Scots Running Amok

The history of the British empire in Asia cannot be told without the Scots. As loan sharks, drug smugglers, diplomats, generals and plant hunters, they played key roles in expanding Britain's imperial reach. They kept the empire caffeinated via extortionate loans and opium; they smuggled the lucrative and much-coveted Camellia sinensis (tea plant) from China to India; they lent legitimacy to these efforts by planning and leading Britain's first embassy to China; and, when this failed, they instigated war with China and looted its palaces. In the process, these Scots ensured that increasing numbers of British consumers could enjoy their daily cup of tea with the empire reaping the financial benefits, and increasingly disastrous consequences for China.

Scotland's long tradition of migration and soldiering, its poverty and uncertain harvests, encouraged many young Scots to set sail for the East Indies. As far back as the Middle Ages, Scots were an unusually outward-looking group, travelling and settling across Europe, from the Netherlands to the Baltic. For centuries, they exported their martial expertise to Irish chiefs, English kings and European monarchs. By the 18th century, civil war and languishing family fortunes, as well as the promise of new ones, added urgency to the exodus of Scots out of north Britain. They left home very young, often as teenagers, to pursue new economic opportunities made possible by the East India Company's conquests in India and its growing tea trade with China. But many of them, particularly the Highlanders, had few better options available to them in the aftermath of the so-called '45. Their failed attempt to restore the Scottish Stuart line to the British throne in 1745 resulted in the devastation of local Highland communities by the British army, in addition to a long-term draconian project that restructured and assimilated the Highlands according to English economic, cultural and political norms.

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