The Opium Wars refer to two wars fought in the 19th century between Imperial China and Britain initially, then the combined forces of Britain and France with the support of Russia and the United States. The Western powers emerged victorious while China, as the vanquished party, signed treaties favoring the West. The war’s name is somewhat a misnomer. Although the opium trade triggered the wars, Eastern and Western civilizations fought in the wars for other issues deeper than opium like free trade (Allingham, 2006).
Background to the Wars
China was the richest and most populous nation in the world when King George III’s government sent Lord George Macartney as the first British enjoy to China in 1793. Macartney’s missions were the establishment an embassy in Peking, the Chinese capital, and the opening of additional ports for British ships other than Canton, the only harbor open to foreigners at the time. With its large population and land area, British and other Western merchants eyed China as an additional market for their goods, as well as a source of products such as tea (Hanes & Sanello, 2002).
Macartney brought hundreds of gifts, the best British products at the time, as gifts to Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty, but the emperor rejected the gifts. He wrote that the Chinese possess all things and he had no use for England’s manufacturers (Hanes & Sanello, 2002).
The emperor’s rejection had basis. Trade between the Chinese and British heavily tilted in favor of the Asians. The British had more need for Chinese goods than the Chinese had for British products. Tea topped the list of Chinese products that the English desired the most. The British were consuming twelve million pounds of tea annually less than fifty years after they first tasted the beverage in 1664. By 1785, the British were consuming fifteen million pounds of tea per year. The increased importation of tea did not only satisfy the people’s craving for the stimulating beverage. It also became an important lifeline for the British economy as the Exchequer imposed a hundred percent tax on tea imports (Hanes & Sanello, 2002).
Trade relations between China and Britain would have remained harmonious if the Chinese bought more British products as the British bought and consumed more and more tea and other Chinese goods. That was not the case as iron and other British products had low demand in China. The trade imbalance persisted for decades. Britain paid China £26 million in silver for Chinese goods while selling only £9 million worth of goods in silver to China between 1710 and 1759 (Hanes & Sanello, 2002).
The Chinese demand for payments in silver worsened the trade imbalance with Britain and other European countries. Western nations shipped large amounts of the Spanish silver coin to China as payment for exotic Chinese goods before 1828 and spent about 350 million Mexican silver dollars on silks, porcelain, and other Chinese products before 1810. American and British merchants turned to supplying opium to millions of Chinese addicted to the narcotic to correct this trade imbalance (Allingham, 2006).
The amount of opium reaching China from India was very small when the Chinese emperor issued the first edict in 1729 outlawing the use of opium. Opium use then was concentrated in China’s coastal provinces in the south. As opium addiction spread from the empire’s south to its north and west, Chinese authorities issued at least one edict per year outlawing opium use beginning in 1800. By the 1820s, China received most of India’s opium exports numbering about five thousand chests per year. The opium trade grew despite the prohibition (Fay, 1975).
The Chinese’ growing addiction to opium became the West’s solution to its trade imbalance with China. The Chinese exported nearly $26.6 million in the foreign silver coin, approximately $3.6 million in gold, and about $25.5 million sycee as payments for imports while accepting about $7.3 million in silver as payments for exports in the 1830s when the Western merchants increased their opium shipments to China. During that decade, opium accounted for 57 percent of imports into China and Chinese opium smokers spent more money to support their vice than the Chinese government spent in supporting the empire. The increased opium trade also corrupted Chinese society by promoting disloyalty to the emperor bribery, and vice (Allingham, 2006). By the 1930s, the West had reversed its trade imbalance with China. It was also heading into a showdown with the Chinese in the First Opium War.
The First Opium War (1839-1842)
William Jardine, James Matheson, and Lin Ze-xu contributed to the outbreak of the First Opium War. Jardine and Matheson formed a company in Canton that imported opium into China in exchange for tea exports to Britain. Their company became a major importer of opium chests from India by 1836. The Chinese seized their opium stockpile in 1839 and Jardine retaliated by urging the British government to retaliate. The opium trade was a major source of income for the British, so Jardine’s lobbying was unnecessary (Gibson, 2012).
The Chinese emperor appointed Lin Ze-xu to head his anti-opium campaign in Canton. Starting in March 1839, Lin spearheaded the seizure of 11,000 pounds of opium, another 20,000 crates of opium, and the arrests of about 1,600 Chinese and foreigners involved in the opium trade. Lin also detained foreigners until they surrendered nine million dollars’ worth of opium that the Chinese burned in public. He then commanded the closure of Canton to all foreign merchants. The British did not tolerate Lin’s actions. They retaliated by blockading the Pearl River between Hong Kong and Canton and sinking several Chinese vessels near Canton in November 1839. Two months later, the British captured the Bogue Forts at the mouth of the Pearl River (Allingham, 2006).
The British intensified their campaign in 1840 when an armada of 16 British warships, including an iron warship, and 27 transports carrying 4,000 men arrived in the Pearl River Delta. The Chinese had numerically superiority, but the British had vastly superior weapons, giving them technological superiority on sea and on land. They travelled towards Shanghai over the next two years, defeating the Chinese imperial forces that challenged their advance. The British loss of 69 men was minute compared to the Chinese losses of 20,000 to 25,000 men (Gibson, 2012).
Lin’s confiscation of the massive opium stockpile in Canton was in vain. The foreign opium merchants, including Jardine and Matheson, simply moved to nearby Macao within a month of the seizures and continued their opium smuggling by avoiding Canton. Worse, the reduced opium supply increased the drug’s prices (Hanes & Sanello, 2002). Lin’s determination to eliminate the opium trade also contributed to the death of his career. Peking replaced him with a relative of the emperor after the British defeated Lin’s land and sea forces (Allingham, 2006).
The Treaty of Nanking
Defeated on land and sea, the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanking on August 29, 1842. The treaty compelled China to pay the British an indemnity of $21 million, with $6 million earmarked as compensation for the opium chests confiscated in Canton, and open the ports of Amoy, Canton, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai to English consulates, residence, and trade. In addition, Hong Kong became a British colony while Chusan and Kulangsu remained in British hands until China had paid the entire indemnity (Fay, 1975).
The Treaty of Nanking additionally imposed the principle of extraterritoriality that made Western merchants accountable to their native countries and not to China and granted Great Britain the most-favored nation trade status. It also mandated China to eliminate trading monopolies and impose tariff limits of five percent (Allingham, 2006).
The Second Opium War (1856-1858)
The flaws in the Treaty of Nanking contributed to the Second Opium War, sometimes called the Arrow War. First, the treaty was a truce, not a peace agreement between China and Britain. Second, the document did not outlaw the opium trade. The opening of new ports to the English worsened the opium addiction in China (Hanes & Sanello, 2002). The treaty inspired France and the United States in 1844 to ask for similar concessions from the Qing Dynasty, including clauses similar to the British agreement that gave them the right to renegotiate after twelve years (Allingham, 2006).
Qing Dynasty officials, already reluctant to implement the treaties of 1842-1844, experienced additional pressure when the British opted to exercise their most-favored nation trade status by demanding the Chinese to legalize the importation of opium from Burma and India, open all her ports to foreign merchants, and other concessions. The Chinese officials’ attempts at stalling the Westerners failed when British officials used extraterritoriality to demand the release of sailors of the Arrow, a merchant vessel, arrested in October 1856 on suspicion of piracy and smuggling (Allingham, 2006).
The execution of a French missionary by the Chinese was France’s reason for joining the British in attacking China. The United States lent some military support, while Russia supported their actions. China’s defeat resulted in its signing of the Treaty of Tiensin (Tianjin) in June 1858. The treaty forced the Chinese to open eleven more major ports to Western merchants, especially traders from the four Western powers. China’s refusal to enact certain treaty provisions invited attacks by British and French forces in 1859 and 1860 (Allingham, 2006).
China’s final humiliation in the Opium Wars was signing the Convention of Peking in October 1860 that imposed certain provisions such as opening major ports and the Yangtze to foreign vessels, ceding the port of Kowloon to Great Britain, and ordering the Chinese to indemnify the British and French (Allingham, 2006).
The Opium Wars prove that there are many ways that victors write history to make their aggression less despicable. Western countries camouflaged their intention to open China to Western trade by labeling their conflict with China as a war over opium.
Allingham, P.V. (2006). England and China: The Opium Wars, 1839-1860. Retrieved from http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/opiumwars/opiumwars1.html.
Fay, P.W. (1975). Opium War, 1840-1842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the Early Part of the Nineteenth Century and the War by which they forced her Gates Ajar. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.
Gibson, A. (2012, 3 Dec). The opium wars: When Britain made war on China. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/0/20428167.
Hanes, W.T. III, & Sanello, F. (2002). The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.