“When the mass of men is made better” : drugs, violence, and evangelical reformism in Britain’s imperial expansion, 1794-1839.


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Scholarship on nineteenth-century Britain’s imperial expansion has long portrayed war against Qing China (1839-1842) as an illogical and immoral act. This thesis challenges this conception, arguing that pro-war Britons depicted aggression as an extension of Britain’s early nineteenth-century tradition of reform. Chapter One argues that Britons’ conflations of evangelical Christian and free trade thought created a moral obligation to spread reform globally. As Chapter Two shows, these ideas particularly encouraged aggression in China, where evangelical missionaries and opium merchants appealed to a providential design to reform a supposedly backward China through violence. Chapter Three demonstrates that domestic supporters of war similarly justified aggression by picturing themselves as exemplars and exporters of reform through both the global opium traffic and war. That war’s proponents cast violence as a means of reform suggests that Britain’s self-fashioned identity as a beacon of modernity relied upon, rather than contradicted, its power as an imperial force backed by threats to spread “civilization” through violence.



British Empire. Opium War. Qing Empire. Modernity. Reform. Free trade. Evangelicalism.