The Oldie - - HISTORY -

STEPHEN R PLATT At­lantic Books, 560pp, £25, Oldie price £16.98 inc p&p

In 1823 opium sur­passed cot­ton as the largest Bri­tish ex­port to China. ‘The Bri­tish don’t come out well,’ wrote Gerard De­g­root in the Times. ‘For a few decades they were drug push­ers ex­traor­di­naire.’ He ex­plained that ‘ Im­pe­rial Twilight has a mis­lead­ing ti­tle. It’s not re­ally about the Opium War of 1839–42, which is dealt with in a few pages at the very end. The book is more about how the Bri­tish caused the cri­sis than about how it af­fected the Chi­nese… It’s longer than it needs to be, but Platt clearly adores his topic.’ For Ian Morris in the New York Times this is a book in which ‘good men do bad things, roads to hell are paved with good in­ten­tions and golden op­por­tu­ni­ties are missed. In short,

Im­pe­rial Twilight is a rip­ping yarn… Some of Platt’s vil­lains, like the Scot­tish drug lords Wil­liam Jar­dine and James Math­e­son, are wor­thy of soap opera… The war was “not part of some long-term Bri­tish im­pe­rial plan… Nei­ther did it re­sult from some in­evitable clash of civil­i­sa­tions.” Rather, Im­pe­rial Twilight is over­flow­ing with in­di­vid­u­als pre­cisely be­cause it is the in­di­vid­u­als who drove ev­ery­thing.’ The

Guardian’s re­viewer, Ju­lia Lovell, felt the book ‘has a pow­er­ful mes­sage for the present day. We need to un­der­stand how and why China re­mem­bers the con­flict; we for­get sen­si­tiv­i­ties about these events at our peril… Platt writes beau­ti­fully, with a novelist’s eye for de­tail. He skil­fully weaves through the book a cast of ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters who me­di­ated be­tween China, Bri­tain and the US.’

The Bri­tish will sell ‘any­thing to any­one’

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