Britain knew of China long before there were direct links, but
not until 1596 did the British try to establish contact. That year,
Benjamin Wood set out with a letter from Queen Elizabeth I to the
Emperor of China. Neither Wood nor his letter arrived. More successful
was the English East India Company. The company received a charter
in 1600 granting it exclusive trading rights in the East. In 1637,
its ships reached China, and by 1700 the Company had a trading house
at Guangzhou. For the next hundred years, trade between Britain
and China steadily increased, with the growing British possessions
in India playing a major role.
The merchants did not have an easy time. The Chinese economy was
largely self-contained and had little need of Western goods. There
was intransigence on both sides, with much insistence on rights.
Conflict seemed inevitable.
Meanwhile, Britain sent occasional missions to China, seeking
formal relations. In 1778, Colonel Cathcart drowned on the way.
In 1793, Lord Macartney reached Beijing and saw the Emperor. Yet
his mission achieved little, apart from encouraging chinoiserie
in Europe. Chinese porcelain, furniture and even architectural styles
found a ready market, as did tea. Subsequent missions in 1816 and
1834 failed even to reach Beijing.
- History of Sino-British