First Opium War

Template:History of Hong Kong The First Opium War was a trade-inspired war between the United Kingdom and the Qing Empire in China from 1839 to 1842. It is often seen as the beginning of European imperial hegemony towards China. The conflict began a long history of Chinese resentment toward Western society that still has remnants today.

In the early 19th century, trading in goods from China was extremely lucrative for Europeans. But trade to China suffered from the fact that the Chinese consumer professed no interest in foreign products, such that it was difficult to find trading goods the Chinese might buy. Silver was one, to the extent that the drain on European specie metals was noticeably affecting the economy. In casting about for other possible commodities, the British soon discovered opium, and would use its narcotic effects for economic gains. Between 1821 and 1837 imports of the drug increased five-fold. The drug was taken from India and shipped by British traders to China.

The Qing government attempted to end this trade, on public health grounds --numerous opium addicts were appearing in trading ports throughout China. The effort was initially successful, with the official in charge of the effort Lin Zexu, who wrote a letter to the Queen of Great Britain in an unsuccessful attempt to stop trade not beneficial to China. He eventually forced the British Chief Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliott to hand over all remaining stocks of opium for destruction in May 1839.

However, in July 1839 rioting British sailors destroyed a temple near Kowloon and murdered a Chinese man Lin Weixi who tried to stop them. The British government and community in China wanted "extraterritoriality", which meant that British subjects would only be tried by British judges. When the Qing authorities demanded the guilty men be handed over for trial, the British refused. Six sailors were tried by the British authorities in Guangzhou (Canton), but as the court had no legal authority they were immediately released. Charles Elliott had been told by the British government that without authority from the Qing government he had no legal right to try anyone.

A Chinese ship is destroyed by the Nemesis in this 19th century British
A Chinese ship is destroyed by the Nemesis in this 19th century British lithograph

The Qing authorities also insisted that British merchants would not be allowed to trade unless they signed a bond promising not to smuggle opium and acknowledging Qing legal jurisdiction. Refusing to hand over any suspects or agree to the bonds, Charles Elliot ordered the British community to withdraw from Guangzhou and prohibited trading with the Chinese. Preparing for war, they seized Hong Kong (then a minor outpost) as a base. In late October 1839 the Thomas Coutts arrived in China and sailed to Guangzhou. This was owned by Quakers who refused to deal in opium and the captain believed Elliot had exceeded his legal authority in banning trade. In order to prevent other British ships following the Thomas Coutts Elliot ordered a blockade of the Pearl River. Fighting began on November 3, when a second British ship, the Royal Saxon, attempted to sail to Guangzhou. When Volage and Hyacinth fired a warning shot at the Royal Saxon the Qing navy attempted to protect the British merchant vessel. They were out-classed by the Royal Naval vessels several of the Chinese ships were sunk. The next year, the British captured the Bogue forts which guarded the mouth of the Pearl River --the waterway between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. By January 1841, their forces commanded the high ground around Guangzhou, then defeated the Chinese at Ningbo and the military post of Chinhai.

By the middle of 1842, the British had defeated the Chinese at the mouth of their other great trading river, the Yangtze, and had occupied Shanghai. The war finally ended in August 1842, with the Treaty of Nanjing. Gen. Sir Anthony Blaxland Stransham led the Royal Marines during the Opium War as a young officer, and as the 'Grand Old Man of the Army', was awarded two knighthoods by Queen Victoria.

The Treaty of Nanjing committed the Qing government to nominal tariffs on British goods as well as granting the right of extraterritoriality. Hong Kong island was ceded to the UK, and the Treaty Ports of Guangzhou, Xiamen (Amoy), Fuzhou (Foochow), Shanghai, and Ningbo were opened to all traders. The Qing government was also forced to pay reparations for the British opium.

The ease with which the British forces had defeated the Chinese armies seriously affected the Qing dynasty's prestige. This almost certainly contributed to the Taiping Rebellion (18501862). For the victors, the Opium War paved the way for the opening up of the lucrative Chinese market and Chinese society for missionary purposes.

See also

de:Erster Opiumkrieg

fr:Premire guerre de l'opium it:Prima guerra dell'oppio ja:阿片戦争 pl:Pierwsza wojna opiumowa fi:Ensimminen oopiumsota zh:第一次鸦片战争 he:מלחמת האופיום הראשונה


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