INTRODUCTION The British opium trade in China started the world’s very first drug war, in the 19th century. Known as the Opium War, many people also refer to it as the Anglo-Chinese War. Opium is a preparation made from the juice of poppy seedpods, and used to produce heroin. The drug was mainly produced in and shipped from the East Indies to China by British merchants. This addictive drug had gotten many Chinese badly hooked by the early 1800s. In the 15th century, when opium was first introduced to China, it was used as medicine to treat diseases such as dysentery, cholera, as well as diarrhea.
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It was not until 1700 that the British introduced China to the process of mixing opium with tobacco so that it could be smoked. During the 18th century, Chinese green tea became very popular, and high in demand among Europeans and Americans. Chinese porcelain, as well as Chinese silk, were also very popular in the Western countries. . On the British side Since the eighteenth century, the Chinese government had imposed severe restrictions on foreign trade, and was both suspicious and contemptuous of foreigners.
At Guangzhou (Canton), which the East India Company, under a charter from the Crown, likewise had a monopoly of trade with India and China. The E. I. C. purchased silks and tea from the Chinese but had little to offer in return except silver. Two developments in the 1830s undermined this relatively stable ‘Canton system’: the significant expansion of opium smuggling and the rise of free-trade imperialism. Opium poppy cultivation had long been established in India and had provided an important source of revenue to the Moghul Emperors. In 1761 the E. I. C. btained a monopoly over the opium production of British India, and soon afterwards the drug began to be shipped to China as part of the Company’s triangular trade between India, Guangzhou and Britain.. Since the Chinese government had repeatedly banned opium smoking, the E. I. C. preferred to sell its production at annual auctions in Calcutta to licensed private firms so as not to jeopardize its legal trade in tea. The ‘country traders’ shipped the drug in specially built and heavily armed opium clippers to fortified receiving ships permanently stationed off the coast of southern China.
From these floating warehouses the illicit cargoes were transferred to multi-oared ‘fast crabs’ and ‘scrambling dragons’, crewed by Chinese pirates who took the opium to coastal and riverine depots where bribed officials permitted the drug to be unloaded for distribution along extensive smuggling networks run by gangsters and Triads. The opium traffic was of considerable economic importance to the British. The profits from the E. I. C. ‘s auctions contributed significantly to the revenue of the government of British India, to the British government itself via tax on imported tea from China, and of course to the traders themselves.
From the 1820s onwards British trade with China was in surplus, as the huge outflow of silver used to buy opium greatly exceeded the money the traders paid for Chinese tea. In 1834 the E. I. C. monopoly of trade with China ended and all mercantile activities were now in the hands of more aggressive private British (as well as Parsee and American) firms, Jardine Matheson & Co being the most important. This was in line with the laissez-faire thinking that underlay the Industrial Revolution and the general expansion of British commerce.
China was viewed by the private merchants at Guangzhou, as well as the industrial capitalists back home, as a vast potential market with boundless economic opportunities, if only the Chinese government were to remove their deliberate obstructions. The British merchants’ incentive for importing opium from India to China was to balance out their tea trade with China, and to stop the silver and gold from draining in what could have been a one-sided trade.
The British had to use gold and silver because China was a self-sufficient country and the Chinese did not want or need anything from Great Britain or any other foreign countries. When the British couldn’t find any other products to export to China, they decided to bring in opium mixed with tobacco to promote opium smoking. With nearly 2 million pounds of opium being sold in China each year, opium weakened a large amount of the Chinese population. In the 19th century, 10 percent of the Chinese population was smoking opium.
This also affected China economically, due to the large amount of resources, especially silver, flowing out of the country to pay for the opium. When the Chinese government first discovered opium smoking in the country in 1729, government promoted policies to prohibit the sale of opium for smoking, and shut down and banned opium-smoking houses. At the time, it became a very serious offense to sell opium for smoking purposes. It was classified in the same category as robbery and murder. The punishment was either banishment or execution. Although the harsh punishments helped rid cities of local dealers nd treat drug addicts, they did not stop British merchants from bringing in more opium to China. Because many Chinese government officials were corrupt and accepted bribes from British officials, they also became a part of the illegal opium trade. When the Chinese government discovered the British smuggling opium into China to sell, it was alarmed. However, it was not until 1838 that further efforts to restrict the opium trade were taken. That was when Emperor Daoguang appointed Lin Tse-Hsua, an imperial commissioner, to lead an anti-opium campaign. The Emperor Dao guang’s special anti-opium commissioner Lin Ze-xu (1785-1850), modestly estimated the number of his countrymen addicted to the drug to be 4 million, but a British physician practising in Canton set the figure at 12 million. Equally disturbing for the imperial government was the imbalance of trade with the West: whereas prior to 1810 Western nations had been spending 350 million Mexican silver dollars on porcelain, cotton, silks, brocades, and various grades of tea, by 1837 opium represented 57 per cent of Chinese imports, and for fiscal 1835-36 alone China exported 4. million silver dollars. Lin wrote a letter to Queen Victoria of England arguing that if the opium was so harmful in its effects that Britain had made opium trading and consumption illegal in England, then why was England exporting such harmful products to other countries Although the letter to Queen Victoria was very well composed, it was never delivered into the hands of the queen. The letter not only failed to inform the queen that England was promoting the sale of opium in China, but it angered British officials in China who felt that it challenged their power.
According to one source, “This letter probably could have brought an end to the opium trade if the British hadn’t been nursing grievances against China with Lin’s take-no-prisoners enforcement of Chinese laws combined with the outrage the British had against his decapitation of the opium trade . ” Not willing to give up on his anti-opium campaign, Lin then threatened England by saying that if the trade of opium did not stop, he would then sever trade relations with the British, as well as begin efforts to expel the British population from China.
After many years of failures for the anti-opium campaign, Lin, in 1839, finally went to Canton, which was then the main port for foreign trade. There, he found a British warehouse full of opium. He confiscated its content and publicly destroyed more than 20,000 chests of the opium seized from British merchants by mixing them with salt and lemon before throwing them into the ocean. Not deterred by Lin’s actions, the British continued to sell opium in China by smuggling in opium in order to balance their purchases of tea for export to Great Britain.
Having the Chinese government officials destroy and seize large amounts of opium, in addition to the threats of ending all trades with Great Britain and expelling Englishmen from China, did not help the foreign relations between China and Great Britain. When the Chinese government attempted to turn back English merchant vessels in late 1839, which encouraged the British to consider war as the next possible strategy. Soon thereafter, British merchants made an appeal to their government.
Ultimately, Great Britain demanded that China put an end to the anti-opium campaign. But Lin refused to end it. In 1840, British gunboats arrived and attacked China, destroying many coastal cities. This was known as the First Opium War. It was also the very first drug war in the history of the world. China, being unaware of the British attack, was unprepared for the attack and unprepared to deal with the advanced technologies of the British. China was behind when it came to the use of modern weapons.
China was eventually defeated by Great Britain n on the 29th August, 1842 the British and Qing negotiators signed the Treaty of Nanjing which, with the two supplementary treaties, included the following major clauses: (1) Hong Kong Island to be ceded to Britain in perpetuity; (2) China to pay an indemnity of 21 million silver dollars to pay for the confiscated opium and the cost of the war, (3) five ports to be opened to foreign trade; (4) a tariff agreement entailing China’s loss of tariff autonomy; (5) right of extraterritoriality (loss of Chinese jurisdiction over foreigners in China); and (6) Britain to enjoy most favoured-nation status.
It indicted Lin and held the Chinese government responsible for the compensation of the amount of opium that was destroyed during the anti-opium campaign. The Treaty of Nanjing concluded the Opium War and further opened up many ports in China, such as Guangzhou, Jinmen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai, to British trade as well as residence. Soon, many other Western nations were beginning to sign similar treaties with China to allow foreign trade and residence. The Treaty also fixed the customs duties on imports at such a low level that China was prevented from protecting her new industries from competition of cheap imports,” one source commented. Under this Treaty, China also ceded Hong Kong to the British for up to 155 years, until 1997. The Treaty of Nanjing marked the beginning of foreign commercial and residential privileges in China. It was the f first in a series of “unequal treaties” which gave foreigners special rights in China and set the stage for exploitation of the Chinese economy and resources.
The British treaty was soon followed by American and French treaties. Decades after the First Opium War ended, the Second Opium War started in 1856. The trigger to the Second Opium War was the dispute over the former treaties and the boarding of the British ship Arrow. The Second Opium War is also known as the Lorcha Arrow War. Besides England, France, Russia, and the United States were involved in the war that lasted until 1858. The Second Opium War ended with the Treaty of Tianjin.
The British forced China to sign this treaty by burning up the imperial summer palace, also known as the Yuan Ming Yuan. China had to open up 11 more ports to foreign trade. Additionally, China had to permit foreign legations in Beijing, sanction Christian missionary activity, and legalize the import of opium. The Beijing conventions of 1860, by which China was forced to reaffirm the terms of the Treaty of Tianjin and make additional concessions, concluded the hostilities. The Opium Wars resulted in the victimization of China by foreign powers for decades to follow.
It was not until 1949 and the victory of Mao Zedong and communism that the unequal treaties signed between the Chinese government and the foreign powers were abolished. It was also after 1949 that China took back all the ports, except for Hong Kong. Hong Kong remained a British territory until 1997. In 1997 the colony of Hong Kong was returned to China. Hong Kong Island became a British possession as a direct result of the Opium War, the opening shots of which were fired 150 years ago.
All Chinese, regardless of political ideology, have condemned this armed confrontation as an unjust and immoral contest. As far as they are concerned, Britian’s waging a war for the sake of selling a poisonous drug constitutes the most shameful leaf of human history. In the hindsight provided by subsequent events in China, it is, perhaps, easy to condemn this act of British aggression, but it is less certain that the event was seen in the same condemnatory light by Chinese and foreign observers a century and a half ago.
It is often said that the ‘Opium War’ was not fought over opium but in the name of free trade, as well as diplomatic and judicial equality with China. was the only port open to foreign commerce, the exclusive right to deal with Westerners was held by a group of licensed merchants known as the Co-hong. When news of the crisis reached London in August 1839, representatives of the British opium traders lobbied for coercive measures against the Qing government.
They were supported by industrial capitalists who wanted to open the China market to their products. The Whig government was, indeed, receptive to a more forceful China policy. Lin’s blockade of factories and the confiscation of opium was the pretext for settling the commercial and diplomatic relations with China on Britain’s terms. Thus, on 1st October 1839 the Cabinet decided to send out a punitive expedition. It may seem surprising that the British conscience was not stirred by the Chinese opium problem.
To understand why the anti-opium campaigners (High Church moralists, Chartists, and the newly established Temperance Society) were so ineffectual, it is necessary to look briefly at the role of opium in English society at that time. The drug was generally accepted and openly available for self-medication. It was, however, usually ingested as tincture of opium (laudanum), and was even administered by working mothers as a tranquilliser for their infants. The almost universal medical opinion in the 1830s was that opiates themselves produced no toxic effects and that addiction was not a physically damaging condition.
The China lobby in London was of course well aware of the harmful effects of opium smoking in China, and did its best to conceal this from the British public (as well as the fact that the traders had handed out free samples to induce addiction). Since the British did not have an opium problem, the distant and unapproachable Chinese could not, therefore, have one either. It was consequently powerful economic interests, not moral considerations, that influenced the debate on opium and war. The Opium Trade, Seventh through Nineteenth Centuries
The Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars were the direct result of China’s isolationalist and exclusionary trade policy with the West. Confucian China’s attempts to exclude pernicious foreign ideas resulted in highly restricted trade. Prior to the 1830s, there was but one port open to Western merchants, Guangzhou (Canton) and but one commodity that the Chinese would accept in trade, silver. British and American merchants, anxious to address what they perceived as a trade imbalance, determined to import the one product that he Chinese did not themselves have but which an ever-increasing number of them wanted: opium. Before 1828, large quantities of the Spanish silver coin, the Carolus, flowed into China in payment for the exotic commodities that Europeans craved; in contrast, in the decade of the 1830s, despite an imperial decree outlawing the export of yellow gold and white silver, “only $7,303,841 worth of silver was imported, whereas the silver exported was estimated at $26,618, 815 in the foreign silver coin, $25,548,205 in sycee, and $3,616,996 in gold” (Kuo, p. 1). although the Chinese imperial governed had long prohibited the drug except for medicinal use, the “British Hong” (companies such as Dent, Jardine, and Matheson authorized to operate in Canton) bought cheaply produced opium in the Begal and Malwa (princely) districts under the auspices of the British East India Company, the number 150 lb. chests of the narcotic being imported rising from 9,708 in 1820 to 35,445 in 1835.
With the British government’s 1833 cancellation of the trade monopoly enjoyed by the East India Company, cheap opium flooded the market, and China’s net outflow of silver amounted to some 34 million Mexican silver dollars over the course of the 1830s. As the habit of smoking opium spread from the idle rich to ninety per cent of all Chinese males under the age of forty in the country’s coastal regions, business activity was much reduced, the civil service ground to a halt, and the standard of living fell.
The Emperor Dao guang’s special anti-opium commissioner Lin Ze-xu (1785-1850), modestly estimated the number of his countrymen addicted to the drug to be 4 million, but a British physician practising in Canton set the figure at 12 million. Equally disturbing for the imperial government was the imbalance of trade with the West: whereas prior to 1810 Western nations had been spending 350 million Mexican silver dollars on porcelain, cotton, silks, brocades, and various grades of tea, by 1837 opium represented 57 per cent of Chinese imports, and for fiscal 1835-36 alone China exported 4. million silver dollars. The official sent in 1838 by the Emperor Dao guang (1821-1850) of the Qing Dynasty to confiscate and destroy all imports of opium, Lin Ze-xu, calculated that in fiscal 1839 Chinese opium smokers consumed 100 million taels’ worth of the drug while the entire spending by the imperial government that year spent 40 million taels. He reportedly concluded, “If we continue to allow this trade to flourish, in a few dozen years we will find ourselves not only with no soldiers to resist the enemy, but also with no money to equip the army” quoted by Chesneaux et al. p. 55). By the late 1830s, foreign merchant vessels, notably those of Britain and the United States, were landing over 30,000 chests annually. Meantime, corrupt officials in the hoppo (customs office) and ruthless merchants in the port cities were accumulating wealth beyond “all the tea in China” by defying imperial interdictions that had existed in principle since 1796. The standard rate for an official’s turning a blind eye to the importation of a single crate of opium was 80 taels.
Between 1821 and 1837 the illegal importation of opium (theoretically a capital offence) increased five fold. A hotbed of vice, bribery, and disloyalty to the Emperor’s authority, the opium port of Canton would be the flashpoint for the inevitable clash between the governments of China and Great Britain. The Outbreak of the First Opium War This war with China . . . really seems to me so wicked as to be a national sin of the greatest possible magnitude, and it distresses me very deeply.
Cannot any thing be done by petition or otherwise to awaken men’s minds to the dreadful guilt we are incurring? I really do not remember, in any history, of a war undertaken with such combined injustice and baseness. Ordinary wars of conquest are to me far less wicked, than to go to war in order to maintain smuggling, and that smuggling consisting in the introduction of a demoralizing drug, which the government of China wishes to keep out, and which we, for the lucre of gain, want to introduce by force; and in this quarrel are going to burn and slay in the pride of our supposed superiority. Thomas Arnold to W. W. Hull, March 18, 1840 ritish merchants were frustrated by Chinese trade laws and refused to cooperate with Chinese legal officials because of their routine use of torture. Upon his arrival in Canton in March, 1839, the Emperor’s special emissary, Lin Ze-xu, took swift action against the foreign merchants and their Chinese accomplices, making some 1,600 arrests and confiscating 11,000 pounds of opium.
Despite attempts by the British superintendent of trade, Charles Elliot, to negotiate a compromise, in June Lin ordered the seizure another 20,00 crates of opium from foreign-controlled factories, holding all foreign merchants under arrest until they surrendered nine million dollars worth of opium, which he then had burned publicly. Finally, he ordered the port of Canton closed to all foreign merchants. Elliot in turn ordered a blockade of the Pearl River. In an ensuing naval battle, described as a victory by Chinese propagandists, in November 1839 the Royal Navy sank a number of Chinese vessels near Guangzhou.
By January 1841, the British had captured the Bogue forts at the Pearl’s mouth and controlled the high ground above the port of Canton. Subsequently, British forces scored victories on land at Ningbo and Chinhai, crushing the ill-equipped and poorly trained imperial forces with ease. Viewed as too moderate back at home, in August 1841 Elliot was replaced by Sir Henry Pottinger to launch a major offensive against Ningbo and Tiajin. By the end of June British forces occupied Zhenjiang and controlled the vast rice-growing lands of southern recalled to Peking China.
What had begun as a conflict of interests between English desire for profits from the trade in silk, porcelain, and tea and the Confucian ideal of self-sufficiency and exclusion of corrupting influences resulted in the partitioning of China by the Western powers (including the ceding of Hong Kong to Great Britain), humiliating defeats on land and sea by technologically and logistically superior Western forces, and the traditional values of an entire culture undermined by Christian missionaries and rampant trading in Turkish and Indian opium.
No wonder the Boxer rebels’ chief goal was to purify and reinvigorate their nation by the utter annihilation of all “foreign devils. ” The second Opium War (1856–1860) is sometimes called the “Arrow War” because the British, incensed by what they felt were clear treaty violations, used as a pretext to renew hostilities the boarding and seizure of the British ship Arrow and the arrest of its twelve crew members for opium smuggling and piracy.
This time France joined the British in launching a punitive expedition inland after an initial British attack had been repelled by the Chinese. A combined Anglo-French military raid into China’s hinterland led to the signing of the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin. The Chinese imperial court refused to accept the onerous terms of this second “unequal treaty” until another joint Anglo-French expedition captured the capital Peking in 1860 and forced China’s total surrender.
The Treaty of Tientsin allowed foreign embassies in Peking, a closed city at that time, opened eleven more coastal cities to foreign trading, and completely legitimized the opium trade. It also allowed westerners to travel in the Chinese interior, gave Christian missionaries the right to proselytize and hold property throughout China, and lowered even further import duties on British goods. In 1860 similarly imposed treaties were signed with France, the United States, and Russia.
The Opium Wars marked the beginning of China’s century-long subjugation and servitude to foreign powers. The defeated Chinese were forced to legalize the importation of opium, accept unfair and unbalanced terms of foreign trade, open up China’s seaports and the Yangtze River to foreign commercial penetration under the so-called “treaty port” system, and exempt westerners from China’s local laws and national jurisdiction. So severely curtailed was China’s independence in that period that the Chinese still view the Opium Wars as a national disgrace.