The East India Company – Empire, Opium and Tea

I like to think of myself  – somewhat pretentiously, I know – as a seeker of knowledge. What that basically means is that I

English: Opium Wars: Military train going up t...
British clipper during the Opium Wars

like to learn new facts. That most often means watching television that isn’t soap opera and sit-com, listening to BBC Radio 4, or reading voraciously. I’m hungry for knowledge all the time. As someone who studied history, I have a penchant for learning about new periods, people and places.

Last night, I went off to learn about 18th century China, the East India Company and Jardine Mathieson. Now, I’ve read around the topic before but was really looking forward to seeing one of my favourite alternative performers, Anna Chen, and her intriguing company of friends tell me more about the Opium Wars. And, being the consummate writers and performers that they are, they didn’t tell me. They showed me. Just like the best storytellers do. They showed me through song, poetry, and theatre how the Imperial British abused the Chinese, among others.

I was particularly pleased that there was a brief mention for those who spoke up against the wars – the great Williams Cobbett and Gladstone – oddly merged into one mr Cobstone. Mr Cobstone speaking in the 1840s against the drug-pushing of Victoria’s Empire managed presciently to quote both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, which made me smile but seemed to be missed by a lot of people in the audience.

Anna Chen by Suky Parnell

The story was given a Steampunk twist last night which was fun and something that I like as a fan of the great Victorian engineers. As well as the story, there was a poetry workshop and ‘slam’ where lots of brave souls wrote and performed poetry on stage for the first time. All were great and deserved their applause though some were better than others! It was the first poetry slam I’d been to, but I rather suspect not the last. I also got a brief tour of the National Maritime Museum by one of the original crew of the Cutty Sark. He looked pretty good for 153, I have to say! Must be all that sea air. Then there was a hackney tea ceremony. A sacred lesson in the art of the British cuppa which I could talk more about, but have been sworn to secrecy by the Bermondsey master of the tea ceremony.

If you get the chance, do go and see the Traders exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  Even without Anna and her steampunk pals, it’s a really interesting time to learn about and as a local resident, I know the NMM do that sort of thing very well.

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