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Any student of nineteenth-century Chinese history is familiar with Commissioner Lin Zexu (1785–1850), the epitome of the upright Confucian official who, in his moral and well-meaning efforts to stem the flow of opium into China, provoked the British military interventions that started the Opium War. Appointed by the Emperor to suppress the opium trade which was threatening the health of the nation and causing a disastrous outflow of silver, he arrived in Canton in March 1839 and issued orders threatening heavy punishment of Chinese opium-smokers and traffickers. He then turned his attention to the suppliers of Indian opium and drafted a letter to Queen Victoria. Though the letter was apparently never sent, he pointed out that Chinese rhubarb, tea and silk were ‘valuable products without which foreigners could not live’ and he demanded that the Queen personally seek out and destroy the opium carried on British ships and report back to him.

In June 1839, he effectively blockaded the port of Canton, and the British Superintendent of Trade was compelled to order the surrender of over 2,000 chests of opium. Lin Zexu apologized to the Sea Spirit for poisoning the ocean before the contents of the chests were poured into the waters of the Canton delta.

After a brief skirmish in November 1839, Commissioner Lin wrote a further formal letter to Queen Victoria, threatening to cut off rhubarb supplies, confident that without the laxative Chinese rhubarb, a constipated nation would be brought to its knees. Although Captain Warner of the British ship Thomas Coutts offered to deliver the letter personally, it seems never to have reached Her Majesty, and the arrival of a British expeditionary force in June 1840 led to the first, disastrous, Opium War.

I had always assumed that this was the only time in world history that rhubarb had been used as a threat in a military context, but reading the essay on Sydney Smith in English Wits (1940), edite

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Any student of nineteenth-century Chinese history is familiar with Commissioner Lin Zexu (1785–1850), the epitome of the upright Confucian official who, in his moral and well-meaning efforts to stem the flow of opium into China, provoked the British military interventions that started the Opium War. Appointed by the Emperor to suppress the opium trade which was threatening the health of the nation and causing a disastrous outflow of silver, he arrived in Canton in March 1839 and issued orders threatening heavy punishment of Chinese opium-smokers and traffickers. He then turned his attention to the suppliers of Indian opium and drafted a letter to Queen Victoria. Though the letter was apparently never sent, he pointed out that Chinese rhubarb, tea and silk were ‘valuable products without which foreigners could not live’ and he demanded that the Queen personally seek out and destroy the opium carried on British ships and report back to him.

In June 1839, he effectively blockaded the port of Canton, and the British Superintendent of Trade was compelled to order the surrender of over 2,000 chests of opium. Lin Zexu apologized to the Sea Spirit for poisoning the ocean before the contents of the chests were poured into the waters of the Canton delta. After a brief skirmish in November 1839, Commissioner Lin wrote a further formal letter to Queen Victoria, threatening to cut off rhubarb supplies, confident that without the laxative Chinese rhubarb, a constipated nation would be brought to its knees. Although Captain Warner of the British ship Thomas Coutts offered to deliver the letter personally, it seems never to have reached Her Majesty, and the arrival of a British expeditionary force in June 1840 led to the first, disastrous, Opium War. I had always assumed that this was the only time in world history that rhubarb had been used as a threat in a military context, but reading the essay on Sydney Smith in English Wits (1940), edited by Leonard Russell and mercifully out of print, I discovered that this was not the case. Lin Zexu’s threat had apparently been anticipated by Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. In ‘Peter Plymley’s Letters’, a series of pamphlets published in 1807, after launching a tirade against Catholics, Sydney Smith rounded upon Spencer Perceval, lambasting him for his foolish ideas on how to counter the Napoleonic threat. Smith’s attack began with popery but ended with rhubarb. He describes Perceval as a statesman
who would bring the French to reason by keeping them without rhubarb, and exhibit to mankind the awful spectacle of a nation deprived of neutral salts. This is not the dream of a wild apothecary indulging in his own opium; this is not the distempered fancy of a pounder of drugs, delirious from smallness of profits: but it is the sober, deliberate, and systematic scheme of a man to whom public safety is entrusted, and whose appointment is considered by many as a masterpiece of political sagacity. What a sublime thought, that no purge can now be taken between the Weser and the Garonne; that the bustling pestle is still, the canorous mortar mute, and the bowels of mankind locked up for fourteen degrees of latitude! When, I should be curious to know, were all the powers of crudity and flatulence fully explained to his Majesty’s ministers: at what period was this great plan of conquest and constipation fully developed?’
Clearly, rhubarb is powerful and dangerous stuff, but before anyone contemplates a pre-emptive strike on Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Triangle, I should make it clear that this is a different sort of rhubarb. According to Professor Clifford M. Foust, author of the gripping Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug (Princeton University Press, 1992), it was only in the late nineteenth century that ‘it was learned authoritatively’ that the best medicinal (‘cathartic/laxative/restorative’) rhubarb roots were native to the highlands of western China, northern Tibet and southern Mongolia. The harmless garden or culinary rhubarb was first brought to public notice by Erasmus Darwin in 1800 with his hybrid, an apparently serendipitous cross between R. palmatum and R. rhaponticum. That rhubarb, as a medicinal herb, was significant can be seen in the fact that a bag of rhubarb root was important enough to be listed alongside silks, beds and Tartar slaves in the fourteenth-century will of Marco Polo, still held in the Venetian archives. In the seventeenth century, it was such a significant item in the Russian caravan trade from Siberia to Moscow that it became an item of imperial trade monopoly in 1652, a monopoly which lasted into the late eighteenth century. Keen to exploit a valuable commodity, between 1704 and 1708, the East India Company imported 18,500 pounds of rhubarb roots, and by 1720 over 4,000 pounds were imported annually. Dioscorides of Anazarbus (fl. ad 60–78) believed rhubarb to be a ‘stomachic and anti-flatulent’, and also useful against poisonous animal bites, while Pliny thought it a virtual panacea. Later medical specialists mainly regarded it as a useful ‘eliminant’, hence Lin Zexu’s belief that the English were entirely dependent upon its purgative qualities. For centuries it arrived in Europe as a dried root from Russia, Turkey or China, so it was not surprising that in the eighteenth century attempts were made to source the original plant. The Royal Society of Arts led the search but it was not a happy one. An East India Company doctor, Samuel Browne (d. 1703), sent dock leaves; further confusion followed with the arrival of Rhubarbarum officinarum, Rheum undulatum, R. palmatum and R. compactum from Russia, China, Turkey and India; and efforts made in botanical gardens across Europe to grow the troublesome plant were largely unsuccessful. Herman Boerhaave (d. 1738) was Europe’s most renowned eighteenth- century physician and he was very keen on rhubarb for its gentle purgative properties. He also recommended it for rickets, thrush and prolapse of the uterus. (For ulcers, he prescribed ‘chiefly the application of young, live, hot and sound animals, such as puppies and kittens’, which would certainly prove distracting if not necessarily effective.) Interestingly, he used rhubarb not just as a laxative but, working in the opposite direction, as it were, as a cure for dysentery. During a debilitating and potentially dangerous outbreak of dysentery in the Hungarian army, he reported to a student that he had recommended a draught of rhubarb and myrobalan, with scammony triturated in a syrup of chicory with wine and opium offered upon recovery. Dysentery amongst soldiers was then a serious threat: during the Napoleonic Wars, for example, eight times more men died of disease than of battle injuries. Sir James Pringle, described in an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by G. C. Cook as the ‘father of military hygiene’ (and a student of kitten and puppy Boerhaave), used both ipecacuanha (as an emetic) and good old rhubarb as a purgative. Unfortunately for me and my theory that rhubarb is a not-so-secret weapon of mass destruction, it appears that Spencer Perceval proposed an embargo on ipecacuanha or ‘Jesuit bark’ rather than rhubarb, so Napoleon’s soldiers would have suffered, untreated, from fever rather than constipation. In his furious broadside against a Prime Minister he loathed, Sydney Smith got it wrong. Bother.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 43 © Frances Wood 2014


About the contributor

Frances Wood, who recently retired as Curator of Chinese collections at the British Library, could not have pursued her interest in the history and medicinal uses of rhubarb without the Library’s amazing resources. Information about the British Library, and details of how to become a Friend and how to apply for a reader’s pass, can be found on the Library’s website: www.bl.uk. The British Library is at 96 Euston Road, London nw1 2db, tel: 0843 208 1144.

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