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Opium Wars
Second Opium War-guangzhou.jpg
Combat at Guangzhou (Canton) during the Second Opium War
Date 1839–1842, 1856–1860
Location Southern China, including Canton (present-day Guangzhou) and Hong Kong
Result Decisive victory of the Western powers over China, resulting in the Treaty of Nanjing and the Treaty of Tianjin
Hong Kong Island and southern Kowloon ceded to the United Kingdom
United Kingdom United Kingdom
France France

United States United States (1856 and 1859 only)

Qing Dynasty
United Kingdom Michael Seymour
United Kingdom James Bruce
France Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros
France Auguste Léopold Protet

United States James Armstrong

Daoguang Emperor
Xianfeng Emperor
Lin Zexu
Sengge Rinchen
~40,000 troops,
American: 287 troops,
3 warships
~110,000 troops
Casualties and losses
over 2,800 killed or wounded 47,790 killed or wounded

The Opium Wars (simplified Chinese: 鸦片战争traditional Chinese: 鴉片戰爭pinyin: Yāpiàn Zhànzhēng), also known as the Anglo-Chinese Wars, were the climax of trade disputes and diplomatic difficulties between China under the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire after China sought to restrict British opium traffickers. It consisted of the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842[1] and the Second Opium War from 1856 to 1860.[2]

Opium was smuggled by merchants from British India into China in defiance of Chinese prohibition laws. Open warfare between Britain and China broke out in 1839. Further disputes over the treatment of British merchants in Chinese ports resulted in the Second Opium War.

China was defeated in both wars leaving its government having to tolerate the opium trade. Britain forced the Chinese government into signing the Treaty of Nanking and the Treaty of Tianjin, also known as the Unequal Treaties, which included provisions for the opening of additional ports to unrestricted foreign trade, for fixed tariffs; for the recognition of both countries as equal in correspondence; and for the cession of Hong Kong to Britain. The British also gained extraterritorial rights. Several countries followed Britain and sought similar agreements with China. Many Chinese found these agreements humiliating and these sentiments contributed to the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), and the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, putting an end to dynastic China.



Direct maritime trade between Europe and China started in the 16th century, after the Portuguese conquered the Indian settlement of Goa in the mid 16th century, and in 1557 settled Macau in southern China. After Spanish acquisition of the Philippines, exchange of goods between China and the West accelerated dramatically. The Manila Galleon brought in far more silver direct from South American mines to China than the overland Silk Road, or even Portuguese trade routes in the Indian and Pacific oceans could. Faced with a flood of trade, the Qing government attempted to limit contact with the outside world, limiting trade to the port of Canton (now Guangzhou). Trade was subject to the scrutiny of Chinese officials. The Spanish Empire began to sell opium, along with New World products such as tobacco and maize, to the Chinese in order to prevent the trade deficit which was costing it so much silver.

Low Chinese demand for European goods, and high European demand for Chinese goods, including tea, silk, and porcelain, forced European merchants to purchase these goods with silver, the only commodity the Chinese would accept. From the mid-17th century around 28 million kilograms of silver was received by China, principally from European powers, in exchange for Chinese goods.[3] This was not a viable long term trading dynamic. Britain's problem was further complicated by the fact that it had been using the gold standard from the mid 18th Century and therefore had to purchase silver from other European countries, incurring an additional transaction cost.[4]

In the 18th century, despite ardent protest from the Qing government, British traders began importing opium from India. Because of its strong mass appeal and addictive nature, opium was an effective solution to the trade problem. An instant consumer market for the drug was secured by the addiction of thousands of Chinese, and the flow of silver was reversed. Recognizing the growing number of addicts, the Yongzheng Emperor prohibited the sale and smoking of opium in 1729, and only allowed a small amount of opium imports for medicinal purposes.[5]

Growth of opium trade

Opium destruction

Following the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which Britain annexed Bengal to its empire, the British East India Company pursued a monopoly on production and export of Indian opium. Monopoly began in earnest in 1773, as the British Governor-General of Bengal abolished the opium syndicate at Patna. For the next fifty years opium trade would be the key to the East India Company's hold on the subcontinent.

Considering that importation of opium into China had been virtually banned by Chinese law, the East India Company established an elaborate trading scheme partially relying on legal markets, and partially leveraging illicit ones. British merchants carrying no opium would buy tea in Canton on credit, and would balance their debts by selling opium at auction in Calcutta. From there, the opium would reach the Chinese coast hidden aboard British ships then smuggled into China by native merchants. In 1797 the company further tightened its grip on the opium trade by enforcing direct trade between opium farmers and the British, and ending the role of Bengali purchasing agents.

British exports of opium to China grew from an estimated 15 tons in 1730 to 75 tons in 1773. The product was shipped in over two thousand chests, each containing 140 pounds (64 kg) of opium.[6]

Meanwhile, negotiations with the Qianlong Emperor to ease the trading ban carried on, coming to a head in 1793 under Earl George Macartney. Such discussions were unsuccessful.[7]

In 1799, the Qing Empire reinstated their ban on opium imports. The Empire issued the following decree in 1810:

Opium has a harm. 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 purchasers, eaters, and consumers 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![8]

The decree had little effect. The Qing government, seated in Beijing in the north of China, was unable to halt opium smuggling in the southern provinces. A porous Chinese border and rampant local demand only encouraged the all-too eager East India Company, which had its monopoly on opium trade recognized by the British government, which itself wanted silver. By the 1820s China was importing 900 tons of Bengali opium annually.[9]

Napier Affair and First Opium War (1839–1842)

Lin Zexu's "memorial" (摺奏) written directly to Queen Victoria

In 1834 to accommodate the revocation of the East India Company's monopoly, the British sent Lord William John Napier to Macau. He tried to circumvent the restrictive Canton Trade laws which forbade direct contact with Chinese officials by attempting to send a letter directly to the Viceroy of Canton but the Viceroy never accepted the letter and closed trade starting on 2 September of that year. Lord Napier had to return to Macau (where he died a few days later) and, unable to force the matter, the British agreed to resume trade under the old restrictions.

Within the Chinese mandarinate there was an ongoing debate over legalizing the opium trade itself. However, this idea was repeatedly rejected and instead, in 1838 the government sentenced native drug traffickers to death. Around this time, the British were selling roughly 1,400 tons per year to China. In March 1839 the Emperor appointed a new strict Confucianist commissioner, Lin Zexu, to control the opium trade at the port of Canton.[10] His first course of action was 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 27 March 1839 Charles Elliot, British Superintendent of Trade, demanded that all British subjects turn over their opium to him, to be confiscated by Commissioner Lin Zexu, amounting to nearly a year's supply of the drug. In a departure from his brief, he promised that the crown would compensate them for the lost opium. While this amounted to a tacit acknowledgment that the British government did not disapprove of the trade, it also forced a huge liability on the exchequer. Unable to allocate funds for an illegal drug but pressed for compensation by the merchants, this liability is cited as one reason for the decision to force a war.[11] After the opium was surrendered, trade was restarted on the strict condition that no more drugs would be smuggled into China. Lin demanded that British merchants had to sign a bond promising not to deal in opium under penalty of death.[12] The British officially opposed signing of the bond, but some British merchants that did not deal in opium were willing to sign. Lin had the opium disposed of by dissolving it in water, salt, and lime, and dumping it into the ocean.

In 1839 Lin took the extraordinary step of presenting a letter directly to Queen Victoria questioning the moral reasoning of the British government. Citing what he understood to be a strict prohibition of the trade within Great Britain, Lin questioned how it could then profit from the drug in China. He wrote: "Your Majesty has not before been thus officially notified, and you may plead ignorance of the severity of our laws, but I now give my assurance that we mean to cut this harmful drug forever."[13] Opium was not illegal in England at the time, however, where comparably smaller quantities were imported to be smoked.

It is believed that the queen never received Lin's letter. The British government and merchants offered no response to Lin, accusing him instead of destroying their property. When the British learned of what was taking place in Canton, as communications between these two parts of the world took months at this time, they sent a large British Indian army, which arrived in June 1840.[14]

British military superiority was clearly evident during the armed conflict. British warships wreaked havoc on coastal towns; such ships as the Nemesis were highly mobile and able to support a gun platform with very heavy guns. In addition, the British troops were armed with modern muskets and cannons, unlike the Qing forces, which had less effective firearms and artillery though Chinese cannons had been in use since previous dynasties. After the British took Canton, they sailed up the Yangtze and took the tax barges, a devastating blow to the Empire as it slashed the revenue of the imperial court in Beijing to just a small fraction of what it had been.

In 1842 the Qing authorities sued for peace, which concluded with the Treaty of Nanjing negotiated in August of that year and ratified in 1843. In the treaty, China was forced to pay an indemnity to Britain, open four ports to Britain, and cede Hong Kong to Queen Victoria. In the supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, the Qing empire also recognized Britain as an equal to China and gave British subjects extraterritorial privileges in treaty ports. In 1844, the United States and France concluded similar treaties with China, the Treaty of Wanghia and Treaty of Whampoa respectively.

The First Opium War was attacked in the House of Commons by a newly elected young member of Parliament, William Ewart Gladstone, who wondered if there had ever been "a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know."[15]

Second Opium War (1856–1860)

British antagonism of Chinese officials within treaty ports continued to escalate in the years following the end of the first Opium War throughout the late 1840s. During the height of the Taiping Rebellion, the British chose to make the legalistic decision to incorporate the most-favored-nation clause within the American treaty of 1844; the clause demanded that the treaty be negotiated after 12 years of implementation.[16]

Open conflict broke out after the Qing government conducted a search of a suspicious British ship, previously registered in Hong Kong, dubbed the Arrow.[17] The search prompted the British to resume siege upon the treaty port of Canton in late 1856. By December 1857, the Royal Navy had seized Canton and continued to sail north to capture the Dagu forts by May 1858.

The French also played an important role in the war after the French envoy, Baron Gros, had his demands seemingly ignored (the French demands were separate from those of the British and involved a murdered missionary and French rights in Canton) at the same time as the British envoy Lord Elgin. The two diplomats therefore decided upon a joint attack of Canton which was successful and was followed up by many more joint attacks by British and French troops, for example against the five Taku forts leading to Beijing.[18]

British successes continued as the British approached Beijing. The exposure of Beijing to British forces goaded the Qing Dynasty to sign a newly drafted treaty; the new treaty contained the most-favored-nation clause which asserted that all British benefits gained through the war would be communal between all major foreign powers.[17] The Treaty of Tianjin, enacted in 1858, placed stern stipulations upon the Chinese state and allowed a British embassy in Beijing.

Fighting erupted both in Hong Kong as well as Beijing, where the British set out to destroy the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace. China ratified the Treaty of Tianjin at the Convention of Beijing in 1860, ending the war. The treaty provided for the creation of ten new port cities, permission for foreigners (including Protestant and Catholic missionaries) to travel throughout the country, and indemnities of three million ounces of silver to Great Britain and two million to France.

Lin Zexu and the war on opium

Lin Zexu, Governor-General of Hunan and Hubei, recognizing the consequences of opium abuse, embarked on an anti-opium campaign in which 1,700 opium dealers were arrested and 2.6 million pounds of opium were confiscated and destroyed.[19]

Lin Zexu's policy against the drug ultimately failed. He was made a scapegoat by the emperor, under heavy pressure from the Western powers, for having provoked British military retaliation in the First Opium War.[20] Lin Zexu is now viewed as a hero of 19th century China who stood against European imperialism and his likeness has been immortalized at various locations around the world.[21][22][23][24]

See also


  1. ^ (World Civilizations: The Global Experience FOURTH EDITION AP* EDITION)
  2. ^ Hanes, William Travis; Frank Sanello (2002). Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. pp. 3. 
  3. ^ Early American Trade, BBC
  4. ^ Liu, Henry C. K. (September 4, 2008). Developing China with sovereign credit. Asia Times Online.
  5. ^ Chisholm, Hugh (1911). The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. pp. 130. 
  6. ^ Salucci, Lapo (2007). Depths of Debt: Debt, Trade and Choices. University of Colorado.
  7. ^ Hanes, William Travis; Sanello, Frank (2004). The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks, Inc. p. 8. ISBN 978-1402201493.
  8. ^ Fu, Lo-shu (1966). A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western relations, Volume 1. pp. 380. 
  9. ^ Bertelsen, Cynthia (October 19, 2008). "A novel of the British opium trade in China." Roanoke Times & World News.
  10. ^ England and China: The Opium Wars, 1839-60
  11. ^ Foreign Mud: The opium imbroglio at Canton in the 1830s and the Anglo-Chinese War, by Maurice Collis, W. W. Norton, New York, 1946
  12. ^ Coleman, Anthony (1999). Millennium. Transworld Publishers. pp. 243–244. ISBN 0-593-04478-9. 
  13. ^ Commissioner Lin: Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839. Modern History Sourcebook.
  14. ^ Spence, Jonathan D.. The Search for Modern China 2nd ed.. pp. 153–155. 
  15. ^ Vallely, Paul (April 25, 2006). 1841: A window on Victorian Britain. The Independent.
  16. ^ Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 1999 W.W. Norton & Company. p.180
  17. ^ a b Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 1999 W.W. Norton & Company. p.181
  18. ^ David, Saul. Victoria's Wars. 2007 Penguin Books. p.360,361
  19. ^ Ebrey, Patricia Buckley; Walthall, Anne; Palais, James (2008). East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Cengage Learning. p. 307.
  20. ^ Choy, Lee Khoon (2007). Pioneers of Modern China. East Asian Studies.
  21. ^ Monument to the People's Heroes, Beijing. Lonely Planet Travel Guide.
  22. ^ Statues of Real People in Manhattan. Forgotten NY.
  23. ^ Lin Zexu Memorial.
  24. ^ Lin Zexu Memorial Museum. Ola Macau Travel Guide.

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