Courtroom drama over opium kings’ portraits (Scotland)

By Lunar Loops · Jan 3, 2007 ·
  1. Lunar Loops
    Oh how times have changed (or have they?). This little gem of law, drugs, history and art comes from The Herald ( :

    Courtroom drama over opium kings’ portraits
    [​IMG]DAVID ROSS, Highland CorrespondentJanuary 03 2007

    A historian has prompted a debate over the display of portraits of two Scottish politicians, who were also among the worst narcotics traffickers in history, in Dingwall Sheriff Court.
    The paintings of Sir James Matheson of Achany and the Lews and his nephew, Sir Alexander Matheson of Ardross and Lochalsh, have been looking down on the Ross-shire court for the best part of a century.
    They traded in opium from India to China and brought misery to thousands on the other side of the world, but became MPs and were honoured for their public works in Britain.
    A debate is to follow the discovery from old papers that their portraits were gifted to the local authority.
    Sir James (1796-1878) bought the island of Lewis, built Lews Castle and was created a baronet in recognition of his "… great exertions and munificence in providing the inhabitants of the Lews with food during the severe famine in 1845/46".
    Sir Alexander (1805-1886) became chairman of the Highland Railway and built Ardross Castle in Easter Ross and Duncraig Castle above Plockton.
    James was born in Lairg in Sutherland, the illegitimate son of a Highland gentleman. He went east, where he was one of the founders of the legendary trading house of Jardine Matheson, which made its wealth by selling opium bought in India to China, where it had been banned since 1729.
    By the late-1830s they were reputed to be handling 6000 chests of opium a year at an estimated 8000% profit. China moved to suppress the use of opium in the 1830s, leading to the two opium wars in the 1840s and 1850s.
    David Alston, a historian and a Ross-shire councillor, has long been intrigued by the two images adorning the court walls. He said: "There has always been something surreal in having portraits of two of the world's biggest drug dealers hanging in a Scottish courtroom.
    "Now there is a further twist in the discovery that the paintings belong to the Highland Council, having been gifted to the former Ross and Cromarty County Council in 1918.
    "The Mathesons' trade in opium to China, in a market kept open by British military power, caused immense harm. As a public body, the Highland Council must ask itself: what do we do with our portraits of villains like these? One answer could be to take them down and lock them away. But I think the better solution is to make sure that those who see the paintings realise they are looking at international drug dealers. We need to decide where these pictures should hang. I will raise the issue with colleagues in Highland Council and will write to the Scottish Courts Service."
    David Hingston, former procurator-fiscal at Dingwall, said: "I am not surprised they belonged to the council as the council was responsible for providing the court at that time. I did always think it highly ironic that these two gentlemen were looking down as we were prosecuting some small drugs offence. But they are useful in that they remind us how thinking about things such as drugs can change. In their time drugs were not only accepted but were government policy."
    A spokeswoman for the Scottish Court Services said: "We will consider the issues raised, once we have received this letter (from Dr Alston)."

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