In the upcoming Episode 34 of BRASS, we’re told that Madame Hao lives in the Chinatown of Edinburgh–a place entirely imaginary in 1886. But in this different world, the historical accidents of the computer age arriving a century early has made for a very different British Empire, and a very different Chinese Empire as well.
In our own history, the two British-Chinese military conflicts known as the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860) were some of the worst excesses of British Imperialism. In support of the British East India Company, the British Navy engaged in unwarranted military aggression against the Qing Dynasty. What’s even more appalling is that it was in support of the Company’s illegal import to China of opium from India, a vastly profitable enterprise that had led to widespread addiction among the Chinese people.
Thanks to the superior weaponry and training of the British (and it must be admitted, the decaying defenses of the complacent Qing Dynasty), both conflicts ended in defeat for the Chinese, and a series of humiliating treaties demanding increased concessions. These losses also encouraged other Western forces to follow with their own military excursions, leading to a fractured and divided country which entered the 20th century weakened and riven by conflict.
In the world of BRASS, there was only one Opium War, in 1839. However, the consequences of that war were not just humiliating for the Chinese, but catastrophic. Armed not only with superior firepower and ships but analytical engines that could calculate ballistics with pinpoint accuracy, this British Navy was even more destructive than the one we know. In our world the Battle of Chungpei, one of the first battles of the war, resulted in the loss of four Chinese war junks and the retreat of the Chinese fleet. In this world, the entire fleet was destroyed—a loss so devastating that it brought the war to a premature end, before it could escalate.
As a result, the capitulation of the Emperor to the British happened much more quickly—and with the comparably reasonable British commander Lord Elliot overseeing the treaty. While in this world there was also a subsequent ceding of Hong Kong to Britain, there was also for China’s rulers a greater respect for the weapons of the enemy, and a desire to understand their technology.
The Emperor began requesting opportunities to send select Chinese scholars to British capitols, particularly London and Edinburgh, to study engineering and mechanistics (the study of difference and analytical engines). What’s more, he and his successors have increasingly been eager to trade tea, porcelain and other valued items for modern technology. These changes lessened the monopoly of the East India Company to a point where by mid-century Britain agreed to an official ban on all opium trade, and the dissolution of the Company. (An additional historical change was regarding the famous letter that Chinese General Lin Zexu wrote to Queen Victoria in 1839 concerning the devastation of opium on his people. Never delivered in our history, here it was received by Her Majesty, who became a vocal advocate for its abolition.)
In this very different 1886, almost 50 years after the Opium War, China and Britain are stable trading partners, with a healthy amount of cultural exchange as well. The increased bond of a Sino-British relationship is nowhere more evident than Hong Kong, already in this world a buzzing hub of technological industry. Though there still remains distrust and misunderstandings between East and West, in the world of BRASS, both the English and the Chinese Empires have seen an increase in power and one hopes wisdom.