- Mr. Smith Goes to China: Three Scots in the Making of Britain's Global Empire by Jessica Hanser
What do the histories of three relatively unknown Scots, all with the same name of George Smith, tell us about Britain's part in the trade with China in the decades leading up to the Macartney Embassy in 1792–1793? Jessica Hanser has an ingenious take on the China trade, the East India Company and the Indian Ocean world through her microhistories of the George Smiths of Madras, Canton and Bombay respectively. They were not related, nor friends; their key connections were their Scottish backgrounds, their careers as private traders between the 1760s and 1780s against the backdrop of the East India Company, and their engagement in the Canton trade. Two of them, the George Smiths of Madras and Canton, went bankrupt in the early 1780s, though their families were still left comfortable enough, and George Smith of Bombay who never married left significant wealth to his five sisters and to the town where he was born, Fordyce in Banff, Scotland.
The George Smiths, as little known as they are to historians, all played pivotal parts in key events of British imperial expansion into [End Page 171] Asia. These included two financial crises, a military coup in Madras, an armed conflict with the Chinese government and a hostage crisis in Canton, official enquiries by Parliament into Indian affairs and policy turns against the East India Company, and the planning of Britain's first embassy to China. Hanser seeks to provide a human face to all these global and imperial events and wider processes. What her book conveys above all is the key role of private European traders in India and China in histories hitherto dominated by monopolistic East India Companies. Her exhaustive research in European and Chinese-language archives and sources across Europe, in Australia, Taiwan and the U.S. and forensic detail on the careers and events in which the George Smiths engaged also provide great insight into just how the trade between India and China as well as wider Indian Ocean trade worked.
Trading cotton, food, spices, medicines, crafts and curiosities, and at this stage only to a small extent, opium from India to China, private traders brought silver into the East India Company's tea trade with China. This coincided with the period when tea drinking became a widespread social practice in Britain. Hanser demonstrates through her characters how the trade was financed, with the profits of cargoes deposited in the Company treasury in Canton in return for bills of exchange which traders and their clients could cash at the East India Company's treasury a year later. These traders also became creditors, especially in Canton, where lending to Chinese merchants might gain them rates of interest between 18 and 22 percent in contrast to the gains of their more cautious colleagues who remitted their wealth back to Britain to gain between 3 and 6 per cent. But the risks were great, and the results were financial crises in Canton and bankruptcy for two of the George Smiths. Mr. Smith Goes to China gives us the inside story in our new historiographies of European trade with Asia and Africa, histories focussed on private rather than monopoly trade. From Huw Bowen, Emily Erikson and Will Pettigrew we have learned of entrepreneurialism, opportunism and political disruption; of interloping, smuggling and slave trading developed to a high degree by private traders. Jessica Hanser brings us the creditors who took great risks to oil the wheels of the tea trade, but also escalated financial crisis.
Hanser also shows us the wide political and cultural impact of the events the George Smiths became embroiled in. The gunboat diplomacy did not start in 1839 with the first Opium War, but in 1779 when Rear Admiral Edward Vernon in Madras sent a warship to Canton as a threat to Chinese merchants in debt to British lenders. Growing distrust...