Saturday, August 06, 2005

Deptford, Opium and the East India Company

Last month 'A mediaeval cermony called beating the bounds was held to mark out territory in the Thames and protest at plans for flats and recycling facilities on Convoys Wharf. Canon Graham Corneck, of St Nicholas Church, Deptford, and the Bishop of Woolwich, Christopher Chessun... led the proceedings from a tug boat' (Mercury, 27 July 2005).

There is a certain irony in the Deptford riverfront at Convoys Wharf being bought up by a Hong Kong based property company (see below), since the existence of Hong Kong as a business enclave came about as a result of the activities of an organisation closely linked with Deptford - the East India Company.

I was reminded by my holiday reading of W.G. Sebald's 'The Rings of Saturn'(1998) of the Opium War, a British government war for drugs in the nineteenth century: 'In 1837 the Chinese Government had taken measures to prevent opium trading, whereupon the East India Company, which grew opium poppies in the fields of Bengal and shipped the drug mainly to Canton, Amoy and Shanghai, felt that one of its most lucrative ventures was in jeapordy... In the name of Christian evangelism and free trade, which was held to be the precondition of all civilised progress, the superiority of western artillery was demonstrated, a number of cities were stormed, and a peace was extorted, the conditions of which included guarantees for British trading posts on the coasts, the cession of Hong Kong, and, not least, reparation payments of truly astronomical proportions'.

As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes in her 'Critique of Postcolonial reason' (1999), the East India Company was 'the first great transnational company', establishing the British Empire in India and forming the state in its image: 'The governments of India were the Company's governments, the army the Company's army'. The Bengal famine of 1770, which wiped out one in six of the local population, can be viewed as the Company's famine.

From 1600 until 1782 the East India Company stores were based at the Stowage site on the river at Deptford, the location for the new Millennium Quay housing development. One thing that hasn't changed over the centuries is the ownership of large chunks of the Deptford riverfront by multinational corporations - from the East India Company, to Rupert Murdoch's News International to Cheung Kong, who recently bought the Convoys Wharf site from Murdoch.

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1 comment:

Bill Ellson said...

It is a pity that the Mercury front page article referred to is not available online.
However the News Shopper report of our previous river protest is at
http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/lewgreennews/display.var.597284.0.no_more_penthouses.php
It may be ironic that an HK company is set to buy the wharf but all the diversity of modern Deptford is directly linked to the East India Company.
For better, or for worse, the British Empire started here. As did the Royal Navy, the Russian Navy etc. etc.