First Opium War: Modern East Asia #1


The First Opium War (1839-1842) was a pivotal event in East Asian history. During this war, East Asia witnessed the full force of the Industrialized West for the first time as the Qing dynasty, a Chinese dynasty of high prestige, was utterly defeated by a newly industrialized Great Britain. The war, as often is the case, was sparked with mere trade disputes, but had an irreversible legacy on the course of East Asian history.

The Canton System

China‘s trade relations with Europe date all the way back to the Silk Road trade during Roman times. Unfortunately for the European traders, however, the rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) were not very enthusiastic when it came to trading with the West. Although they did allow minimal trade, the Chinese government limited Western contact with what is known as the Canton System (1757-1842).

The Chinese port city of Canton during the Canton System. (1757-1842)

Implemented in 1757, the Canton System made the port city of Canton, otherwise known as Guangzhou, the only city open for European merchants. Even in Canton, European merchants were prohibited from staying there for more than a few months, learning Chinese, or bringing their families. They were limited to living within the so-called Thirteen Factories, and could not compete with the Chinese merchant guild Cohong, which held a monopoly. The European merchants could not speak to Chinese officials directly and had to conduct all of their operations via the Cohong.

Naturally, the trade was also very lopsided. The British wanted to import Chinese products such as tea, silk, and porcelain. However, the Chinese were not interested in British goods, and wanted their payments made in silver. This was problematic for the British because they had to import silver from foreign countries.

The British believed that the lack of Chinese interest in buying their products was due to the restrictive trade policies of the Qing. British attempts to establish formal relations with China and negotiate, namely the Macartney Embassy of 1793, failed. The result was a huge trade deficit, with the British losing 3.6 million pounds of silver to the Chinese annually by 18001)

The Opium Trade

Lin Zexu.

But in the late 1700s, the British East India Company realized that they could use opium, produced in the British colony of India, to pay instead of silver. While the Chinese government was okay with this at first, by the 1830s they ended up with 90% of Chinese young males along the east coast addicted to smoking opium2) Even the Emperor and a large portion of government officials were regularly smoking it3)

The Chinese government was definitely not very happy with this, but the Chinese merchants were; and in fact they actually began trading silver for opium, reversing the whole situation. In the 1830s, China lost roughly 34 million silver dollars from circulation4) From 1773 to 1839, the British opium export to China from their Indian colony increased from 1,000 chests to 40,000 chests.

In 1834, the British East India Company’s monopoly in trade with China legally ended, giving way to free trade, and more British entrepreneurs poured in, selling even more opium. To make this even worse, even Americans began to invest in this opium trade, taking opium from Turkey and selling them to Chinese merchants5) Between 1800 and 1839, the Americans sold 10,000 chests of opium to the Chinese6) The increasing competition also brought the prices of opium down, causing them to sell faster than ever.

The government became increasingly nervous about opium, and the Daoguang Emperor wanted to get rid of opium altogether.

Conflict Over Opium

In March 1839, the Daoguang Emperor commissioned Lin Zexu to halt the opium trade. In May, Lin pressured Charles Elliot, the British superintendent of trade in China, to surrender twenty thousand opium chests.

Lin then proceeded to mix the opium with lime and salt and began to throw the opium into the sea near Humen town. Starting on the third of June, 1839, Lin and his five hundred men spent 23 days disposing of the opium.

Lin Zexu then wrote the following letter to the young Queen Victoria, though it is likely that it never reached her:

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?

The British merchants were enraged by this incident, and tensions escalated after violence at Kowloon (a part of Hong Kong) in July. Lin prohibited the sale of food and water to Britons, then pressured Portuguese Macau to expel their British residents. This resulted in an exodus of Britons into Hong Kong; in September, when Charles Elliot failed to make Lin reverse the ban, violence ensued (Battle of Kowloon). Though it ended in a stalemate, Chinese officials involved in the conflict severely downplayed the strength of the Royal Navy in their reports to the Emperor, primarily to inflate their own abilities in hopes of reward. These fabrications led to the Qing court’s underestimating the British in conflicts to come.

The War

At this point, Chinese officials required that foreign ships arriving in Canton had to sign a bond agreeing not to sell opium. Elliot forbade any British ship from signing the bond. However, in October, a Quaker ship called Thomas Coutts showed up and signed the bond anyway. The Quakers had never traded opium in the first place, and their captain believed that Elliot had overstepped his legal authority by forbidding signature of the bond.

In response, Elliot blockaded the Pearl River to prevent any more ships from defying his authority. On November 3, 1839, the Royal Saxon challenged the blockade; Elliot responded by firing warning shots. Chinese ships showed up to defend that ship, sparking the First Battle of Chuenpi. The British sunk 4 Chinese war-junks and killed fifteen Chinese, while just one British soldier was wounded. This officially began the First Opium War.

After capturing Canton on 18 March, 1841, the British proceeded to attack one of China’s most important rivers, the Yangtze. After a series of disastrous defeats for the Chinese, the British captured major cities such as Shanghai (16 June 1842) and Zhenjiang (21 July 1842), and arrived at Nanjing by August 1842. The Qing government finally sued for peace.

Unequal Treaties

On 29 August 1842, the Treaty of Nanking was signed by British and Chinese representatives at Nanjing, concluding the war. First of all, the treaty ended the Canton System along with the Cohong, and opened up four more ports for British trade: Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai. The tariffs on British merchants were to be set at a fixed amount, determined by Qing and British officials. The Qing had to pay the British 21 million silver dollars to pay for the costs of the war as well as Lin Zexu’s actions, and British troops were to occupy Gulangyu Island and Zhoushan until the payments were complete. On top of this, the Qing ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain.

The Treaty of Nanking (1842) was the first unequal treaty that China signed with the West.

In October of 1843, the Treaty of the Bogue was signed to further supplement the Treaty of Nanking. Here, British merchants gained extraterritoriality, which meant they did not have to abide by local Chinese law. Britain also became the most favored nation, meaning the British would enjoy all benefits granted to other trading partners of China. British people were now allowed to buy property and live with their families within the five open treaty ports, but they still were barred from going to anywhere else in China. Also, most importantly of all, neither of these treaties settled the problem with opium.

In July 1844, even the United States jumped in, imposing the Treaty of Wangxia on the Qing. The Americans also demanded extraterritoriality, most favored nation status, the right to buy property and reside in the five treaty ports, and fixed tariffs. They also demanded the right for merchants to learn Chinese. As a goodwill gesture, the Americans banned opium trade with China and promised to hand over any offenders of this rule.

Finally, in October 1844, the French showed up with the Treaty of Whampoa and got everything the British did.

Long-Lasting Effects

In conclusion, the First Opium War resulted in a disastrous and humiliating defeat for Qing China. Most importantly, it showed that China, along with all the other Asian countries at the time, were far behind Western technology. The four treaties signed by China and the Western powers were the first of the Unequal Treaties, more of which China would have to endure for decades to come. This defeat revealed the once mighty Qing as a paper tiger. The native Han Chinese people began to resent the Manchu rulers of the Qing. In fact, there was a sentiment among the Han people that the Manchus had stolen China and ruined it. Such sentiments would explode in one of the deadliest rebellions in history, the Taiping Rebellion. To read about the Taiping Rebellion, please go to this page. To read about the Second Opium War, please go to this page. Thanks for reading.

References   [ + ]

1, 3, 6.
2, 4.