China and UK

Opium Wars (1839-42)

China and UK

Dr. R.G. Tiedemann gives a survey of the factors behind the ignominious Opium Wars that the U.K. fought and won 150 years ago, first published in China Now magazine 1989.

See also Opium in China

In 1997 the colony of Hong Kong was returned to China. Hong Kong Island became a British possession as a direct result of the Opium War, the opening shots of which were fired 150 years ago. All Chinese, regardless of political ideology, have condemned this armed confrontation as an unjust and immoral contest. As far as they are concerned, Britian's waging a war for the sake of selling a poisonous drug constitutes the most shameful leaf of human history. In the hindsight provided by subsequent events in China, it is, perhaps, easy to condemn this act of British aggression, but it is less certain that the event was seen in the same condemnatory light by Chinese and foreign observers a century and a half ago.

The 'Canton system' and the opium trade

It is often said that the 'Opium War' was not fought over opium but in the name of free trade, as well as diplomatic and judicial equality with China. Since the eighteenth century, the Chinese government had imposed severe restrictions on foreign trade, and was both suspicious and contemptuous of foreigners. At Guangzhou (Canton), which was the only port open to foreign commerce, the exclusive right to deal with Westerners was held by a group of licensed merchants known as the Co-hong. On the British side, the East India Company, under a charter from the Crown, likewise had a monopoly of trade with India and China. The E.I.C. purchased silks and tea from the Chinese but had little to offer in return except silver.

Two developments in the 1830s undermined this relatively stable 'Canton system': the significant expansion of opium smuggling and the rise of free-trade imperialism. Opium poppy cultivation had long been established in India and had provided an important source of revenue to the Moghul Emperors. In 1761 the E.I.C. obtained a monopoly over the opium production of British India, and soon afterwards the drug began to be shipped to China as part of the Company's triangular trade between India, Guangzhou and Britain.

Opium Addiction
The opium addict often sold all his possessions to pay for the opium.
This woodcut shows an addict's wife being sold to support his habit.

Since the Chinese government had repeatedly banned opium smoking, the E.I.C. preferred to sell its production at annual auctions in Calcutta to licensed private firms so as not to jeopardise its legal trade in tea. The 'country traders' shipped the drug in specially built and heavily armed opium clippers to fortified receiving ships permanently stationed off the coast of southern China. From these floating warehouses the illicit cargoes were transferred to multi-oared 'fast crabs' and 'scrambling dragons', crewed by Chinese pirates who took the opium to coastal and riverine depots where bribed officials permitted the drug to be unloaded for distribution along extensive smuggling networks run by gangsters and Triads.

The opium traffic was of considerable economic importance to the British. The profits from the E.I.C.'s auctions contributed significantly to the revenue of the government of British India, to the British government itself via tax on imported tea from China, and of course to the traders themselves. From the 1820s onwards British trade with China was in surplus, as the huge outflow of silver used to buy opium greatly exceeded the money the traders paid for Chinese tea.

In 1834 the E.I.C. monopoly of trade with China ended and all mercantile activities were now in the hands of more aggressive private British (as well as Parsee and American) firms, Jardine Matheson & Co being the most important. This was in line with the laissez-faire thinking that underlay the Industrial Revolution and the general expansion of British commerce. China was viewed by the private merchants at Guangzhou, as well as the industrial capitalists back home, as a vast potential market with boundless economic opportunities, if only the Chinese government were to remove their deliberate obstructions.

Commissioner Lin's opium suppression

These developments, above all the increasing influx of opium in defiance of all Chinese prohibitions, naturally alarmed the Qing (Manchu) government they embarked, therefore, on a rigorous campaign of suppression, culminating in the appointment in late 1838 of Lin Zexu as Imperial Commissioner to deal with opium problem in Guangzhou. Lin took vigorous action, detaining the foreigners in their 'factories' (warehouses) in Guangzhou, and forcing them to surrender their stocks of the drug. In due course he had over 21,000 chests, worth some 6 million silver dollars, destroyed in public as evidence of the government's firm intentions.

At the same time, Lin wanted the foreigners to sign a bond agreeing to cease the drug trade on pain of death, but rather than submit to Chinese justice the British traders abandoned Guangzhou. Lin retaliated by stopping all foreign trade while instructing his naval patrols to prevent Westerners acquiring food and water. On 4th September 1839 the British forced the issue, firing the first shots of the as yet undeclared Opium War. On 3rd November another, more serious clash occurred near the Bogue forts at the mouth of the Pearl River.

London's decision for war

When news of the crisis reached London in August 1839, representatives of the British opium traders lobbied for coercive measures against the Qing government. They were supported by industrial capitalists who wanted to open the China market to their products. The Whig government was, indeed, receptive to a more forceful China policy.

Lin's blockade of factories and the confiscation of opium was the pretext for settling the commercial and diplomatic relations with China on Britain's terms. Thus, on 1st October 1839 the Cabinet decided to send out a punitive expedition.

It may seem surprising that the British conscience was not stirred by the Chinese opium problem. To understand why the anti-opium campaigners (High Church moralists, Chartists, and the newly established Temperance Society) were so ineffectual, it is necessary to look briefly at the role of opium in English society at that time. The drug was generally accepted and openly available for self-medication. It was, however, usually ingested as tincture of opium (laudanum), and was even administered by working mothers as a tranquilliser for their infants. The almost universal medical opinion in the 1830s was that opiates themselves produced no toxic effects and that addiction was not a physically damaging condition. The China lobby in London was of course well aware of the harmful effects of opium smoking in China, and did its best to conceal this from the British public (as well as the fact that the traders had handed out free samples to induce addiction). Since the British did not have an opium problem, the distant and unapproachable Chinese could not, therefore, have one either. It was consequently powerful economic interests, not moral considerations, that influenced the debate on opium and war.

Heroin Advertisement
In the West in the mid-18th century,
opium and heroin were considered
relatively safe drugs. This advertisement
promotes heroin as a cough mixture.
It was quite normal and fashionable
to take laudanum as a sleeping tonic.

The military campaigns 1840-1842

The arrival of the British fleet off the coast of China in June 1840 made larger-scale naval operations possible. Over the following two years, bouts of armed conflict were interspersed with periods of peace and negotiations. During the summer of 1840 the British fleet blockaded the Pearl River estuary and seized the island of Zhoushan further north as surety. The bulk of the fleet then sailed north for the mouth of the Beihe near Beijing to intimidate the Chinese court and force a negotiated settlement to the Guangzhou imbroglio. After lengthy negotiations between British and Qing representatives, speeded up by a British attack on the Bogue forts, the draft Chuanbi convention was finally concluded on 20th January 1841. The Qing negotiators promised an indemnity of 6 million silver dollars for the confiscated opium, to reopen Guangzhou, to cede Hong Kong Island (Zhoushan to be evacuated by the British), and to grant the right to communicate directly with the Chinese officials in Guangzhou.

However, the subsequent repudiation of the agreement by both governments caused the resumption of armed conflict, culminating in the full-scale attack on Guangzhou in late May 1841. In desperation, the local Qing officials signed the convention of 27th May 1841, agreeing to 'ransom' the city for 6 million silver dollars.

With the arrival of reinforcements from Britain in the summer of 1842 the British were in a position to launch their final campaign into the heart of mainland China. Zhoushan Island was reoccupied as well as a number of coastal cities. When Nanjing itself was threatened the Qing government decided to sue for peace.

Opium Addicts
An 'opium den' was no cosy existence,
it was total squalor.
The addicts only lived for the next opium fix.

The British victory was due in the main to superior technology: they had better ships, artillery, rifles, and better tactics. The shallow draught iron paddle-steamer Nemesis, in particular, terrorised the countryside around the Pearl River delta, destroying forts and war junks at will.

There were, nevertheless, occasions when the Qing forces, especially the Manchu garrisons, did offer obstinate resistance. Furthermore, Lin Zexu had begun to mobilise the people of Guangdong for guerrilla warfare, and at Sanyuanli there was a remarkable battle between local self-defence forces and isolated British units resulting in serious British casualties.

The Treaty of Nanjing

On the 29th August, 1842 the British and Qing negotiators signed the Treaty of Nanjing which, with the two supplementary treaties, included the following major clauses: (1) Hong Kong Island to be ceded to Britain in perpetuity; (2) China to pay an indemnity of 21 million silver dollars to pay for the confiscated opium and the cost of the war, (3) five ports to be opened to foreign trade; (4) a tariff agreement entailing China's loss of tariff autonomy; (5) right of extraterritoriality (loss of Chinese jurisdiction over foreigners in China); and (6) Britain to enjoy most favoured-nation status.

The British were, of course, aware that these conditions exacted from the Chinese at gunpoint, had impaired Chinese sovereignty to a considerable extent. The question is, however, whether the significance of this event was apparent to the Chinese at the time. Recent research has shown that the first treaty arrangement was still largely perceived as part of traditional Chinese tributary diplomacy. In any case, the violent conflict with the West was confined to the maritime periphery, and the resulting treaty did not immediately undermine the notion of Chinese cultural superiority. Nevertheless it is now clear that the Opium War initiated a process of fundamental change in China's foreign relations, with further acts of foreign aggression and the imposition of subsequent 'unequal treaties' accelerating the process of dynastic decline which eventually led to the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911.


In the twentieth century, the Chinese have embarked on a long and arduous struggle to expunge the humiliations which they suffered during and since the Opium War. When Hong Kong ceases to be a colony, the last reminder of that unpleasant encounter with Britain will have been eliminated. Foreign industrialists may continue to dream of the supposedly unlimited China market, but the Chinese state is once again in firm control of relations with the outside world. The Chinese are determined to keep the 'open door' sufficiently ajar to import vital technologies, while keeping all unwanted alien influences out. This is, of course, merely a return to entrenched ethnocentric tendencies of pre-Opium War days.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 132, Page 21, December 1989

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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