The British Empire’s grasp on the Americas was slipping right at the time when they needed those resources most. The massive amounts of tea they imported from China had created a huge trade deficit, but the Chinese were reluctant to let any Europeans trade outside of the Canton port strictly controlled by the Hong. So Britain sent a formal embassy led by Earl George Macartney.
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In 1792, Great Britain had just come out of an expensive war that cost them their control over many of their colonies in North America. Other wars had also cost them their access to the silver mines of South America, which had been helping fund so much of their trade with the Qing Dynasty of China. European traders all wanted greater access to China, but the Emperor was wary of letting outsiders too far into his country and kept them all penned up at the port of Canton, which was strictly regulated by the Hong business group. A flourishing blackmarket trade grew, but Britain wanted more. One trader, acting on his own initiative, grew bold enough to approach Beijing and attempt to get a hearing over his trade grievances, but the Chinese considered this a huge breach of protocal and an offense to the Emperor. Britain had to do something, however: they imported over 10 million pounds of tea each year, equal to 10% of the government’s annual spending, and the fact that China did not have anywhere near as great an interest in British products meant that they were running an enormous trade deficit they could no longer sustain. The Crown appointed an official envoy, Earl George Macartney, with orders to end the Canton system, establish an embassy, and acquire rights to an island that would be under British control in the same way that the Porutuguese controlled Macao. The mission failed spectacularly. Although Macartney got permission to sail north and meet the Qianlong Emperor in his summer palace at Jehol, he refused to perform the traditional kowtow which was required upon meeting the Emperor. He presented gifts from the British court, but the Chinese interpreted these gifts as tribute, not trade enticements, and decided they had no need for nor interest in what he offered. Since he failed to get them to agree to any of his three requests, Britain wanted to find another way to address the trade imbalance with China. Soon, this would lead them to start bringing in opium.
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