The influence of opium

Bremer black opium

Opium defined the city of Brisbane in the 19th century and Brisbane still lives under the economic influence of opium, if our state government’s platform policy about long-term lease of state assets has been built with the belief that Hong Kong is a good example of a long-term lease.

Today, I went to see my needlework in the light cast by Fiona Foley’s ‘Black Opium’ installation at the State Library of Queensland.

John Oxley’s field notes specifically name the Bremer River on the 25th of September 1824. Oxley wrote this:

 “Proceeded down the river, and stopped at 5 o’clock on the left Bank opposite the Bremer River, for the night. This place will be desirable and convenient for an establishment whenever the settlement is extended as to render it an object to procure the pine in large quantities, the river being navigable for very large craft and quite fresh. The country on both sides (of) the river fit for cultivation.”

 In his annotations of John Oxley’s Field Notes, J.G. Steele identified Oxley at the Bremer River a few days earlier, on the 19th of September. Steele’s annotations say, ‘Probably named after Captain (later Rear Admiral Sir) James John Gordon Bremer (1786-1850).’

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) says, “In 1824 Bremer was given command of the Tamar and sent from England to select a site on the north coast of New Holland that would allow British merchants to break the Dutch monopoly of trade in the East Indies.” The day after his name appeared in John Oxley’s Field Notes, he ‘took formal possession’ of Melville Island. The ADB goes on to say, “The site was ill chosen, too far from any regular shipping track and too hazardous in access, but Bremer, seeing it at its best in the dry season, praised it in a long and flattering report which was accepted with enthusiasm by the Admiralty, Colonial Office and mercantile houses involved in East Indian trade.” 1839 was the year that Governor Gipps formally closed the convict facility in Brisbane and also sent Bremer to join the British fleet in China. In the London Gazette of 3 June, 1841 Commodore Bremer wrote that it was he, himself, who “took formal possession of Hong Kong in Her Majesty’s name”.

James John Gordon Bremer may have been a specialist in ‘trade’. His strategy was ‘possession’, which also means dis-possession.

 “With his departure from Port Essington in June 1839 his part in Australian history ends” in the opinion of J Bach, the author of the ADB article. By perceiving Australian history in this way, Bach is giving us all permission to forget the Opium War and its influence on Australia, as well as the positioning of Australia within 19th century globalisation. Bremer appears marginal in what we call ‘Australian’ history, yet he loomed large on the global stage, and not without ongoing influence back in Australia.

Permission to forget the Opium war has enabled Campbell Newman to say.

 “When you lease something, it comes back. And there are many examples. I’ll give you an example. Hong Kong. Have they heard of Hong Kong? The Chinese government over 100 years ago leased Hong Kong to the British and what happened after 99 years? It came back.”

 Here is another version of events (by Jonathon Spence in ‘The Search for Modern China’)

 “During 1983 and 1984 the Chinese government negotiated firmly and tenaciously to fix the future status of the British colony, that “barren and uninhabited rock” the seizure of which in 1840 had been reluctantly ratified by the Qing two years later in the Treaty of Nanjing. In 1898 the British had bolstered the colony’s strength by “leasing” for ninety-nine years an area of the Chinese mainland adjacent to Hong Kong island known as the New Territories. When early in the 1980s the British raised questions about the future status of the colony, the PRC government made it clear that they would not renew the leaseon the New Territories in 1997. The British, knowing Hong Kong was not defensible militarily – it even drew almost all its drinking water from the PRC – decided they had little choice but to comply with the Chinese demand that they also cede back Hong Kong island by the same date.” (p. 710)

 According to Bremer in 1841 and according to Spence in 1990, Hong Kong was ‘lost’, not leased, if viewed from the point of view of possession.  I wonder if it’s the influence of opium that has led us to lose so much of our memory of where Queensland has come from.


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