First Opium War

Learn how a trade dispute between Britain and China over the import of British opium into China would ultimately lead to war…

Using opium was once described as ‘having the keys to paradise’, so compelling and delicious was the experience. This comment was made by Thomas De Quincey, and he should know, considering he wrote the famous ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ in 1821. It is perhaps no surprise then, that the substance had become incredibly popular in both Britain and China by the eighteenth century. So popular in fact, that it indirectly caused two wars between the two great nations.

Britain was selling opium to China and causing a severe crisis of addiction within the country. In an attempt to put a stop to this, China ended up at war with Britain – twice. China already had prohibition against opium when the British began trading it, but that did not deter them. Consequently the prohibition simply led to British traders going as far as offering free samples of their product to entice new users. Considering that the British-owned East India Trading Company had the monopoly on the opium trade at the time, it was perhaps inevitable that China soon began to demand the British product. Ironically this attempt at ensuring Chinese addiction to opium was to soothe a very typically British addiction. Opium was the solution to feeding a habit that Britain had already developed for a very different, but no less potent substance: tea.

Tea caddy
Tea Caddy, late 18th century

18th century China rivalled and some say even surpassed Britain in wealth and prosperity. The two countries were evenly matched in many ways, including addiction. Britain was addicted to tea, in fact the nation had transitioned from a country centred around alcohol to new luxuries: sugar, chocolate, and tea. Almost every single household in the country went through a cultural shift from drinking the more common beer (or the even stronger gin!) to the exotic and newly available tea.

The country’s entire diet and attitude had changed. So much of British culture at this time began to come from their colonies, including tea. It has been argued by Colombia University that during the Victorian Era an average of 5% of every single London household’s income was spent on tea, which is an astounding amount.

Britain had a problem however, how were they going to continue to pay for all of this tea? Usually there would be an element of trading goods between countries, meaning that goods were not bought entirely with money, but part traded for other goods. However, Britain had very little that China wanted in terms of goods and were hemorrhaging silver in order to pay China for their tea and feed their habit. Their trade with China had become dangerously uneven, with China having far more control over the situation that Britain. China became known as the graveyard of silver, because of the propensity of the precious metal that was used to pay China for goods at the time, and not just by Britain.

So, what was to be done? Ideally China would want a British product as much as Britain wanted tea, and then trade could be re-calibrated accordingly. The solution to this uniquely Anglo-Chinese problem turned out to be opium.

French cartoonFrench satire showing an Englishman ordering the Emperor of China to buy opium. A Chinese man lies dead on floor with troops in background. The text says: “You must buy this poison immediately. We want you to poison yourself completely, because we need a lot of tea in order to digest our beefsteaks.”

In 1773 Britain was the leading seller of opium and the British product (grown in expansive poppy fields in their Indian colonies) was also known as the finest quality worldwide, so there was an enormous demand in China for it. However, by 1796 the Emperor Jiaqing (of the Qing Dynasty) made the trade, importation and cultivation of opium illegal. This meant that the East India Trading Company could not legally bring opium into China. This did not deter the British however, and instead other trade ships were used to transport the substance to smugglers who could then illegally bring it into the country, essentially using an elaborate network of smuggling pirate ships.

Although opium was not actually introduced into China by the British, the drug had been in China from as early as the 5th century. Brought by Assyrians, Greeks and even Arabs as an ancient medicine, opium had been used as a pain killer for centuries and was taken in pill or liquid form.

Two poor Chinese opium smokers.(Photo Credit: Wellcome Images)
Two poor Chinese opium smokers.

The introduction of the famous opium pipe, when the drug would be smoked, was a much more modern and exponentially more dangerous proclivity, which took hold in the 16th century. By 1729 smoking opium had become a serious problem in China, so much so that in 1729 Emperor Jiaqing made the selling and smoking of opium illegal. And yet to this day you can still purchase traditional opium pipes in the country. As the prohibition did little to dissuade people from partaking of the drug, Emperor Jiaqing appointed a commissioner, Lin Tse-Hsu, to crack down on the problem across the country.

He introduced many methods to try and curb the Chinese drug habit that was widespread within his country. He arranged for addicts to be treated and severely punished domestic drug dealers, but to no avail. Tensions between the two great powers was increasing, as it seemed there was nothing that could be done to stem the flow of opium into China. The Chinese population was addicted to the substance and were buying it no matter how illegal or dangerous it was, and the British were not going to stop selling it as long as they could get silver or goods for it.

Things reached breaking point in Canton when Lin seized 20,000 barrels of British opium (about 1,400 tons worth) and dumped them into the sea. To demonstrate the strength of feeling at the time the opium was not just dumped, it was burned with fire, salt and lime and demonstrably tipped into the sea, on the 3rd June 1839. (3rd June remains anti-drug day in China today).

Seizure of opium by Lin
Seizure and destruction of opium on the orders of Lin Tse-Hsu

After the destruction of the opium, there were increasing incidents of conflicts between the drug-smuggling pirate ships and Chinese war junks. Furthermore at the same time, a Chinese merchant had been murdered by drunken British sailors in Kow Loon, a situation made worse when the British refused to hand over the sailors for punishment to the Chinese authorities. The Chinese retaliated with a food embargo to the province and shots were fired from British ships at the Chinese embargo vessels on 4th September 1839. This became known as the Battle of Kowloon and was the first armed conflict of the war. Tensions had clearly reached boiling point.

After several parliamentary debates, the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston then officially initiated war with China in 1840. The British were not universally happy with the selling of opium to China, some calling it immoral. The policy was even widely criticised in Parliament by a young William Gladstone. However, the consensus was to go to war, as the opium trade was simply too profitable to give up.

In June 1840 16 warships made it to Hong Kong and the war began in earnest. It did not last long however. China was simply no match for the might of the British Navy, at that time unrivalled around the world. After several defeats by the British and after even having to pay a 6-million-dollar ransom for their own island to be returned to them, the Chinese entered into negotiations with the British.

Treaty of Nanking
Signing of the Treaty of Nanking, 1842

After an abortive initial agreement in 1841 they finally came to an agreement on 29th August 1842 and signed the Treaty of Nanking. This became known as the ‘Unequal Treaty’ or the first of the Unequal Treaties. This was due to the severe bias in favour of the British. The Chinese essentially paid for the fleet turning up to fight them, they paid for the burned opium, Hong Kong (although often referred to as ‘The Barren Rock’ at the time) was given to the British, and British consuls were even allowed into China which was previously a very closed country. In total the indemnity that the Chinese were forced to pay was around 21 million dollars. China had lost the First Opium War spectacularly. Strangely though, Britain hadn’t exactly won either. They achieved several concessions and financial reparation but on the subject of opium there was a notable silence. Nowhere in the treaty was it mentioned. The British wanted free trade of the product and the Chinese would never have agreed, so the matter was never broached.

The result of the First Opium War was that things very much returned to the status quo. Britain kept smuggling opium into China illegally, the Chinese kept smoking it and China continued sending tea to the UK. This relationship was tenuous at best however, and it would not be long before the issue escalated once again. This was not to be the end of the conflicts caused by opium. The seductive drug was destined to lead to trouble once again…

By Ms. Terry Stewart, Freelance Writer.

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