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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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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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