In the grounds of Lews castle on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides there is an impressive monument commemorating the achievements of a certain James Matheson. It was erected in 1880, some two years after his death and renovated in 2006. He was the second biggest landowner in Britain, had been a Liberal MP for over twenty years, was a governor of the Bank of England and for many years was chairman of the giant shipping company P&O. He is celebrated on his monument as ‘a child of God…a good and faithful servant’ who had been welcomed into Heaven. He was a man of ‘high repute, integrity and magnificent hospitality’ and a ‘consistent Christian’.
What the various inscriptions do not mention is that Matheson was also one of the biggest drug traffickers in modern history. He had accumulated his money smuggling opium into China, made his fortune from the suffering and misery of millions of people and when the Chinese government took steps to stamp out the trade he was one of those who persuaded the British government to launch an attack on the country in retaliation. This murderous war of aggression was condemned at the time by the Chartist press as the ‘opium war’. It was, of course, the first of three Opium Wars waged against China before the country’s rulers finally saw sense.
The statues and monuments that have been put up over the years to the likes of Cecil Rhodes, Edward Colston and James Matheson had one great purpose. They were intended to literally fix in stone the version of British and Imperial history that the ruling class wanted the rest of us to accept. These were great and honourable men, almost invariably men, who had built a great country and a great Empire, making great sacrifices for our benefit and we should all be duly grateful to them and let their political and sometimes biological descendants get on with running the country today. Uncomfortable facts such as Matheson’s drug trafficking were best covered up and forgotten. This ruling class version of history must be pulled down, demolished.
An honest accounting with the crimes of the past is a vital part of combating the many crimes that are being committed today. The smuggling of opium into China was a vital British national interest by the 1830s. Opium produced in British-occupied India was shipped to China on a massive scale. In 1800 some 4,000 chests had been exported, rising to 40,000 chests by 1838. Incredibly, in 1838, British companies with the full support of the British state smuggled 2,500 tons of opium into China! The number of addicts at this time was estimated at 12 million people, many of them reduced to misery, pain, despair and an early death, all for the benefit of the British Empire. The trade was extremely profitable and generated much of the British regime in India’s revenue. It also provided substantial revenue for the British government back in London.
The grim reality is that drug trafficking was in the 1830s and for many years afterwards a vital interest for the British state and its Empire. One of the most important drug smuggling companies was Jardine Matheson, founded by William Jardine and James Matheson in 1832. In March 1839, the Chinese government finally took steps to try and stamp out the trade. British traders in Canton were forced to hand over 20,000 chests of opium which was promptly destroyed. The British government, of course, handsomely compensated the traffickers for their losses and at their urging sent warships and troops to force the Chinese to allow the trade, to pay for the confiscated opium and moreover to pay all the costs incurred by the British state in the course of its war of aggression.
The First Opium War was a brutal murderous one-sided war. Thousands of Chinese were killed in battles that were often just glorified massacres in which British technological superiority allowed them to inflict horrendous casualties while suffering hardly any themselves. Ports could be bombarded into submission with complete impunity. As one sceptical British officer put it the Chinese ‘must submit to be poisoned or must be massacred for supporting their laws in their own land’. And inevitably the British invasion was accompanied by widespread rape and pillage. The word ‘loot’, meaning goods taken from an enemy, actually entered the English language during this shameful war. Inevitably, the Chinese were forced to terms with the British taking Hong Kong as part of the spoils. Matheson, however, was wellaware that such a discreditable war in order to further such an appalling trade created PR problems.
There had been considerable opposition at the time, but the enormous profits from the trade had overwhelmed all other concerns. Nevertheless ,he warned that the opium trade was so important ‘that we cannot be too cautious in keeping as quiet and out of the public eye as possible’. After the war, Matheson retired with his millions to Britain. He was elected an MP, first for a constituency in Devon and then in 1847 for Ross and Cromarty in Scotland. He bought the Hebridean Isle of Lewis for £500,000 and built Lews Castle as his country seat at a cost of another £60,000.
Inevitably he was knighted and was made a baronet, a very traditional ruling class way of covering up crime and hiding away criminals. And, as we have seen, he became the second largest landowner in Britain and a highly respected pillar of the capitalist class. His Monument is a disgrace.