Seminar | “Two millions of De Quinceys created in China”: Thomas De Quincey, the Opium and China Case, and Debate on the First Opium War 1840-42

Seminar | “Two millions of De Quinceys created in China”: Thomas De Quincey, the Opium and China Case, and Debate on the First Opium War 1840-42

This paper will explore the moment of the outbreak of the First Opium War between Britain and Qing China from 1839-1840. It is concerned with Romantic politics in the both the larger conceptual sense of the relation of Romantic period writers to what we think of as organic nationalism, or indeed, Romantic cosmopolitanism, involving concerns with British national identity; but also with the more quotidian sense of British party politics and public debate. Although this is a highly significant and important historical event it is seldom, if at all, discussed by Romantic period scholars and when it is, it is generally as a kind of side-show in the development of British orientalism, or with reference to arguably the Romantic period’s most powerful prose writer, Thomas De Quincey. In such cases, it is often brought up as a sort of supplementary text to discussion of De Quincey’s  Confessions of and English Opium Eater of 1821, most notably those sections dealing with his opium nightmares and what has, in many way, become the primal scene of Romantic east/west encounters, the visit of the Malay to Dove cottage. In his study Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger (2016) David Simpson powerfully interrogates this scene for its deployment of binaries of domestic and exotic, especially featuring those other extraordinarily ambiguous and resonant commodity doppelgangers, opium and tea (commodities of the China tea trade). De Quincey’s essay from Blackwoods of June 1840 ‘The Opium and China Question’ is often discussed as a supplement to such enquiry. It is also seldom discussed by professional historians of the Opium War, despite constituting a very significant public statement on the War and the opium trade by a leading commentator of political and economic affairs. This paper seeks to situate De Quincey’s essay in the conext of the debate about the First Opium War and to raise questions about the presence of that event in British culture.

Peter Kitson is Professor of English in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA. Professor Kitson specialises in research into the long eighteenth century and literature of the Romantic period (especially S. T. Coleridge), and he has published widely on the subject including monographs on Literature, Science and Exploration in the Romantic Period (Cambridge UP, 2004), Romantic Literature, Race and Colonial Encounter, 1760-1840 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), and Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Encounters, 1760-1840 (Cambridge UP, 2013). He has edited three multi volume editions of writings about slavery and travel writing in the period as well as several collections of essays, including (with Tim Fulford), Romanticism and Colonialism (Cambridge UP, 1998). His most reccent co-edited collections of essays (with Robert Markley) Writing China: Essays on the Amherst Embassy (1816) and Sino-British Cultural Relations was published in 2016. Professor Kitson was elected Chair and then President of the English Association, of which he is an Honorary Fellow. He was also elected President of the British Association for Romantic Studies (2007-2011) of which he is an Honorary Member. Professor Kitson is one of the founder members of the newly-formed international and interdisciplinary research network China and Global modernity. He is currently working on a study, Opium Writing: Sino-British Cultural Encounters from the Amherst Embassy to the First Opium War, 1800-1842 for which he has recently received a research grant from the British Academy for £10k (2014-2016) and a Leverhulme Research Fellowship for 2017-2018.

Date & time

Thu 26 Oct 2017, 4.30–5.45pm


Sir Roland Wilson Building Theatrette


Professor Peter Kitson (University of East Anglia)

Event series


Penny Brew
+61 2 6125 4357


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