularly served as agents for the revenue farmers in the struggles for control of the local community.

The situation was complicated by the role now played by the new Malay ruler of Johor, Maharaja Abu Bakar. Like Tan Seng Poh and Cheang Hong Lim, he too had grown up in colonial Singapore. Like them, he too sought to use the power of the kongsis to enhance his own position within the sub-European power structure of the region. This led to a confrontation, known as the Tanjong Putri controversy.[5]

The main event of the 1860s, however, was the struggle between Tan Seng Poh and Cheang Hong Lim for control of the Singapore opium and spirit farms. Tan headed a Teochew syndicate that was buttressed by the extensive pepper and Gambier holdings of his brother-in-law, Seah Eu Chin. In the 1860s Seah retired and Tan took over as the manager of the Seah family business. Cheang inherited the opium farming interests of his father, Cheang Sam Teo, and thus came to head the Hokkien syndicate. Their conflict lasted the entire decade, or so it seems. Although there were periods of quiescence and apparent standoffs, there was no real peace until 1870, when the two Singapore syndicates formed a partnership including Tan Hiok Nee of Johor. This was the “great syndicate” that combined the opium and spirit farms of Singapore, Johor, Riau, and Melaka under one company.

The result of the struggle was more than a mere truce between revenue farmers. Rather, it was an important transition in the development of Chinese society in Singapore and in the extension of the economic reach of Singapore. The contenders used the surrounding Dutch and Malay settlements as staging areas for their attacks on each other within Singapore. These activities brought those areas more completely within the sphere of Singapore’s influence. The struggle in Singapore overwhelmed all other neighboring power centers both within and near Singapore and either integrated them, eliminated them, or seriously weakened them. This is particularly true of the triad brotherhoods, which by 1869 were sufficiently vulnerable to fall under the surveillance of the colonial police and accept registration.

A final point pertains to the economic impact of the opium farm coalition. The great syndicate’s success was largely based on its strong position in the pepper and Gambier agriculture. Tan Seng Poh together with Tan Hiok Nee stood at the top of pyramids of indebtedness that gave them control over the production and consumption of many coolies, planters, boatmen, shopkeepers, and others. He suggested that the pepper and Gambier business may have provided a living for nearly a hundred thousand people as of 1870, all of them living within a fifty-mile radius of Singapore. This was the productive foundation of the syndicate’s power. [6]

Conclusion

While most would agree that Singapore Chinese society evolved in a context of struggle, the explanations of that conflict are usually flawed. British colonial writers have tended to reject the conflict model and sought to explain away outbreaks of violence rather than understand them as evidence of the historical process. This tendency applies particularly to the secret societies but also to difficulties encountered with the revenue farmers, the Malay chiefs, and indigenous social and political institutions. In contrast, the main focus is on economic struggle; for virtually everyone who came to Singapore came for economic reasons. We can identify and describe four groups of actors in the struggle: the Chinese kongsis, or brotherhoods; the Chinese merchants and revenue farmers; the Malay chiefs; and the British, both merchants and officials.

All parties, one way or another, were seeking wealth and power, more often the former than the latter. And all, with the possible exception of the Malays, intended to return “home” with their winnings. Most important was the expansion of the global market communicated to Singapore through the major trades: opium, capital, and manufactures from India and the West. Pepper, Gambier, tin, and the other major commodity flows generated in Southeast Asia originally moved with the Western trade, to China. The shift in the global balance of payments that opium brought about at the beginning of the nineteenth century affected all these currents of world commerce. In addition to redirecting the commodity flows to the West, the shift created a vast demographic eruption. It was as if the current of wealth flowing out of China began to pull with it the Chinese people themselves. Singapore came into being as a result of these global forces, and they continued to affect the development of the city and its society throughout the nineteenth century.[7]

 Bibliography

  • John Hopkins (1995) Book Title: Opium as an International Problem: The Geneva Conferences. Publisher Press. Place of Publication: Baltimore, MD.
  • Carl A. Trocki (1990) Book Title: Opium and Empire: Chinese Society in Colonial Singapore, 1800-1910. Publisher: Cornell University Press. Place of Publication: Ithaca, NY.
  • Thomas D. Reins (2001) Article Title: Opium, State, and Society: China’s Narco-Economy and the Guomindang, 1924-1937. Journal Title: China Review International. Volume: 8. Issue: 2.
  • William O. Walker (1991) Book Title: Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of Publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Journal article by Joshua A. Fogel; China Review International, Vol. 13, 2006.
  • James L. Hevia (2003) Article Title: Opium, Empire and Modern History. Journal Title: China Review International. Volume: 10. Issue: 2.
  • Emdad-Ul Haq (2003) Article Title: Modern China and Opium: A Reader. Journal Title: Pacific Affairs. Volume: 76. Issue: 1.
  • Timothy Brook (2000) Book Title: Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952. Publisher: University of California Press. Place of Publication: Berkeley, CA.

[1] John Hopkins (1995) Book Title: Opium as an International Problem: The Geneva Conferences Publisher Press. Place of Publication: Baltimore, MD

  • [2] Carl A. Trocki (1990) Book Title: Opium and Empire: Chinese Society in Colonial Singapore, 1800-1910. Publisher: Cornell University Press. Place of Publication: Ithaca, NY.

[3] Thomas D. Reins (2001) Article Title: Opium, State, and Society: China’s Narco-Economy and the Guomindang, 1924-1937. Journal Title: China Review International. Volume: 8. Issue: 2

  • [4] William O. Walker (1991) Book Title: Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of Publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Journal article by Joshua A. Fogel; China Review International, Vol. 13, 2006.

  • [5] James L. Hevia (2003) Article Title: Opium, Empire and Modern History. Journal Title: China Review International. Volume: 10. Issue: 2.

  • [6] Emdad-Ul Haq (2003) Article Title: Modern China and Opium: A Reader. Journal Title: Pacific Affairs. Volume: 76. Issue: 1.

  • [7] Timothy Brook (2000) Book Title: Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952. Publisher: University of California Press. Place of Publication: Berkeley, CA.

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