After discovering the perfidy of his fiancee (who runs off with not only a middle-aged, fat, but married tradesman), ship's surgeon Robert Gunn decides to make his fortune in the exotic Far East. He outwits a wealthy Persian merchant who kidnaps him to serve as stud for his daughter, and by luck, skill, and unscrupulousness becomes one of the richest traders of the illegal ""black mud"" (opium) -- which was apparently as much a problem then as it is now -- up and down the Chinese coast. He is assisted in this by Lord Palmerston and the greedy English government of the early Victorian era, which preferred warships to diplomacy in extending the ""benefits"" of its empire to civilizations considered barbarian mainly because their lack of rapaciousness was so incomprehensible to those enamored of progress and guns. At the end Gunn finds himself friendless, bankrupt morally if not financially, physically rotting, the victor conquered by his spoils -- a perfect metaphor for what happens to countries that exploit others in the name of economics, morality, or politics. This is an interesting and informative novel given authenticity by its use of actual incidents and historical personages for its secondary characters.