Toulouse-Antonin Roy reviews Mark Driscoll, The Whites are Enemies of Heaven: Climate Caucasianism and Asian Ecological Protection

Mark Driscoll’s The Whites are Enemies of Heaven: Climate Caucasianism and Asian Ecological Protection offers a fresh new look at treaty port imperialism in 19th century East Asia. Moving away from conventional accounts that highlight debates over “free trade” and imperialist politics, Driscoll examines Euro-American predation in light of what he calls “Climate Caucasianism,” a term he uses to describe the carbon-spewing industries and hyper-exploitation of non-western lands introduced as a result of the British capture of Treaty Ports following the Opium Wars. Driscoll argues that this “CO2lonialism” (one of Driscoll’s many creative neologisms) was a crucial moment in accelerating the current trend towards global warming and other ecological catastrophes.

The overarching focus of The Whites are Enemies of Heaven is the “ruthless terrorism” of arms, human, and drug trafficking which treaty port officials, missionaries, and their agents inflicted on the Japanese and Chinese, along with their local responses. Using a mixture of warfare, lawfare, and “rawfare” – a term used to refer to the capitalist consumption of all living and nonliving things – Driscoll shows how racialized and gendered violence allowed Euro-Americans to weaken local populations and forcibly pry their way into East Asia’s untapped markets.

Resistance to “CO2lonialism” is the core focus of The Whites are the Enemies of Heaven. Throughout the book, Driscoll contrasts treaty port officials and their “extra-active” epistemology of instrumental reason or belief in the “mastery” of nature with the “intra-active” ways of anti-imperial radicals, whose forms of resistance were tied to local ecologies, weather systems, deities, and other non-human entities. From radical samurai and Autonomy & People’s Rights (APR) activists who led the struggles against the decaying Tokugawa state or later Meiji oligarchs, to the Gelaohui rebel brotherhood in Sichuan Province who opposed the activities of white missionaries and their Qing enablers, Driscoll brings together a diverse cast of “decolonial” movements from the region to show how an incipient “Asian undercommons” challenged regimes of capitalist extraction (xi). In the process Driscoll revisits foundational historical narratives of “anti-western” politics in China and Japan, showing us how opposition to capitalist modernization in the latter contexts should be seen more as “eco-protection” movements akin to today’s Indigenous “water protectors” rather than simple “xenophobic” backlash against foreigners.

In the introduction Driscoll examines the Sino-British Opium War, or what he calls “the first war for drugs.” Thanks to their capture of Bengal’s poppy fields, the British East India Company transformed opium into a lucrative commodity that quickly reversed the empire’s trade imbalance with the Qing. The flood of opium led to not only a massive outflow of Chinese silver from imperial coffers, but also widespread social immiseration, as company traders, smugglers, and criminal elements used opium and trafficked arms to create new markets for captive “coolie” labor, which helped fuel colonial industries after the abolition of slavery. This “clipper-coolie-captive-contraband-capital” circuit, as Driscoll calls it, provided the basis for capitalist accumulation in the treaty ports, as powerful trading firms that would go on to dominate East Asia like Jardine Matheson and Co. would launder their drug money in “clean” industries.

In reframing western penetration of the treaty ports and opium wars as “Climate Caucasianism,” Driscoll allows us to see the response by East Asian governmental officials, intellectuals, radicals and reformers in a new light. Driscoll for example takes Commissioner Lin Zexu, the staunch anti-opium Qing official, and Aizawa Seishisai, the founding intellectual of the anti-shogunal Mito school, and examines their opposition to western encroachment. Focusing on both these thinkers’ appeals to “Heaven” and its implied connections between human action and cosmic forces, the book describes how non-anthropocentric modes of relationality critiqued imperial nations for their pursuit of profit, as well as their ignorance of interconnected spiritual and ecological systems. Westerners of course responded to these critiques by racializing East Asians as child-like human beings completely ignorant of “free trade,” or as “slavish” opium addicts incapable of self-governance (or what he calls the rhetoric of Asians as “supinestupefiedyellows”).

While the introduction uses the opium war to map out the dynamics of “CO2lonialism,” the remaining chapters dive into the treaty ports themselves and the forms of resistance they engendered. In chapter one, Driscoll revisits the Euro-American enclosure of treaty ports in late Tokugawa Japan, focusing primarily on various acts of white predation. Driscoll here offers a deep dive into the process of enclosure itself, showing how the “rawfaring” of female sex workers along with systemic daily racial terror was instrumental in the consolidation of Euro-American power. In 1862, a staggering forty percent of Euro-white merchants in Yokohama had a live-in sex servant. In addition to the endemic use of female sex slaves, ordinary Japanese were subject to daily humiliations like beatings, whippings, and canings at the first hint of resistance to white demands. Euro-Americans helped foster a climate of political radicalism, as militant samurai took matters into their own hands and launched assaults against foreign oppressors and complicit Tokugawa officials. Driscoll for example examines the ideas of rogue samurai like Kiyokawa Hachirô, who saw westerners as “ignorant predators” whose destructive appetites for resources contravened the balance between humans, “heaven” and natural systems (75). Anti-western actions though always invited disproportionate responses which led to further encroachment – a fact evidenced by the British destruction of Kagoshima which took place in 1863 after an English diplomat was killed following an altercation on the Tokaido highway the year before. Driscoll’s rereading of Treaty Port imperialism as racialized violence allows him to reframe radical samurai thinkers and activists as militant eco-protectors who sought to “revere the emperor, fight the whites” (Driscoll’s spin on the classic sonnô jôi slogan). This reading adds a new dimension to the already-rich field of scholarship on Mito radicalism during the bakumatsu years, bringing it more in line with recent theoretical assemblages in eco-Marxism, critical race theory, as well as Indigenous studies.

Chapter two shifts the focus away from Japan and moves to Sichuan in the mid-19th century, then on the fringes of the treaty port system. Following the second opium war, China was further opened up to whites, especially missionaries, who increasingly sought to proselytize across the interior. Whites in Sichuan envisioned a racially segregated treaty port system in the upper Yangtze that would service capital accumulation by bringing coal-powered boats up river and exploit Sichuan province’s rich mineral stores. French Catholic missionaries, particularly the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP), were the vanguard of these extractive operations. Missionaries in Sichuan were operating well beyond the confines of their designated areas, often engaging in a range of crimes – from human trafficking and sexual assault to “repossession” of Fengshui-aligned temples. Driscoll, however, highlights how Sichuanese were already primed for resistance, as the region formed a cosmopolitan “pluriverse” of intra-action on the eve of the arrival of westerners, with multiple ethnic groups and religious traditions (90). At the center of organized resistance efforts for fighting whites was the social rebel brotherhood Gelaohui (GLH), a secretive group which drew its support from dispossessed peasants, the poor, and those employed in trades like manure collection. The GLH were at the center of a number of major uprisings against missionary property theft and abuses. Anti-Christian actions though, as was the case with attacks in bakumatsu Japan, always invited a disproportionate response, as French Catholics frequently claimed outrageous damages beyond what actually happened. In this chapter, Driscoll further develops the idea of “intra-action” practiced by anti-colonial radicals, showcasing how the GLH critiqued western missionary presence in their placards and denunciations as harmful “pollution” which disrupted the balance of local ecologies. In all, Driscoll here examines how the “eco-ontology” of the Sichuanese world provided the basis – both material and epistemological – for resistance to western missions and corrupt Qing officials. This opposition, as chapters four and six later demonstrate, crystallized into a number of large-scale uprisings spearheaded by the GLH.

Chapter three returns to treaty port Japan in the immediate aftermath of the Meiji revolution and examines the politics of the Genyôsha – the secretive political group long reviled for its participation in ultra-nationalistic and fascist politics during the prewar era. Driscoll though takes us back to its founding years, when it was a part of an explosion of radical democratic activity targeting the incipient extractive capitalism of the Meiji oligarchs. Here Driscoll flips the script on the conventional accounts of the “Fight the Whites” movements, showing how they gained a new lease on life after the overthrow of the shogunate, rather than fade as a result of suppression by Meiji elites. The chapter demonstrates how resistance to top-down modernization, whether in the form of Genyôsha militants planning assassinations or APR activists writing their own constitutions to present to the emperor, drew their energy from the earlier social revolution to “flatten vertical Tokugawa society” (145). Driscoll draws attention here to the conceptual underpinnings of anti-colonial Genyôsha or APR activities, showing how a complex amalgam of eco-ontological appeals to the world of spirits and ancestors or Confucian notions of “Heaven” and the people’s right to overthrow rulers by force informed the anti-oligarchic politics of the 1870s and 1880s. He makes the crucial point that appeals to the emperor should not be seen as automatic support for emperorism, and we should recuperate these radical ideas traditionally written off by generations of scholars as germinations of later militarist fascism.

Moving back to Sichuan, Driscoll in chapter four discusses the further growth of the GLH in the second half of the nineteenth century and the role played by opium in that process. Here, Driscoll inverses the role of opium in East Asia from a social and moral scourge used by westerners to “rawfare” Chinese bodies into a source of “intra-action” that allowed locals to restore a sense of autonomy and dignity. During the late Qing era, political instability and dispossession marked highland areas, as powerful landlords and western capitalists drove many out of their homes or into a waged existence. This, coupled with ex-soldiers and mercenaries winding down after all the fighting from the Taiping Rebellion and other insurrections, swelled the ranks of the GLH. It was amidst these conditions that the GLH formed a vibrant culture of social banditry and anti-Qing resistance in Sichuan, forming lodges across opium dens and tea houses. These organizations were governed by elaborate rituals, behavioral codes, and were supported “intra-actively” through Daoist rituals and the worship of local deities (all of which were often accompanied by ritualized opium smoking). The chapter showcases how Sichuan’s riparian landscapes allowed GLH members to conduct robbery operations, evade Qing runners or spies, and stimulate a locally-grown opium economy. As is the case with Japan in the previous chapter, Driscoll here examines how the subversive energies of outcasts and rebels by the late 19th century were increasingly directed towards corrupt local governments, though the presence of Euro-whites was still at the center of militant activities.

Chapter five closes the book’s story arc on the Genyôsha’s rise to political prominence during the 1880s. In this chapter Driscoll hones in on the factional politics of the Genyôsha, showing how the organization’s cozying up to more conservative emperorist politics led it down the path of participating in coal extraction. The chapter examines at great length the Osaka Incident of 1885, which was a failed plot by anti-oligarch revolutionaires to launch a simultaneous uprising both in mainland Japan and Korea to remove despotic governments. Contrary to typical readings of the Osaka Incident as a failed overseas imperialist venture, Driscoll here portrays the activities of Genyôsha militants and other APR supporters as an attempt to create a social “levelling” revolution across national boundaries. Genyôsha leader Toyama Mitsuru though later gave up this armed revolutionary strategy and shifted to a more “practical” capitalistic solution by getting into coal extraction in Kyushu to finance his mission to unseat the oligarchs, thereby shifting the group’s status from “last samurai” to “first extractive capitalist” (Driscoll’s playful title for the chapter). The effects of the coal boom though were devastating, as farmers were displaced by large companies, women sex trafficked on coal freighters, labor movements were quashed, and even convict labor was used. Genyôsha’s tactics for land acquisition to set up coal operations wound up looking no different from those of large conglomerates, as the organization too began hoovering up territory to cash in on growing capitalist demand. Nevertheless, the decade of revolutionary terror the Genyôsha helped foster symbolized the lingering opposition to westernization and further kowtowing to extraterritorial demands. As Driscoll points out, the Genyôsha may have played a role in the rolling back of unequal treaties in the 1890s, but it ultimately betrayed its original eco-ontological philosophy of its early days to become agents of the Japanese state abroad.

In chapter six, Driscoll examines the instrumental role both Sichuan opium and the GLH played in the railroad rights recovery movement and subsequent Xinhai revolution of 1911. While the opening of treaty ports had led to a destructive trade imbalance which ravaged the local economy, Sichuanese had reversed their fortunes towards the end of the 19th century by creating their own vibrant opium economy. In 1882, Sichuanese opium was said to “be more than all the imported opium from British India, accounting for roughly 140,000 chests.” (260). “Stoned Sichuan”’ saw large numbers of workers escape the capitalist alienation of their labor – whether as boat trackers moving the drug or small farmers cultivating it. As Driscoll highlights, opium smoking was not only a lucrative business and recreational activity that drew people to the GLH; it was also a way to amplify existing human-animal-environment-deity connections through smoking rituals. The opium boom of course soon caused a western backlash, as the drug’s links to Daoist spiritual practices made it not only a source of vice but also idolatry in the eyes of missionaries. Soon, Christian-run “opium refuges” emerged in Sichuan to treat addicts, though these organizations were largely a front for conversion, as well as an excuse to pump people full of western-made synthetic opioids. As western missionaries kicked their anti-vice efforts into full gear, Qing “new policies’” began targeting opium production and consumption. Modernization schemes sought to criminalize the rich social life revolving around opium (all in the guise of hygiene). Driscoll here compares these Qing policies to Marx’s “bloody legislation,” where the state instills waged discipline on a population through violence and the criminalization of indigence. Sichuanese opium taxes paid for a lot however, so when the Qing began outlawing it in September 1906, the state began to impose unpopular taxes on needed products. Driscoll ends the chapter by showcasing how the criminalization of opium soon intersected with the region’s other major economic issue: the recovery of railways from foreigners. Soon GLH forces linked up with Tongmenghui revolutionaries and engaged in a number of anti-Qing uprisings which weakened government troops in the lead-up to the crucial Wuchang uprising that unseated the dynasty. Driscoll manages to rebrand the Xinhai revolution as a broader regional movement inextricably tied to the dynasty’s suppression of eco-ontological worlds, and not a movement solely about an abstract idea of Chinese nationalism. Interestingly, the GLH after its participation in the overthrow of the dynasty would soon go the way of the Genyôsha, as later during the Republican era the group was taken over by middle-class and gentry elements, steering it away from its proletarian roots and making it into a “respectable” organization.

The Whites are Enemies of Heaven also contains two “Intertexts” which serve as a type of bridge between chapters. This portion of the book at first glance appears to be rich source materials that didn’t quite “make the cut” for the regular chapters, but when weaved into the book’s broader arguments about the linkages between sexual and ecological violence take on significant relevance. Both of them are organized around a representative cultural text of white supremacy in Asia. Intertext one features the novel Madame Chrysanthème, while the second intertext covers the opera Madame Butterfly. Both texts feature a white protagonist having a relationship with Japanese sex slave who then goes on to abandon and discard her after his time in the treaty ports comes to an end. Driscoll uses both these stories as representative cases of white indifference towards (as well as fetishization of) female Asian sexuality, which he highlights was built on the still-circulating supremacist formulation “they love western guys over there” (210). This assumption though quickly turned to murderous rage as the rawfaring of Asian bodies generated resistance from groups like the GLH or the Boxers (another group typically cast as “anti-foreign”). White indifference towards “rawfared” females soon morphed into the use of what the colonizers themselves referred to as “Negro methods” – extermination tactics honed in the scramble for Africa or in antebellum U.S slavery – used to put down anti-western uprisings in China. Genocidal campaigns of racial terror, mass killing, and systematic rape for example followed right on the heels of the Boxer uprising. Here Driscoll draws from the Lacanian distinction of pleasure versus enjoyment, where pleasure is governed by social restrictions, while enjoyment is linked to self-destructive behaviors (the death drive). In much the same way we shop and destroy the planet imperiling ourselves, Driscoll showcases how whites “wilding out” in treaty port China found sadistic enjoyment in racist attacks knowing full well it could potentially invite their own destruction.

Driscoll’s The Whites are the Enemies of Heaven rewrites the book on the “opening” of China and Japan by shifting the lens to the ecological struggles and “eco-ontological” approaches they engendered. Both classical narratives of “modernization,” whether the Meiji “success story” or the late Qing “self-strengthening” failure, are insignificant here. What matters is “CO2lonialism,” inspired and imposed by Euro-whites and then enforced by local elites, which suppressed insurgent political movements and alternative socialities. In rebranding opposition to treaty port imperialism as an assertion of universal humanity in the face of racialized occupation and plunder, The Whites are Enemies of Heaven allows us to link the late nineteenth century moment with liberation movements in the decolonizing era, or more recent Indigenous protests against capitalist extraction. Even though the featured movements of his book would slide into irrelevance or betray their radical eco-ontological programs, Driscoll’s powerful new book serves as an invitation to “redeem those earlier commitments of the Gelaohui and Genyôsha in our present as we search for examples to counter intensifying Climate Caucasianism and ongoing Superpredation” (308). Driscoll’s The Whites are Enemies of Heaven is a timely intervention that injects new life into the study of imperialism with its richly detailed source materials and broad conceptual frames. The book is sure to inspire future work which will engage colonial histories through the lens of local eco-ontological approaches.

Toulouse-Antonin Roy holds a PhD in history from the University of California Los Angeles and currently teaches middle and high school world history in Taiwan. His work examines the pacification and disposession of Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples and the making of Japan’s camphor industries during the colonial era. He is the author of the recent articles “War in the Camphor Zone: Resistance to colonial capitalism in upland Taiwan, 1895-1915” (Japan Forum, 2020), as well as “‘The Camphor Question is in Reality the Savage Question’: Indigenous Pacification and the Transition to Capitalism in the Taiwan borderlands (1895-1915)” (Critical Historical Studies, 2019). He can be reached at toulroy AT