Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Terrible Threat of the Chinese Commissioner

                    The something else that Lin Zexu did was unprecedented – he wrote a letter directly to the King of England (who was actually a woman, Queen Victoria, but he wasn’t to know that). It’s a remarkable document, written in the traditional ‘memorial’ form, that mixes highly formalised Confucian language with direct appeals to the monarch’s humanity and a straightforward account of the facts of the opium traffic. 

Lin Zexu

Lin drafted and revised his letter, then had English-speaking merchants and missionaries translate it into English, circulated it amongst the Western merchants in Canton as a public announcement, and sent a copy off to London. As it happened, Queen Victoria did not receive Lin’s letter, as it was intercepted by her ministers, which may be just as well, considering one of the threats it contained. If the British ruler did not intervene and stop the import of opium into China, said Lin, then the Chinese Emperor would stop the export of goods to Britain.  
“Has China (we should like to ask) ever yet sent forth a noxious article from its soil? Not to speak of our tea and rhubarb, things which your foreign countries could not exist a single day without, if we of the Central Land were to grudge you what is beneficial, and not to compassionate your wants, then wherewithal could you foreigners manage to exist?” 
That’s right, you’ve read that correctly. Stop sending us your nasty opium or else we will stop sending you our rhubarb, and you’ll all be dead within a day. Commissioner Lin certainly knew his stuff. The corrupt western devils were all constipated and needed the vital rhubarb to maintain their regular lavatorial habits. Without it, their Empire would collapse, as the population succumbed to the horrors of bunged-up botties. 

Pierre Pomet - Rhubarb - in The Compleat History of Druggs - 1737

The British simply had to have rhubarb or the consequences would be too terrible to contemplate – ohh, the straining, the griping and the moaning. Send us your rhubarb, Commissioner Lin, by all that’s holy, send us your rhubarb, man. 

W J Hooker - Rhubarb - in Medical Botany Vol 4 - 1832

The name rhubarb comes from the Greek, ΄Ρā - Rha - the ancient name of the River Volga, and the medical Latin barbarum – ‘foreign’, referring to fact that in the ancient world, rhubarb came from the foreign lands around the Volga. 

Petri Andrea - Dioscorides - Rhubarb - in De Materia Medica - 1565

Dioscorides, the ancient Greek physician and botanist, wrote about rhubarb in his De Materia Medica, a first century pharmacopoeia that was widely used in Europe for over fifteen hundred years (it was one of the few works from antiquity that was not ‘rediscovered’ during the Renaissance, as it was never lost). 

William Salmon - Rhubarb - in Botanologica - 1710

The early explorers who travelled in the east and to China, including Marco Polo, all make a point of mentioning rhubarb among the marvels and the treasures that they have discovered; one un-authored work titled Accounts of Independent Tatary [sic] (1558) records 
Formerly karawans came from Kathay when the way was open. They were nine months on the journey, and brought mufk, rhubarb, fatin, damafk, and other goods”. 
Rhubarb root features in the early herbals, John Gerarde writes, 
It is brought out of the countrie of Sina (commonly called China), which is towarde the east in the upper part of India … it groweth on the sides of the river Rha … as also on the banckes of the river Rha, now called Volga.” 

John Gerarde - Rhubarb - in The Herball - 1597

To the herbalists, there were two rhubarbs – one from Asia, generally called China rhubarb, and another from a vague area in Asia Minor named Pontus, which may have been Black Sea, called Turkey (or Turkie) rhubarb because it was traded through Turkish merchants. This latter was also called Pontic Root and was an ingredient listed by Celsus in his recipe for Mithradates’s Antidote, a marvellous medicine said to be even more effective than VeniceTreacle

Celsus - recipe for Mithradates's Antidote - in Of Medicine - 1765

It is important to note that the root of the rhubarb was the medicinal part of the plant – the stalks (or petioles) that are eaten today were discarded as unwanted foliage. Men dressed as Turks (or ‘Hindoos’) used to sell rhubarb root on the streets of London, to be used as a medicine, and in the early 1800s, a market gardener called Myatt thought that he could grow his own rhubarb and sell it cheaper than the ‘Turkish’ merchants but he found that his roots had no medicinal properties. 

Dioscorides - De Materia Medica - 1552

It is said that one day he happened to chew one of the young shoots and found it succulent and quite tasty. He made some tarts with the rhubarb shoots, sweetened with sugar, and was pleased with the results, but he found it very difficult to sell the stalks at Covent Garden market. He persevered and eventually rhubarb became a popular filling for pies and tarts – a correspondent to Notes and Queries wrote that rhubarb pies were a popular novelty at a girls’ boarding school at Hackney during the 1820s and 1830s. However, in the History of Esculent Plants, published in 1783, Charles Bryant writes of rhubarb, 
The footftalks of the radical leaves having an acid tafte, and being thick and flefhy, are frequently ufed in the fpring for making of tarts. If they be carefully peeled they will bake very tender, and eat agreeably. Many people prefer them even to Apples.” 
Another correspondent recalled a conversation with the widow of Conrad Loddiges, author of the Botanical Cabinet, who told him that the Loddiges family were the first to introduce rhubarb growing to England, although it may be that she is referring to culinary rhubarb, as medicinal rhubarb is written about by John Parkinson in his 1629 herbarium Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris

John Parkinson - Rhubarb (bottom left) - Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris - 1629

“… but I haue a kinde of round leafed Dock growing in my Garden, which was fent me from beyond Sea by a worthy Gentleman Mr Dr Matth Lifter, One of the Kings Phyfitians, with this title, Rhaponticum verum, and firft grew with me, before it was euer feen or known elfewhere in England by proof I haue found to be fo like vnto the true Rubarbe,or the Rha of Pontus, both for forme and colour, that I dare fay it is the very true Rubarbe.” 

John Parkinson - Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris - 1629

But even that may not be the first rhubarb, in spite of what Parkinson claims, as the eccentric physician Andrew Boorde added a postscript to a letter to Thomas Cromwell of 1534, in which he says, 
I haue sentt to your Mastershepp the seeds of reuberbe the which came owtt off Barbary. In thos partes ytt ys had for a grett tresure. The seeds be sowne in March thyn, and when they be rootyd they must be takyn vpp and sett euery one off them a foote or more from another, and well watred, &c.” 
Unfortunately, we neither know if Cromwell actually planted the seeds nor if they grew if he did plant them, but it’s a tantalising thought that rhubarb was grown here almost five hundred years ago. Rhubarb was widely grown, and eaten, latterly in England as it is very easy to cultivate and produces its fruit early in the year (my own rhubarb plant has already started to sprout, at the beginning of March) but it fell out of favour during and after Corporal Hitler’s Unpleasantness, when sugar rationing made sweetening rhubarb a lesser priority for most people. 

John Parkinson - Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris - 1629

Most gardeners would have had plants however and, frankly, with little else available people got sick of eating the stuff. When rationing ended, and when more exotic fruits began to be imported again, the lowly rhubarb fell from favour although, in recent years, the renewed interest in old-fashioned ingredients has meant that rhubarb is enjoying something of a come-back. It is a very versatile foodstuff and works well with such things as oily fish (mackerel and rhubarb is marvellous) although to my mind rhubarb and ginger crumble with custard is a food fit for the Gods. 

George Chambers - The Tourist's Pocket-Book - 1904

A very handy Tourist’s Pocketbook by George Chambers (1904) has a list of useful medical supplies that any self-reliant Edwardian traveller should have about them when visiting foreign parts, amongst which are chlorodyne (a mixture of laudanum, chloroform and cannabis), quinine, chloroform and rhubarb pills (well, you never know, do you?).

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