A Tale of Two Empires: Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight

Platt, Stephen R. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age. New York: Vintage Books, 2018.

In my studies of history, there are generally two kinds of wars. There are wars that one might be tempted to call inevitable; wars that are not so much a result of the decisions of men, but the clash of two indomitably opposed forces bearing down upon one another. Then there are the wars that seem eminently avoidable; wars that could only have come down to the whims and fancies of individual historical actors and, if anyone else would have occupied their position, conflict might have been avoided. Before reading Stephen Platt’s Imperial Twilight, I had always thought of the Britain’s infamous Opium Wars with Qing Dynasty China as somewhere on the spectrum between the two, a policy-driven war that would become just one of many manifestations of Britain’s growing global might in the nineteenth century. While some symbolism still exists, however, Platt’s magnificent work has thoroughly convinced me that the Opium Wars fall firmly into the camp of avoidable human tragedy.

If people have any knowledge of the Opium Wars in the first place, it is usually general: the East India Company was making huge profits selling Indian-grown opium, over which they held a monopoly, in China. When China had the gall to make this trade illegal on their own sovereign soil, the free trade-loving British Empire forced opium down China’s throat at gunpoint. Imperial Twilight meticulously deconstructs nearly every element of this generalized misconception through a cast of no more than a dozen main players and stretching back a century before the outbreak of hostilities. Such an intimate approach risks losing historical perspective, but Platt masterfully weaves threads of context in between the actions of his players. These actions, too, are meticulously explained so that, by the time the guns have fallen silent, the reader understands that the East India Company was in fact not involved in the war, the opium trade had changed dramatically as a result of the loss of the Company’s monopoly on trade with China, and the widely-condemned conflict had essentially been engineered by a cabal of independent British merchants on trumped-up charges of national pride and mercantile insurance, of all things.

The Opium War itself, however, occupies only a small portion of Platt’s attention; most of Imperial Twilight dwells on precisely what its title promises. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the final apex of Imperial China. The Qing Dynasty entered the century in a commanding global position, able to refuse British embassies at will and restrict all foreign trade to the single city of Canton. It would leave the century a broken shell, not long for history. This, though, is not the only empire whose twilight arrived in the mid-1800s. Platt’s work is just as much a description of the last gasps of the old British mercantilist empires, of Company monopolies and middle-ground efforts to respect and even emulate China. The coming decades would bring the rapacity of Cecil Rhodes and his ilk to replace the gentleman capitalists of the eighteenth century, and the British Empire would be forever changed because of it.

For any student of global history and certainly the nineteenth century world, Imperial Twilight should be considered essential reading. Platt is able to make sense out of a hopelessly complex and, frankly, boring story of merchants and their finances, and what results is a fascinating tapestry of cultures negotiating their own place in a rapidly changing world. Britain somehow comes out both better and worse than one might expect, and any work of history that devotes this much space to the non-Western side of its story is to be applauded. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Readability: 2

Approachability: 1

Length: 456 pages of text


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