First Opium War

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First Opium War
Part of the Opium Wars
Destroying Chinese war junks, by E. Duncan (1843).jpg
The Nemesis destroying Chinese war junks during the Second Battle of Chuenpee, 7 January 1841
Date 18 March 1839 – 29 August 1842[1]
(3 years, 5 months, 1 week and 4 days)
Location China
Result British victory, Treaty of Nanking
Hong Kong Island ceded to Britain
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Qing Dynasty
Commanders and leaders
19,000 troops[2] 200,000 Bannermen and Green Standard Army troops
Casualties and losses
69 killed
451 wounded
18,000–20,000 casualties
Casualties source:[2]

The First Opium War (1839–42), also known as the Opium War and as the Anglo-Chinese War, was fought between Great Britain and China over their conflicting viewpoints on diplomatic relations, trade, and the administration of justice for foreign nationals.[3]

Prior to the conflict Chinese officials wished to end the spread of opium, and confiscated around 20,000 chests of opium (approximately 1.21 million kilograms or 2.66 million lb)[4] from British traders. The British government, although not officially denying China's right to control imports of the drug, objected to this seizure and used its military power to enforce violent redress.[3]

In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking—the first of what the Chinese later called the unequal treaties—granted an indemnity to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island, thereby ending the trade monopoly of the Canton System. The failure of the treaty to satisfy British goals of improved trade and diplomatic relations led to the Second Opium War (1856–60).[5] The war is now considered in China as the beginning of modern Chinese history.[6][7]


Tea, opium and the silver trade[edit]

View of the European factories in Canton

From the inception of the Canton System by the Qing Dynasty in 1757, trade in goods from China became extremely lucrative for European and Chinese merchants alike. However, foreign traders were only permitted to do business through a body of Chinese merchants known as the Cohong and were restricted to Canton (now known as Guangzhou). Foreigners could only live in one of the Thirteen Factories, near Shameen Island, and were not allowed to enter, much less live or trade in, any other part of China.

While an insatiable demand for tea existed in Britain, only silver was accepted in payment by China, which resulted in a chronic trade deficit.[8] This trade led to the extensive use of European gold and silver in China.[9]

Britain had been on the gold standard since the 18th century, so it had to purchase silver from continental Europe and Mexico to supply the Chinese appetite for silver. Attempts by a British embassy (led by Macartney in 1793), a Dutch mission under (Van Braam in 1794), Russia's (Golovkin in 1805) and the British again (Amherst in 1816) to negotiate access to the China market were all vetoed by successive Emperors.[9]

By 1817, the British had decided that counter-trading in narcotic Indian opium, was a way to reduce the trade deficit and to turn the Indian colony profitable. The Qing administration originally tolerated opium importation, because it created an indirect tax on Chinese subjects, while allowing the British to double tea exports from China to England thereby profiting the monopoly on tea exports held by the Qing imperial treasury and its agents.[10]

Opium was produced in traditionally cotton-growing regions of India under British East India Company monopoly (Bengal) and in the Princely states (Malwa) outside the company's control. Both areas had been hard hit by the introduction of factory-produced cotton cloth, which used cotton grown in Egypt. The opium was auctioned in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) on the condition that it be shipped by British traders to China. Opium as a medicinal ingredient was documented in texts as early as the Tang dynasty but its recreational use was limited and there were laws in place against its abuse.

But opium became prevalent with the mass quantities introduced by the British (motivated, as noted above, by the equalisation of trade). British sales of opium in large amounts began in 1781[verification needed] and between 1821 and 1837 sales increased fivefold. East India Company ships brought their cargoes to islands off the coast, especially Lintin Island, where Chinese traders with fast and well-armed small boats took the goods for inland distribution.[11]

However, by 1820 the planting of tea in the Indian and African colonies along with accelerated opium consumption reversed the flow of silver, just when the Qing treasury needed to finance suppression of rebellions against the Qing. The Qing government attempted to end the opium trade, but its efforts were complicated by local officials (including the Governor-general of Canton), who profited greatly from the bribes and taxes involved.[11]

A turning point came in 1834. Free trade reformers in England succeeded in ending the monopoly of the British East India Company under the Charter Act of the previous year, leaving trade in the hands of private entrepreneurs. Americans introduced opium from Turkey, which was of lower quality but cheaper. Competition drove down the price of opium and increased sales.[12]

In 1839, the Daoguang Emperor appointed scholar-official Lin Zexu to the post of Special Imperial Commissioner with the task of eradicating the opium trade. On his arrival, Lin banned the sale of opium, demanded that all supplies of the drug be surrendered to the Chinese authorities, and required that all foreign traders sign a 'no opium trade' bond, the breaking of which was punishable by death. Lin also closed the channel to Canton, effectively holding British traders hostage in the city.[12]

The British Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot, got the British traders to agree to hand over their opium stock with the promise of eventual compensation for their loss from the British government.[12] (This promise, and the inability of the British government to pay it without causing a political storm, was an important casus belli for the subsequent British offensive).[13]

Overall 20,000 chests[14] (each holding about 55 kilograms[15]) were handed over and destroyed beginning 3 June 1839.[16] Following the collection and destruction of the opium, Lin Zexu wrote an official memorial[17] to Queen Victoria in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the trade of opium, as it had poisoned thousands of Chinese civilians. The memorial never reached the queen, with one source suggesting that it was lost in transit.[18]

Kowloon incident[edit]

On 7 July 1839, seamen from the Carnatic and Mangalore, both owned by Jardine, Matheson & Co., arrived in Kowloon. Joined by colleagues from other ships, a group of sailors went ashore and became aggressive after consuming the rice liquor samshu. In a subsequent drunken brawl a villager from Tsim Sha Tsui named Lin Weixi received a vicious beating and died the next day.[19][20][21] On 15 July, Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China, Charles Elliot, offered rewards of $200 for evidence leading to the conviction of those responsible for the murder and $100 for evidence leading to the instigators of the incident.[22] Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu demanded the death of the culprit to settle the matter as prescribed by Chinese law but the chief superintendent insisted he had jurisdiction under an 1883 Act of the British parliament, which was itself under review. On 12 August, Elliot presided over a Court of Criminal and Admiralty Jurisdiction aboard the Fort William in Hong Kong harbour. He invited Lin to send observers but none attended.[23][24] With Elliot as judge and a group of merchants as the jury,[23] two men were found guilty of rioting, fined £15 each, and sentenced to three months labour in England. Three men were found guilty of assault and rioting, fined £25 each, and sentenced to six months imprisonment in similar conditions.[25] However, after arriving in England, the men were released on the grounds that the trial held no jurisdiction.

Without the handover of a man to the Chinese, Lin was not satisfied with the proceedings.[25] He viewed the court as an infringement of China's sovereignty.[24] On 15 August, Lin issued an edict preventing the sale of food to the British[23][26] and the next day withdrew their servants in Macao. War junks arrived in coves along the Pearl River and notices above the fresh water springs warned that they had been poisoned.[23] On 24 August, the Portuguese Governor of Macao, Don Adraio Accacio da Silveira Pinto, announced that the Chinese had ordered him to expel the British from the colony. He warned British merchant Lancelot Dent that the Chinese planned to seize the British dwellings in Macao.[27] On 25 August, former superintendent John Astell proposed to Elliot that all British boats evacuate to Hong Kong.[28] By the end of the month, 2,000 people in over 60 ships had gathered in Hong Kong harbour, without fresh food or water. The ships held European merchants, lascars, and dozens of British families. The Volage of Captain Henry Smith and the Hyacinth sailed to Hong Kong on 30 August. Elliot warned Kowloon officials of an escalation in the conflict if the embargo continued.[29]


Engagement between British and Chinese ships in the First Battle of Chuenpee, 1839.

In late October the Thomas Coutts arrived in China and sailed to Canton. This ship was owned by Quakers who refused to deal in opium, and its captain, Warner, believed Elliot had exceeded his legal authority by banning the signing of a bond which allowed ships to land if they did not carry the drug, the violation of which would result in the death penalty and confiscation of all the opium on board.[30] The captain negotiated with the governor of Canton and hoped that all British ships could unload their goods at Chuenpee, an island near Humen.

To prevent other British ships from following the Thomas Coutts, Elliot ordered a blockade of the Pearl River. Fighting began on 3 November 1839, when a second British ship, the Royal Saxon, attempted to sail to Canton. Then the British Royal Navy ships HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth fired a warning shot at the Royal Saxon.

The Qing navy's official report claimed that the navy attempted to protect the British merchant vessel, also reporting a great victory for that day. In reality, they were out-classed by the Royal Naval vessels and many Chinese ships were sunk.[citation needed] Elliot reported that they were protecting their 29 ships in Chuenpee between the Qing batteries. Elliot knew that the Chinese would reject any contacts with the British and there would eventually be an attack with fire boats. Elliot ordered all ships to leave Chuenpee and head for Tung Lo Wan, 20 miles (30 km) from Macau, but the merchants preferred to harbour in Hong Kong.

In 1840, Elliot asked the Portuguese governor in Macau to let British ships load and unload their goods there in exchange for paying rent and any duties. The governor refused for fear that the Qing Government would discontinue supplying food and other necessities to Macau. On 14 January 1840, the Qing Emperor asked all foreigners in China to halt material assistance to the British in China. In retaliation, the British Government and British East India Company decided that they would attack Canton. The military cost would be paid by the British Government.

British troops in the Battle of Amoy, 1841

Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, initiated the Opium War to maintain the principle of free trade.[31] Melancon argues that the issue in going to war was not the opium but the Britain's need to upholding its reputation, its honour, and its commitment to global free trade. China was pressing Britain at just the moment when it faced serious pressures in the Near East, on the Indian frontier, and in Latin America. In the end, says Melancon, the government's need to maintain its honour in Britain and prestige abroad forced the decision to go to war.[32] Critics, however, focused on the immorality of opium. William Ewart Gladstone denounced the war as "unjust and iniquitous" and criticised Lord Palmerston's willingness "to protect an infamous contraband traffic."[33] The public and press in the United States and Britain expressed outrage that Britain was supporting the opium trade.

British troops capture Chinkiang in the last major battle of the war, 21 July 1842

In June 1840, an expeditionary force of 15 barracks ships, 4 steam-powered gunboats and 25 smaller boats with 4000 marines reached Canton from Singapore. The marines were headed by James Bremer. Bremer demanded the Qing Government compensate the British for losses suffered from interrupted trade.[34]

Following the orders of Lord Palmerston, a British expedition blockaded the Mouth of Pearl River and moved north to take Chusan. Led by Commodore J.J. Gordon Bremer in Wellesley, they captured the empty city after an exchange of gunfire with shore batteries that caused only minor casualties.[34]

The next year, 1841, the British captured the Bogue forts that guarded the mouth of the Pearl River—the waterway between Hong Kong and Canton. Meanwhile, at the far west in Tibet, the start of the Sino-Sikh war added another front to the strained Qing military. By January 1841, British forces commanded the high ground around Canton and defeated Bannermen at Ningbo and at the military post of Dinghai. In the same year the British made three unsuccessful attempts to capture the harbour of Keelung on the northeast coast of Taiwan.[35]

By the middle of 1842, the British had defeated the Chinese at the mouth of their other great riverine trade route, the Yangtze, and were occupying Shanghai. The war finally ended in August 1842, with the signing of China's first Unequal Treaty, the Treaty of Nanking.


Entrance of the Opium War Museum in Humen Town, Guangdong, China.

The ease with which the British forces defeated the numerically superior Chinese armies seriously affected the Qing Dynasty's prestige. The success of the First Opium War allowed the British to resume the opium trade. It also paved the way for opening of the lucrative Chinese market to other commerce and the opening of Chinese society to missionary endeavors.

Among the most notable figures in the events leading up to the Opium War was the man assigned by the Daoguang Emperor to suppress the opium trade;[36] Lin Zexu, known for his superlative service to the Qing government as "Lin the Clear Sky".[37]

Although he had some initial success, with the arrest of 1,700 opium dealers and the destruction of 1.2 million kilograms (2.6 million lb) of opium, he was made a scapegoat for the actions leading to British retaliation, and was blamed for ultimately failing to stem the tide of opium import and use in China.[38] Nevertheless, Lin Zexu is popularly viewed as a hero of 19th century China, and his likeness has been immortalised at various locations around the world.[39][40][41]

The First Opium War began a long period of weakening of the state.[42] Anti-Qing sentiment grew in the form of rebellions, such as the Taiping Rebellion, a war lasting from 1850–64 in which at least 20 million Chinese died. The Qing dynasty, led by ethnic Manchus, was seen by much of the Chinese population, who were mainly Han Chinese, as an ineffective and corrupt foreign regime.

Interactive map[edit]

First Battle of Canton Second Battle of Canton Battle of First Bar Battle of Broadway Battle of the Barrier Battle of Whampoa Battle of the Bogue Battle of Kowloon Battle of Chuenpee Second Battle of Chuenpee Battle of Amoy Battle of Ningpo Battle of Chapoo Battle of Chinkiang Battle of Woosung Battle of Chinhai Capture of Chusan Capture of Chusan (1841) Battle of TsekeeFirst Opium War 1839-42 Conflict Overview EN.svg
About this image

See also[edit]


Contemporaneous Qing Dynasty wars:


  1. ^ Le Pichon, Alain (2006). China Trade and Empire. Oxford University Press. pp. 36–37. ISBN 0-19-726337-2.
  2. ^ a b Martin, Robert Montgomery (1847). China: Political, Commercial, and Social; In an Official Report to Her Majesty's Government. Volume 2. James Madden. pp. 81–82.
  3. ^ a b Tsang, Steve (2007). A Modern History of Hong Kong. I.B.Tauris. p. 3–13, 29. ISBN 1-84511-419-1.
  4. ^ Farooqui, Amar (March 2005). Smuggling as Subversion: Colonialism, Indian Merchants, and the Politics of Opium, 1790-1843. Lexington Books. ISBN 0739108867. 
  5. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 29
  6. ^ Stockwell, Foster (2003). Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient Times Through the Present. McFarland. p. 74. ISBN 0-7864-1404-9.
  7. ^ Janin, Hunt (1999). The India–China Opium Trade in the Nineteenth Century. McFarland. p. 207. ISBN 0-7864-0715-8.
  8. ^ Alain Peyrefitte, The Immobile Empire—The first great collision of East and West—the astonishing history of Britain's grand, ill-fated expedition to open China to Western Trade, 1792-94 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 520
  9. ^ a b Peyrefitte 1993, p487-503
  10. ^ Peyrefitte, 1993 p520
  11. ^ a b Peter Ward Fay, The Opium War, 1840-1842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the Early Part of the Nineteenth Century and the Way by Which They Forced the Gates Ajar (Chapel Hill, North Carolina:: University of North Carolina Press, 1975).
  12. ^ a b c "China: The First Opium War". John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Retrieved 2 December 2010Quoting British Parliamentary Papers, 1840, XXXVI (223), p. 374 
  13. ^ "Foreign Mud: The opium imbroglio at Canton in the 1830s and the Anglo-Chinese War," by Maurice Collis, W. W. Norton, New York, 1946
  14. ^ Poon, Leon. "Emergence Of Modern China". University of Maryland. Retrieved 22 Dec 2008. 
  15. ^ "Opiates". University of Missouri. Retrieved 22 Dec 2008. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839. From Chinese Repository, Vol. 8 (February 1840), pp. 497–503; reprinted in William H. McNeil and Mitsuko Iriye, eds., Modern Asia and Africa, Readings in World History Vol. 9, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 111–118. The text has been modernized by Prof. Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
  18. ^ Hanes & Sanello 2004, p. 41.
  19. ^ Hoe & Roebuck 1999, p. 91
  20. ^ Hanes & Sanello 2004, p. 61
  21. ^ Fay 1975, p. 171
  22. ^ Correspondence 1840, p. 432
  23. ^ a b c d Hoe & Roebuck 1999, p. 92
  24. ^ a b Hanes & Sanello 2004, p. 62
  25. ^ a b Correspondence 1840, p. 433
  26. ^ The Chinese Repository vol. 8, p. 216
  27. ^ Hanes & Sanello 2004, p. 63
  28. ^ Correspondence 1840, p. 435
  29. ^ Hoe & Roebuck 1999, p. 93
  30. ^ Hanes & Sanello 2004, p. 68.
  31. ^ Jasper Ridley, Lord Palmerston, (1970) p. 248
  32. ^ Glenn Melancon, "Honor in Opium? The British Declaration of War on China, 1839-1840," International History Review (1999) 21#4 pp 854-874.
  33. ^ Glenn Melancon (2003). Britain's China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence and National Honour, 1833-1840. Ashgate. p. 126. 
  34. ^ a b The London Gazette: no. 19930. pp. 2990–2991. 15 December 1840.
  35. ^ Elliott, Jane E. (2002). Some Did it for Civilisation, Some Did it for Their Country: A Revised View of the Boxer War. Chinese University Press. ISBN 9789629960667.  p. 197
  36. ^ Lin Zexu Encyclopædia Britannica
  37. ^ Opium War
  38. ^ East Asian Studies
  39. ^ Monument to the People's Heroes, Beijing - Lonely Planet Travel Guide
  40. ^ Lin Zexu Memorial
  41. ^ Lin Zexu Memorial Museum Ola Macau Travel Guide
  42. ^ Schell, Orville; John Delury (12 July 2013). "A Rising China Needs a New National Story". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 14 July 2013.