Second Opium War

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The Second Opium War or Arrow War began in 1856 and ended in 1860.



The 1850s saw the rapid growth of imperialism. Some shared goals of the western powers were to expand their overseas markets and establish new ports of call. The French Treaty of Huangpu and the American Wangxia Treaty both contained clauses allowing renegotiation of the treaties after twelve years. In an effort to expand their privileges in China, Britain demanded the Qing authorities renegotiate the Treaty of Nanjing in 1854 citing their most favored nation status. The British demands included openning all of China for British merchants, legalizing the opium trade, exempting foreign imports from internal transit duties, suppression of piracy, regulation of the coolie trade, permission for a British ambassador to reside in Beijing and for the English-language version of all Treaties to take precedence over the Chinese.

The Qing court rejected the revision demands from Britain, France and the USA.


The war may be viewed as a continuation of the First Opium War (1839-1842), thus the title of the Second Opium War.

On October 8, 1856, Qing officials boarded the Arrow, a Chinese-owned ship that had been registered in Hong Kong and was suspected of piracy and smuggling. Twelve Chinese subjects were arrested and imprisoned. This has come to be known as the "Arrow Incident". The British officials in Guangzhou demanded the release of the sailors claiming that because the ship had recently been British-registered it was protected under the Unequal Treaties. Only when this was shown to be a weak argument did the British insist that the Arrow had been flying a British ensign and that the Qing soldiers had insulted the flag. Faced with fighting the Taiping Rebellion the Qing government was in no position to resist the West militarily.

Although the British were delayed by the India Mutiny, they responded to the "Arrow Incident" in 1857 and attacked Guangzhou from the Pearl River. Ye Mingshen, the then governor of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces ordered a non-resistance command to all of the Chinese soldiers on the forts. After taking the fort near Guangzhou with no effort, the British Army attacked Guangzhou. American warships, including Levant, bombed Guangzhou. The people in Guangzhou and soldiers launched a resistance against the invaders and forced them to retreat from Humen.

The British Parliament decided to seek redress from China based on the report about the "Arrow Incident" submitted by Harry Parkes, British Consul to Guangzhou. France, the USA and Russia received requests from Britain to form an alliance. France joined the British action against China, prompted by the execution of a French missionary, Father August Chapdelaine ("Father Chapdelaine Incident"), by Chinese local authorities in Guangxi province. The USA and Russia sent envoys to Hong Kong to offer help to the British and French, though in the end they sent no military aid.

The British and the French joined forces under Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, attacked and occupied Guangzhou in late 1857. Ye Mingshen was exiled to Calcutta in India where he starved himself to death.

The British army led by Lord Elgin, and the French army led by Gros, formed an alliance in 1857. At the end of that year, Guangzhou was taken. Ye Mingshen was captured, and Bo-gui, the governor of Guangdong, surrendered. A joint committee of the Alliance was formed. Bo-gui remained at his original post to maintain order on behalf of the aggressors. The British-French Alliance maintained control of Guangzhou for nearly four years.

The coalition then cruised north to briefly capture the Taku forts near Tientsin (Tianjin) in May 1858.

Treaty of Tientsin

In June 1858 the first part of the war ended with the Treaty of Tientsin, to which France, Russia, and the United States were party. This treaty opened eleven more ports to Western trade. The Chinese initially refused to ratify the Treaties.

The major points of the treaty were:

  1. Britain, France, Russia and the United States would have the right to establish diplomatic legations (small embassies) in Beijing (a closed city at the time)
  2. Ten more Chinese ports would be opened for foreign trade, including Niuzhuang, Danshui, Hankou and Nanjing
  3. The right of all foreign vessels including commercial ships to navigate freely on the Yangtze River
  4. The right of foreigners to travel in the internal regions of China, which had been formerly banned
  5. China was to pay an indemnity to Britain and France in 2 million taels of silver respectively
  6. China was to pay compensation to British merchants in 2 million taels of silver for destruction of their poperty

Treaty of Aigun

On May 28, 1858, Treaty of Aigun, the separate treaty is signed with Russia to revise the Chinese and Russian border as determined by the Nerchinsk Treaty in 1689. Russia gained the left bank of the Amur River, pushing the border back from the Argun river. The treaty gave Russia control over a non-freezing area on the Pacific coast, where Russia founded the city Vladivostok in 1860.

Continuation of the war

In 1859, after China refused to allow the esablishment of embassies in Beijing as agreed to by the Treaty of Tientsin, a naval force under the command of Admiral Sir James Hope shelled the forts guarding the mouth of the Peiho river. It was damaged and withdrew under the cover of fire from a naval squadron commanded by Commodore Josiah Tattnall.

In 1860, an Anglo-French force gathered at Hong Kong and then carried out a landing at Pei Tang on August 3, and a successful assault on the Taku Forts on August 21. On September 26, the force arrived at Beijing and had captured the city by October 6. Appointing his brother, Prince Gong Yixin, to be in charge of negotiations, Emperor Xianfeng fled to the Summer Palace in Chengde. British-French troops in Beijing set the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace on fire. The Old Summer Palace was totally destroyed. Beijing was not occupied however the troops remained outside the city itself.

The motives for the destruction of the Summer Palace are an interesting subject for debate. The official reason stated by Elgin was to discourage the Chinese from using kidnappings as a bargaining tool, and to exact revenge on the Emperor for his violation of the flag of truce. Other options, such as executions, were discussed but Elgin deemed this the "least objectionable" as it hurt the despotic government but did not disrupt the daily lives of the innocent Chinese people. It is very likely however that it was largely to do with torture and maiming of western prisoners. Another possible explanation is that Elgin was insulted by the decadence of the palace, and was especially offended by the European palaces in the Old Summer Palace. Chinese historians have claimed that is was to cover up widespread looting.

Convention of Peking

The June 1858 Treaty of Tientsin was finally ratified by the emperor Xianfeng in the Convention of Peking on October 18, 1860.

The opium trade was legalized. Christians were granted full civil rights that were previously denied to them on the grounds of religious belief, including the right to own property. They were also allowed to spread their faith as they so desired. The Second Opium War came to an end.

The content of the Convention of Peking includes:

  1. China's recognition of the validity of the Treaty of Tientsin
  2. Opening Tianjin as a trade port
  3. Cede No.1 District of Kowloon (south of present day Boundary Street) to Britain
  4. Freedom of religion established in China
  5. British ships were allowed to carry indentured Chinese to the Americas where they replaced the labor of recently freed slaves
  6. Indemnity to Britain and France increasing to 8 million taels of silver respectively.

See also

de:Zweiter Opiumkrieg fr:Seconde guerre de l'opium he:מלחמת האופיום השניה ja:アロー戦争 pl:Druga wojna opiumowa fi:Toinen oopiumsota zh:第二次鸦片战争


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