by Leeman Kessler
I want you to sit down and understand that all that I am about to tell you is true. A drug smuggling maker of automota helped bring down a major corporation and America had a privateer airship. Once that settles in, we’ll continue.
In the 19th century, the East India Company had a stranglehold on trade between India, China and Europe, where an illicit triangle of tea, silver, and opium made for sinister dealings. The Chinese were ravenous for Indian Opium but the government refused to allow its import and so a network of smuggling operations began. Given the Company’s monopoly though, this was all rather tricky and so folks had to become clever. Thomas Beale’s brother was one of many who found a loophole by applying to be the Prussian consul in Canton. It was here that he ran his business in automota. Among the Chinese elite, there was a fascination for European clockwork and Beale’s business seemed to have served him well although, like many others, he sold opium.
This line of work plus his relative fame must have eventually brought him into contact with Scottish surgeon and smuggler William Jardine who with Beale and others began the work of undermining the East India Company until finally they lost their monopoly and China was opened to further trade. While Jardine went on to turn Hong Kong from a malaria-infested backwater into an economic powerhouse, Beale wound up back on Macau, impressing visitors with his gardens and his exotic birds, including a bird of paradise he kept for over eighteen years. He also got into some serious debt thanks to shady opium deals and, after going missing in 1841, his body was found washed up on the beach. Another automatist Louis Bovet wrote in a letter, “Mr. Beale has disappeared; the birds are for sale.”
Anyone who has played any of Sid Meier’s Pirates! games knows what a letter of marque is. It roughly gives its bearer the right to commit acts of piracy against the ships of enemy nations. While debated if they received an actual letter from Congress, at least one airship, the Resolute was commissioned to hunt submarines off the coast of Los Angeles during World War II. Piloted by civilians with rifles, these air pirates are about as close as we come to Don Carnage and any of his ilk. Since we’re also talking submarines, let me just remind you that the Electric Boat Company that built the first submarine is the root company of the maker of the Predator Drones currently stalking the skies of Waziristan and Libya.
From Automata to Airships to Submersibles and back to Automata, is it any wonder that such a genre as Steampunk could take hold? The world is a strange place full of great wonders and it warms my heart to know that reality is teeming with such strange details when we decide to scrape just the barest of patina off the surface.