Opium Wars

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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 China
Result Victory of the Western powers over China, resulting in the Treaty of Nanjing and the Treaties of Tientsin
Hong Kong Island and southern Kowloon ceded to the United Kingdom
United Kingdom British Empire
France French Empire (1856–1860)

United States United States (1856 and 1859)

Qing Dynasty
Opium Wars
Simplified Chinese 鸦片战争
Traditional Chinese 鴉片戰爭

The Opium Wars, also known as the Anglo-Chinese Wars, were the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842, and the Second Opium War from 1856 to 1860. These were the climax of disputes over trade and diplomatic relations between China under the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire.


European trade with Asia[edit]

Direct maritime trade between Europe and China began with the Portuguese in the 16th century, which leased an outpost at Macau starting from 1557; other European nations soon followed. European traders, such as the Portuguese, inserted themselves into the existing Asian maritime trade network, competing with Arab, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese traders in intra-regional trade.[1] Mercantilist governments in Europe objected to the perpetual drain of silver to pay for Asian commodities, and so European traders often sought to generate profits from intra-regional Asian trade to pay for their purchases to be sent back home.[1]

After the Spanish acquisition of the Philippines, the exchange of goods between China and western Europe accelerated dramatically. From 1565, the annual Manila Galleon brought in enormous amounts of silver to the Asian trade network, and in particular China, from Spanish silver mines in South America. As demand increased in Europe, the profits European traders generated within the Asian trade network, used to purchase Asian goods, were gradually replaced by the direct export of bullion from Europe in exchange for the produce of Asia.[1]

Qing attitudes toward trade[edit]

The Qing, and its predecessor the Ming, shared an ambivalent attitude towards overseas trade, and maritime activity in general. From 1661 to 1669, in an effort to cut off Ming loyalists, the Qing issued an edict to evacuate all populations living near the coast of Southern China. Though it was later repealed, the edict seriously disrupted coastal areas and drove many Chinese overseas.[2]

Qing attitudes were also further aggravated by traditional Confucian disdain (even hostility) towards merchants and traders. Qing officials believed that trade incited unrest and disorder, promoted piracy, and threatened to compromise information on China's defences.[3] The Qing instituted a set of rigid and incomplete regulations regarding trade at Chinese ports, setting up four maritime customs offices (in Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu) and a sweeping 20 percent tariff on all foreign goods. These policies only succeeded in establishing a system of kickbacks and purchased monopolies that enriched the officials who administered coastal regions.[3]

Although foreign merchants and traders dealt with low level Qing bureaucrats and agents at specified ports and entry points, official contact between China and foreign governments was organized around the tributary system. The tributary system affirmed the Emperor as the son of Heaven with a mandate to rule on Earth; as such, foreign rulers were required to present tribute and acknowledge the superiority of the imperial court.[4] In return, the Emperor bestowed gifts and titles upon foreign emissaries and allowed them to trade for short periods of time during their stay within China.

Foreign rulers agreed to these terms for several reasons, namely that the gifts given by the Emperor were of greater value than the tribute received (as a demonstration of imperial munificence) and that the trade to be conducted while in China was extremely lucrative and exempt from customs duties.[5] The political realities of the system varied from century to century, but by the Qing period, with European traders pushing to gain more access to China, Qing authorities denied requests for trade privileges from European embassies and assigned them "tributary" status with missions limited at the will of the imperial court. This arrangement became increasingly unacceptable to European nations, in particular the British.[6]

British trade and the Canton System[edit]

British ships began to appear infrequently around the coasts of China from 1635; without establishing formal relations through the tributary system, British merchants were allowed to trade at the ports of Zhoushan and Xiamen in addition to Guangzhou (Canton).[6] Trade further benefited after the Qing relaxed maritime trade restrictions in the 1680s, after Taiwan came under Qing control in 1683, and even rhetoric regarding the "tributary status" of Europeans was muted.[6] Guangzhou (Canton) was the port of preference for most foreign trade; ships did try to call at other ports but they did not match the benefits of Guangzhou's geographic position at the mouth of the Pearl river trade network and Guangzhou's long experience in balancing the demands of Beijing with those of Chinese and foreign merchants.[7] From 1700–1842, Guangzhou came to dominate maritime trade with China, and this period became known as the "Canton System".[7]

Official British trade was conducted through the auspices of the British East India Company, which held a royal charter for trade with the Far East. The EIC gradually came to dominate Sino-European trade from its position in India.[8]

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. In modern economic terms the Chinese were demanding hard currency or specie (gold or silver coinage) as the medium of exchange for the international trade in their goods. From the mid-17th century around 28 million kilograms of silver were received by China, principally from European powers, in exchange for Chinese goods.[9]

Britain's problem was further complicated by its use of the gold standard from the mid-18th century and the consequent need to purchase silver from other European countries, which incurred additional transaction costs.[10] British and other Europeans tried to reduce the trade deficit by importing tea from India and other places, and the Germans managed to reverse engineer the making of porcelain, but the deficit remained.

In the 18th century, despite ardent protests from the Qing dynasty government, British traders began importing opium from India. The introduction of opium into China was caused by Britain's need to send something back to China in return for their highly consumed Chinese tea. Britain first tried exporting European clothes, but the Chinese preferred their own silk. The British exported a large quantity of silver for Chinese Tea. With India and its poppy fields under British control, the logical option to fix the imbalance of trade was to start trading opium.[11]

Because of its strong mass appeal and addictive nature, opium was an effective solution to the British 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.[12]

Napier Affair and First Opium War (1839–1842)[edit]

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 restrictive Canton Trade laws that forbade direct contact with Chinese officials by attempting to send a letter directly to the Viceroy of Canton. The Viceroy refused to accept it, 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 legalising the opium trade itself. However, legalization was repeatedly rejected, and 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 Confucian commissioner, Lin Zexu, to control the opium trade at the port of Canton.[13]

His first course of action was to enforce the imperial demand for a permanent halt to drug shipments into China. When the British refused to end the trade, Lin blockaded the British traders in their factories and cut off supplies of food.[14] On 27 March 1839 Charles Elliot, British Superintendent of Trade—who had been locked in the factories when he arrived at Canton—finally agreed that all British subjects should turn over their opium to him, amounting to nearly a year's supply of the drug, to be confiscated by Commissioner Lin Zexu. 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.[15]

As well as seizing supplies in the factories, Chinese troops boarded British ships in international waters outside Chinese jurisdiction, where their cargo was still legal, and destroyed the opium aboard. 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 sign a bond promising not to deal in opium, under penalty of death.[16] The British officially opposed signing of the bond, but some British merchants who did not trade 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 at the Bocca Tigris.

In 1839, Lin took the step of publishing a letter addressed to Queen Victoria questioning the moral reasoning of the British government (it is not known that she ever received it). 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."[17]

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, replied by saying that nobody could "say that he honestly believed the motive of the Chinese Government to have been the promotion of moral habits" and that the war was being fought to stem China's balance of payments deficit. John Quincy Adams commented that opium was "a mere incident to the dispute... the cause of the war is the kowtow—the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal."[18]

In fact, opium was not illegal in England at the time, and comparably smaller quantities were imported. 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.[19]

British military superiority drew on newly applied technology. British warships wrought havoc on coastal towns; the steam ship Nemesis was able to move against the winds and tides and support a gun platform with very heavy guns and congreve rockets. In addition, the British troops were the first to be armed with modern rifles, which fired more rapidly and with greater accuracy than matchlock muskets and artillery wielded by Manchu Bannermen and Han Green Standard Army troops, 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 fraction of what it had been.

In 1842, the Qing authorities sued for peace, which concluded with the Treaty of Nanking 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 recognised 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.

Second Opium War (1856–1860)[edit]

The Illustrated London News print of the clipper steamship Ly-ee-moon, built for the opium trade, c. 1859

Chinese authorities were reluctant to keep to the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. They had tried to keep out as many foreign merchants as possible and had victimized Chinese merchants who traded with the British at the treaty ports. To protect those Chinese merchants who were friendly to them in Hong Kong, the British granted their ships British registration in the hope that the Chinese authorities would not interfere with vessels carrying the British flag.

In October 1856, Chinese authorities in Canton seized a vessel called the Arrow, which had been engaged in piracy. The Arrow had formerly been registered as a British ship and still flew the British flag. The British consul in Canton demanded the immediate release of the crew and an apology for the insult to the flag. The crew was released, but with no apology given as a reprisal the British governor of Hong Kong ordered warships to bombard Canton.

Chinese authorities argued that the Arrow was a pirate ship and had no right to fly the British flag as its British registration had expired. In spite of British authorities beginning the bombardment without first consulting with their superiors in London, the British Prime Minister, Palmerston, supported the actions of his officials, who claimed to be upholding British prestige and avenging the insult to the flag. Moreover, Palmerston may have been seeking to force the Chinese into accepting full-scale trade with Britain.

The Chinese issue figured prominently in the British general election of March 1857, which Palmerston won with an increased majority. He now felt able to press British claims more vigorously. The French were also eager to be involved after their envoy, Baron Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros, seemingly had his demands ignored (French complaints involved a murdered missionary and French rights in Canton).[20] A strong Anglo-French force under Admiral Sir Michael Seymour occupied Canton (December 1857), then cruised north to capture briefly the Taku forts near Tientsin (May 1858).

British troops taking fort in 1860

Negotiations among China, Britain, France, the USA and Russia led to the Tientsin Treaties of 26–29 June 1858, which theoretically brought peace. China agreed to open more treaty ports, to legalize opium importation, to establish a maritime customs service with foreign inspection and to allow foreign legations at Peking and missionaries in the interior.

China soon abrogated the Anglo-French treaties and refused to allow foreign diplomats into Peking. On 25 June 1859 British Admiral Sir James Hope bombarded the forts guarding the mouth of the Hai River, below Tientsin. However, landing parties were repulsed and the British squadron was severely damaged by a surprisingly efficient Chinese garrison.

Anglo-French forces gathered at Hong Kong in May 1860. A joint amphibious expedition moved north to the Gulf of Po Hai. It consisted of 11,000 British under General Sir James Hope Grant and 7,000 French under Lieutenant General Cousin-Montauban. Unopposed landings were made at Pei-Tang (1 August 1860). The Taku forts were taken by assault with the assistance of the naval forces (21 August). The expedition then advanced up-river from Tientsin. As it approached Peking, the Chinese asked for talks and an armistice. An allied delegation under Sir Harry Smith Parkes was sent to parley, but they were seized and imprisoned (18 September). It was later learned that half of them died under torture. The expedition pressed ahead, defeating some 30,000 Chinese in two engagements, before reaching the walls of Peking on 26 September. Preparations for an assault commenced and the Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) was occupied and looted.

Another Chinese request for peace was accepted and China agreed to all demands. The survivors of the Parkes delegation were returned, though General Grant burned and destroyed the Old Summer Palace in reprisal for the mistreatment of the Parkes party. Ten new treaty ports, including Tientsin, were opened to trade with the western powers, foreign diplomats were to be allowed at Peking, and the opium trade was to be regulated by the Chinese authorities. Kowloon, on the mainland opposite Hong Kong Island, was surrendered to the British. Permission was granted for foreigners (including Protestant and Catholic missionaries) to travel throughout the country. An indemnity of three million ounces of silver was paid to Great Britain and two million to France.

The Anglo-French victory was heralded in the British press as a triumph for Palmerston, which made his popularity rise to new heights. British merchants were delighted at the prospects of the expansion of trade in the Far East. Other foreign powers were pleased with the outcome too, since they hoped to take advantage of the opening-up of China. Russia soon extorted the Maritime Provinces from China and founded the port of Vladivostok (1860–61).

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Peter C. Perdue, "The First Opium War: The Anglo-Chinese War of 1839-1842" (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011. MIT Visualizing Cultures). [1]
  • "The Opium War and Foreign Encroachment," Education for Educators (Columbia University) [2]. Resources for teaching.

Explanatory notes[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Gray, Jack (2002). Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-0-19-870069-2. 
  2. ^ Hayes, James (1974). "The Hong Kong Region: Its Place in Traditional Chinese Historiography and Principal Events Since the Establishment of Hsin-an County in 1573". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Hong Kong) 14: 108–135. 
  3. ^ a b Spence, Jonathan D. (1999). The Search for Modern China (second ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 57–58. ISBN 0-393-97351-4. 
  4. ^ Fairbank, John K. (1953). Trade and diplomacy on the China coast: the opening of the treaty ports, 1842-1854. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press. pp. 27–29. ISBN 978-0-8047-0648-3. 
  5. ^ Fairbank 1953, p.32
  6. ^ a b c Spence 1999, p.120
  7. ^ a b Van Dyke, Paul A. (2005). The Canton trade: life and enterprise on the China coast, 1700-1845. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. pp. 6–9. ISBN 962-209-749-9. 
  8. ^ Bernstein, William J. (2008). A splendid exchange: how trade shaped the world. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-87113-979-5. 
  9. ^ Early American Trade, BBC
  10. ^ Liu, Henry C. K. (4 September 2008). Developing China with sovereign credit. Asia Times Online.
  11. ^ Hanes III, W. Travis; Sanello, Frank (2002). The Opium Wars. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc. p. 20. 
  12. ^ Chisholm, Hugh (1911). The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. p. 130. 
  13. ^ England and China: The Opium Wars, 1839–60
  14. ^ Palmerston: The People's Darling, by James Chambers, John Murray, London, 2004
  15. ^ Foreign Mud: The opium imbroglio at Canton in the 1830s and the Anglo-Chinese War, by Maurice Collis, W. W. Norton, New York, 1946
  16. ^ Coleman, Anthony (1999). Millennium. Transworld Publishers. pp. 243–244. ISBN 0-593-04478-9. 
  17. ^ Commissioner Lin: Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839. Modern History Sourcebook.
  18. ^ H.G. Gelber, Harvard University Centre for European Studies Working Paper 136, 'China as Victim: The Opium War that wasn't'
  19. ^ Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China 2nd ed. pp. 153–155. 
  20. ^ David, Saul (2007). Victoria's Wars: The Rise of Empire. London: Penguin Books. pp. 360–361. ISBN 978-0-14-100555-3. 


  • Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drug, Dreams and the Making of China (London, Picador, 2011 ISBN 0-330-45747-0). Well referenced narrative using both Chinese and western sources and scholarship.
  • Hsin-Pao Chang. Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, Harvard East Asian Series, 1964).
  • 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).
  • John King Fairbank, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast; the Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953).
  • Michael Greenberg. British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800-42. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in Economic History, 1951). Various reprints. Uses Jardine Matheson papers to detail the British side of the trade.
  • Manhong Lin. China Upside Down: Currency, Society, and Ideologies, 1808-1856. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2006). ISBN 0674022688. Detailed study of the economics of the trade.
  • James M. Polachek, The Inner Opium War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1992.) Based on court records and diaries, presents the debates among Chinese officials whether to legalize or suppress the use and trade in opium.
  • Arthur Waley, The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes (London: Allen & Unwin, 1958; reprinted Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1968). Translations and narrative based on Lin's writings.

Fictional and narrative literature[edit]