Book review: 'Chusan' by Liam D'Arcy-Brown

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 6:02pm

Chusan: The Opium Wars and the Forgotten Story of Britain's First Chinese Island
by Liam D'Arcy-Brown


The Chusan archipelago, at the mouth of the Yangtze river system, has been strategically important for centuries. Its key location near the rich tea- and silk-producing areas of central China made it a centre of trade between the world and China for those luxury commodities.

For several decades in the 18th century, Chusan (today's Zhoushan) was intermittently frequented by British merchants. From the late 1750s onwards, the Chinese decided to concentrate all foreign trade at Canton (modern-day Guangzhou). Chusan was sidelined but its potential was not forgotten.

Liam D'Arcy-Brown's book offers a fascinating account of Chusan's history; a substantial bibliography makes this volume of value to anyone interested in the early years of the China trade.

In 1839, after two decades of steadily rising tensions, the first opium war erupted. At its base, the conflict was largely caused by a massive balance-of-trade deficit in China's favour, and the absence of any meaningful diplomatic relations between Britain and China.

Yet opium's role in this conflict was not the only reason. As D'Arcy-Brown and other scholars have noted, opium was not the overarching moral issue that it later became. Contemporary Chinese historiography highlights the opium traffic's moral dimensions but as earlier Chinese accounts of the period make little reference to it, this offers a glimpse of how the past can be used for political aims.

Hong Kong was not the first choice for a permanent British settlement. As the Anglo-Chinese conflict spread northwards, Chusan was occupied by the British and ruled for some three years. Attracted by the economic opportunities, settlers flocked to the island. After Hong Kong became British territory, however, Chusan was abandoned, and relegated to a footnote in the history of 19th-century Anglo-Chinese relations.

Hong Kong's connections with early British Chusan abound: Karl Gutzlaff, a Lutheran missionary who often accompanied opium smuggling vessels on runs up the China coast as an interpreter, was made a magistrate there by Sir Henry Pottinger - the first European, as far as is known, to work in such a capacity in China since Marco Polo. Gutzlaff's name is commemorated in a Central backstreet, and he lies buried in Happy Valley.