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History of Sino-British Relations:
The Beginnings, 1596-1839

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 relations, 1839-1842


Introduction to
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