Opium Wars

Template:History of Hong Kong There were two Opium Wars between Britain and China. In the second, France also participated alongside Britain.


The growth of the opium trade (1650-1911)

The Qing dynasty of China entered into a long decline beginning in the 1800's, beset by increasingly aggressive foreign powers that clamoured for two-way trade with China. Europeans bought porcelain, silk, spices and tea from China, but could sell little in return. The drain on silver in Europe further strained finances already squeezed by European wars.

Opium itself had been manufactured in China since the 15th century. It was mixed with tobacco in a process invented by the Spanish, but dominated by the Dutch by the 18th century. Faced with the health and social problems associated with opium use, the Chinese imperial government prohibited the smoking of opium in 1729.

However, the British began manufacturing opium in India in quantity starting in the mid-18th century, learning the art from the Mughal state, which had traded in opium in the land trade since at least the reign of Akbar (1556-1605), and began an illegal trade of opium for silver in southern China. In 1764, when the British conquered Bengal, they began to see the potential profit in opium, which up until this point had been primarily out of Netherlands-controlled Jakarta. Profits approached 400%, and poppies grew almost anywhere.

British exports of opium skyrocketed from an estimated 15 tons in 1720, to 75 tons in 1773, shipped in over two thousand "chests", each containing 140 pounds of opium.

The East India Company (1773-1833)

In 1773, the Governor-General of Bengal was granted a monopoly on the sale of opium, and abolished the old opium syndicate at Patna. For the next 50 years, opium would be a key to the British East India Company in its hold on India. Since importation of opium into China was illegal (the Chinese could manufacture enough opium for medicinal purposes themselves) the British East India Company would buy tea in Canton on credit, carrying no opium, but would instead sell opium at auction in Calcutta on the condition it was smuggled to China. In 1797, the company would end local Bengal purchasing agents, and would require direct sale of opium to the company by farmers.

In 1799 the Chinese Empire reaffirmed its ban on opium imports, and in 1810 the following decree was issued:

Opium has a very violent effect. When an addict smokes it, it rapidly makes him extremely excited and capable of doing anything he pleases. But before long, it kills him. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law! He should be turned over to the Board of Punishment, and should be tried and severely sentenced.
However, recently the purchases and eaters of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch'ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no responsibility with regard to opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the police and police- censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates. If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung and Fukien, the provinces from which opium comes, we order their viceroys, governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no wise consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!

(Lo-shu Fu, A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western relations, Vol. 1 (1966), page 380)

But to no avail, the addictive properties of the drug, the misery of the population in China, and the vast need for silver of the British Government (see gold standard) combined to press opium trade higher. In the 1820's opium trade averaged 900 tons per year from Bengal to China.

From the Napier Affair through the First Opium War (1834-1843)

Main article: First Opium War

In 1834, to accommodate the revocation of the East India Company's monopoly, the British sent Lord Napier to Macao. He attempted to circumvent the restrictive Canton Trade laws, which forbade direct contact with Chinese officials, and was turned away by the governor of Macao, who promptly closed trade starting on September 2nd of that year. The British were not yet ready to force the matter, and agreed to resume trade under the old restrictions, even though Lord Napier, dying of illness, implored them to force open the port.

Within the Chinese mandrinate, there was a debate on legalizing opium trade itself, but this was rejected in favor of continued restrictions. In 1838, the death penalty was imposed for native drug traffickers; by this point the British were selling 1400 tons annually to China. In March of 1839, a new commissioner, Lin Zexu was appointed to control the opium trade at the port of Canton by the emperor. He immediately decided to enforce the imperial demand that there be a permanent halt to drug shipments into China. When the British refused to end the trade, Lin imposed a trade embargo on the British. On March 27th, 1839, Charles Elliot, Superintendent of Trade, demanded that all British subjects turn over opium to him, to be confiscated by Commissioner Lin Zexu, amounting to nearly a year's supply of the drug. After the opium was surrendered, trade was re-started on condition that no more drugs were smuggled into China. Lin demanded that British merchants had to sign a bond promising not to deal in opium.

Although Charles Elliot refused to allow British vessels to sail to China, a British ship, the Thomas Coutts, ignored Elliot, signed the bond and sailed to Canton. In an effort to prevent more ships doing so Elliot blockaded the Pearl River. When, in November of 1839, another British vessel, the Royal Saxon, attempted to sail to Canton the Royal Navy fired on her. Chinese patrol boats attempted to protect the British ship but were destroyed by the British ships blockading the river. The British responded by sending more warships and soldiers, which arrived in June of 1840.

The war was lopsided against the Chinese. British warships attacked coastal towns at will, and British troops, armed with modern muskets and cannons, were able to handily defeat the Qing forces. The British took Canton, and then sailed up the Yangtze and took the tax barges, slashing the revenue of the imperial court in Beijing to a fraction .

By 1842, the Qing authorities sued for peace, which was concluded with the Treaty of Nanjing negotiated in August of that year, being accepted in 1843.


Main Article: Second Opium War

External links

nl:Opiumoorlog pl:Wojny opiumowe pt:Guerras do ópio sv:Opiumkrigen zh:鸦片战争


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