Opium Wars

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The Opium Wars (or the Anglo-Chinese Wars) were two wars fought in the mid-1800s that were the climax of a long dispute between China and Britain. In the second, France fought alongside Britain. This dispute centered on the British India-grown opium import into China. The Qing emperor (Dao Guang) had banned opium in China, citing its harmful effects on health and deleterious impact on societal productivity. The British Empire, while also banning opium consumption within her border, saw no problem exporting the drug for profit. The Opium Wars and the unequal treaties signed afterwards led in part to the downfall of the Qing empire, as many countries followed Britain and forced unequal terms of trade with China.

For Britain, China was an arena where what has been described as a ‘new imperial policy’ was pursued, which negotiated trade concessions, permanent missions and a small colonial possession, such as Hong Kong, instead of conquering or acquiring a much larger territory. Places such as China and Persia and parts of the the Ottoman Empire were brought within the sphere of imperial influence so much so that the effective power of these countries’ own governments was compromised. The Opium Wars, which aimed to compel China to continue to import opium, were among the most immoral and hypocritical episodes in the history of the British Empire, which saw itself as shouldering a moral burden to educate and uplift the non-white world while in reality it was an exploitative and often brutal enterprise.


The Growth of the Opium Trade (1650–1773)

The Qing Dynasty of China, beset by increasingly aggressive foreign powers that clamoured for two-way trade with China, entered a long decline in the early 1800s. Europeans bought porcelain, silk, spices and tea from China, but were unable to sell goods in return. Instead, they were forced to trade directly in silver, which further strained finances already squeezed by European wars.

Opium itself had been manufactured in China since the fifteenth century for medical purposes. It was mixed with tobacco in a process popularized by the Spanish. Trade in opium was dominated by the Dutch during the eighteenth century. Faced with the health and social problems associated with opium use, the Chinese imperial government prohibited the smoking and trading of opium in 1729.

The British, following the Dutch lead, had been purchasing opium from India ever since the reign of Akbar (1556–1605). After territorial conquest of Bengal in the Battle of Plassey (1757), the British East India Company pursued a monopoly on production and export in India. This effort had serious implications for the peasant cultivators, who were often coerced or offered cash advances to encourage cultivation of the poppy (something that was rarely done for other crops). The product was then sold at auctions in Calcutta, often with a profit of 400 percent.

The British East India Company (1773–1833)

In 1773 the governor-general of Bengal pursued the monopoly on the sale of opium in earnest, and abolished the old opium syndicate at Patna. For the next 50 years, opium would be key to the East India Company's hold on India. Since importation of opium into China was against Chinese law (China already produced a small quantity domestically), the British East India Company would buy tea in Canton on credit, carrying no opium, but would instead sell opium at the auctions in Calcutta leaving it to be smuggled to China. In 1797 the company ended the role of local Bengal purchasing agents and instituted the direct sale of opium to the company by farmers.

British exports of opium to China skyrocketed from an estimated 15 tons in 1730, to 75 tons in 1773, shipped in over two thousand "chests," each containing 140 pounds (67 kilograms) of opium.

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! 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 ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out! [1]

The decree had little effect. The Manchu Chinese government was located in Beijing, in the north–too far away to control the merchants who smuggled opium into China from the south. The lack of governmental action, the addictive properties of the drug, the greed for more profit by the British East India Company and merchants, and the British government's hunger for silver to support the gold standard (each printed bank note was backed by its value in gold and silver) combined to further the opium trade. In the 1820s, opium trade averaged nine hundred tons per year from Bengal to China.

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

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 2 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 implored them to force open the port.

Within the Chinese mandarinate, 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 time the British were selling 1,400 tons annually to China. In March 1839, a new commissioner, Lin Zexu, was appointed by the emperor to control the opium trade at the port of Canton. He immediately enforced the imperial demand that there be a permanent halt to drug shipments into China. When the British refused to end the trade, Lin Zexu imposed a trade embargo on the British. On March 27, 1839, Charles Elliot, British Superintendent of Trade, demanded that all British subjects turn over opium to him to be confiscated by the commissioner, amounting to nearly a year's supply of the drug.

After the opium was surrendered, trade was restarted on the condition that no more drugs were smuggled into China. Lin Zexu demanded that British merchants had to sign a bond promising not to deal in opium under penalty of death.[2] The British officially opposed signing of the bond, but some British merchants that didn't deal in opium were willing to sign. Lin Zexu then disposed of the opium by dissolving it with water, salt and lime and flushing it out into the ocean.

To avoid direct conflict, Lin also attempted diplomacy. In 1839 Lin Zexu wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, questioning her royal government's moral reasoning for enforcing strict prohibition of opium trade within England, Ireland and Scotland while reaping profits from such trade in the Far East.[3]

Sidestepping the moral questions, the British government and merchants accused Lin Zexu of destroying their private property—roughly three million pounds of opium. The British responded by sending warships and soldiers, along with a large British Indian army, which arrived in June of 1840.[4]

British military superiority was evident during the armed conflict. British warships attacked coastal towns at will, and their troops, armed with modern muskets and cannons, were able to easily 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 just a small fraction.

In 1842 the Qing authorities sued for peace, which concluded with the Treaty of Nanking negotiated in August of that year and accepted in 1843. The treaty included ceding to Britain the crown colony of Hong Kong and allowing Britain and other foreign powers to operate in a number of Chinese ports, including Shanghai, with almost no revenue going to the Chinese government. Thus, what were called 'spheres of influence' developed. The treaty also admitted Christian missionaries into China and excepted British men and women living or working in China from Chinese law, meaning all British personnel enjoyed what amounted to diplomatic status and immunity. The international and French concessions in Shanghai enjoyed extraterritoriality and were self-governing as were similar concessions, or "capitulations," in Ottoman territory.

Second Opium War (1856-1860)

The Second Opium War, or Arrow War, broke out following an incident in which Chinese officials boarded a British-registered, Chinese-owned ship, the Arrow. The crew of the Arrow were accused of piracy and smuggling, and were arrested. In response, the British claimed that the ship was flying a British flag, and was protected (as were all British ships) by the Treaty of Nanking.

The war's true outbreak was delayed for a few months by the Taiping Rebellion and the Indian Mutiny; the following year, the British attacked Guangzhou. The British then gained aid from their allies—France, Russia, and the United States—and the war continued.

The Treaty of Tientsin was created in July 1858, but was not ratified by China until two years later; this would prove to be a very important document in China's early modern history, as it was one of the primary unequal treaties.

Hostilities broke out once more in 1859, after China refused the establishment of a British embassy in Beijing, which had been promised by the Treaty of Tientsin. Fighting erupted in Hong Kong and in Beijing, where the British set fire to the Summer Palace and Old Summer Palace after considerable looting took place.

In 1860, at the Convention of Peking, China ratified the Treaty of Tientsin, ending the war, and granting a number of privileges to British (and other Western) subjects within China.

See also


  1. Fu Lo-shu. A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western relations, Vol. 1, Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1966. ISBN 9780816501519. p. 380)
  2. Coleman, Anthony (ed.). Millennium: A Thousand Years of History. London: Bantam, 1999. ISBN 9780593044780. pp. 243-244.
  3. Modern History Sourcebook: Commissioner Lin: Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839. Paul Hallsall, Fordham University. October 1998. Retrieved February 14, 2007.
  4. Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed.. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. ISBN 9780393027082. pp. 153-155.

Further reading

  • Beeching, Jack. The Chinese Opium Wars. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. ISBN 9780151176502
  • Collis, Maurice. Foreign Mud, An account of the Opium War. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1947; London: Faber and Faber, 1997. ISBN 0571193013
  • Brook, Timothy and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (eds.). Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000. ISBN 9780520220096
  • Trocki, Carl A. Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade, 1750-1950. London: Routledge, 1999. ISBN 9780415199186
  • Yangwen Zheng, Yangwen. The Social Life of Opium in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780521846080

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