The Empire Writes Back: Reconsidering British Discourse on the Macartney Embassy in the Narrative of Britain’s Road to War with Qing China




Bellamy, Andrew

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The Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which ended the First Opium War (1839-1842), represented the triumph of the British Empire's “universal” truth of free trade over the Qing Empire’s “unnatural” restriction of foreign commerce. Popular and academic historians alike have upheld the Macartney Embassy (1792-1794), Britain’s first failed attempt at diplomacy with the Qing Government, as a crucial step in the Empires’ path toward War. In contrast, I argue that despite its roots in an intellectual tradition that valued free trade as the standard of cultural legitimacy, the Macartney Embassy gave rise to a discourse in which political figures conveyed optimism in the future of Anglo-Chinese relations and in which public discourse weaponized Lord Macartney's failure for domestic political criticisms. Consequently, these positive images of China circulating in the Embassy's aftermath warrant a reconsideration of notions of a linear, causal relationship between the Macartney Embassy and the Opium War.