The old Canton
City of the famous thirteen factories. Foreign Treaty Ports within Chinese Imperial Cities
Of all the treaty port cities, Canton – situated at a strategic location on the Pearl River – is by far the greatest and the most ancient, having been mentioned as a major port since the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD).
For a good eight centuries before the advent of the Europeans, Canton, and its sister city Quanzhou, in Fujian province, would reign supreme as the foremost trading capitals in China. In the famous Arab traveller, Ibn Battuta’s 14th century travelogue, both cities were mentioned as fabulous, wealthy cities with magnificent boats and spices from all the known world.
The Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s, drawn, as in the case of Malacca, by Canton’s fabled wealth. Mistaking the port city itself for the province in which it sat, they called the city Cantão (after the “Guangdong” province), and the name stuck, even as the Portuguese themselves were chased out of Canton and resettled in Macao by 1557.
Canton’s history as a major port of trade with European powers began in 1685 when the Kangxi Emperor opened the seas to trade. Canton became one of half a dozen ports of call for European ships. In 1757, threatened by a wave of missionary activity in China, the Qianlong Emperor decreed that henceforth, all foreign trade with China would be limited to Canton only, setting the stage for the city’s renaissance.
By the 1700s, Canton had once again become a major global city and port, by virtue of the famous Thirteen Factories (also known as the Thirteen hong 十三商行). These were thirteen European merchant houses and residential quarters situated beyond the walls of the city of Guangzhou itself, within which the Europeans were allowed to pursue their commercial activities.
These “factories” were forerunners of the subsequent treaty ports and foreign concession system of colonization that would appear in the 1800s; and they were truly international – the British, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish and the Portuguese were here; so were the Americans, the Danish, the Belgians, the Germans and the Swedes.
As mentioned earlier, Chinese requires all trade transaction to be settled or paid with Silver. To balance the defict of Silver export to China, several countries started exporting Opium to China as a commodity. Opium trade was originally dominated by the Dutch, but was soon taken over by the British due to British rule in India and the foundation of the East India Company. The British started to trade opium for silver in southern China, and from there the opium trade exploded. British exportation of opium from India to China facilitated a flow of silver into India. This compensated for the British drain on India and solidified India as a substantial financial base for England. For these reasons, the British heavily pushed opium trade with China.
Illegal opium trade continued to increase and China was importing over 4,000 chests annually by 1790. In 1800 importation of opium made illegal again, but trade continued to rise, with China receiving approximately 5,000 chests in 1820, 16,000 chests in 1830, 20,000 chests in 1838.
Several decrees were made to try to stop the British from exporting opium to China, but the British government ignored the Chinese. In 1810 the Emperor issued a decree denouncing the use and trade of opium:
“Opium has a very violent effect. When an addict smokes it, it rapidly makes him extremely excited and capable of doing anything he pleases. But before long, it kills him. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law! He should be turned over to the Board of Punishment, and should be tried and severely sentenced.
However, recently the purchases and eaters of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch'ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no responsibility with regard to opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the police and police- censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates. If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung and Fukien, the provinces from which opium comes, we order their viceroys, governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!”
This decree had little effect because the government was centered in Beijing, which was too far north to control the trade in the south. Two similar decrees were issued in 1811, commanding the Chinese people to honor the prohibition of opium.
The First Opium War ended all the foreign trade and Canton became the epicenter of the War. Here it was that the Qing Dynasty bureaucrat, Lin Zexu (林則徐), made a proclamation banning illegal trade in opium. Here it was – or at least close enough, at Humen Town (虎門鎮) – that he called for the destruction of 20,000 chests of opium in 1839. And here it was that War was inevitably declared and waged.
By 1842, the British had defeated the Chinese and captured the city. China was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking – which saw five treaty ports, including Canton, re-opened to foreign trade.
The Second Opium War saw the destruction of the Thirteen Factories and European trade activities were relocated to Shameen Island (沙面島) – a tiny sandbar in the vicinity. Commercial activities resumed as before, but Canton had alreay lost its monopoly on Chinese trade
Shameen from the Air in the Circa 1930s
A view of the old English Bridge connecting Shameen to Canton City in the early part of the 20th century
Typical Canton Narrow Street
Canton Shop Scene Circa 1919
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