The First Opium War began in 1839 after China cracked down on the illegal drug trade headed by British merchants in Guangzhou. Its loss in the First Opium War forced China to open its ports to Britain (as well as other European countries) in 1842 via the Treaty of Nanking. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time.
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The First Opium War (1839-1842): The Drug Trade and the Clash of Cultures
The British East India Company first established contact with Chinese traders in the early 1600s. British merchants bought tea and silk from Chinese traders and shipped these products back to Europe. Demand for Chinese products in Britain spiked, but the British could not find anything of their own with which to interest Chinese buyers. One exception, however, was opium, the highly addictive substance extracted from opium poppy seed pods. Grown and harvested in India, British merchants shipped the drug from their colony and offloaded the shipment at the port of Guangzhou starting in the mid-1700s.
A great number of ordinary Chinese soon became addicted to the substance which they paid for with taels of silver. Alarmed at the rise of addiction and the outward flow of their silver reserves, the Qing officials tried in vain to stop British merchants from selling the drug. The Qing government’s futile attempt to stop the opium trade lit the fuse of China’s conflict with Britain that would last for than half a century.
The British government’s lack of knowledge about the Qing Dynasty’s culture (particularly the tribute system) worsened the conflict. In 1792, Britain sent Lord Macartney as an envoy to China to negotiate a trade treaty with the emperor. Foreign ships were confined to the waters off of Guangzhou, so the British government wanted the emperor to open several ports for them. The British government also wanted the emperor to grant its nation’s merchants access to areas where tea and silk were commonly produced. Lord Macartney was tasked to request the emperor’s permission in allowing a British minister to stay at the imperial court and oversee British interests in China.
As was the custom, Macartney brought lavish gifts for the emperor. The embassy failed when the British envoy refused to perform the kowtow when they met. This breach in court etiquette offended Qianlong Emperor who later remarked disdainfully that China was self-sufficient and had no need for Britain’s products. Macartney’s requests were denied by the emperor, and he was forced to leave China soon after.
After breaking East India Company’s monopoly in Asia in 1834, the British government sent Lord Napier to China as Superintendent of Trade in Guangzhou. He broke protocol when he bypassed the hong merchants who served as brokers and requested a meeting with Qing officials upon his arrival. For the Qing officials, this was unacceptable as any nation which requested trade with China was essentially nothing more a than tributary and was not treated as a coequal. They refused to meet with Lord Napier who was also humiliated by the rejection.
In Beijing, scholars of the Spring Purification circle and government officials were debating the best course to combat the flow of opium into the Chinese market. Officials suggested the legalization of the substance so it could be taxed by the government. The scholars, however, opposed this suggestion for moral reasons. In 1838, Daoguang Emperor appointed Lin Zexu as a special commissioner to combat the drug problem. The commissioner traveled to Guangzhou in the same year and targeted consumers and dealers alike. He enlisted the help of the local hong merchants whom he tasked to compel the foreign merchants to give up their stocks of opium.
The foreign merchants naturally refused, but Lin Zexu decided to strongarm them by having their factories barricaded and the merchants detained. The British superintendent Charles Elliott had no choice but to advise them to hand their stocks over to the Chinese authorities. They finally acquiesced when Elliott promised them compensation for the loss of their stocks. After the confiscation, Lin Zexu forced them to sign an agreement to get them to stop trading opium. Merchants who refused to comply would be sentenced to death.
Charles Elliott then sent a letter to the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston to inform him of the situation. After lifting the detention order, the Qing authorities allowed the freed British merchants to transfer to Macau. The situation only worsened when British sailors killed a local farmer. Back in 1784, a gunner of the British ship Lady Hughes was tasked to fire a gun salute while in Guangzhou. He, however, shot two Chinese officials who died from their injuries. Chinese authorities demanded British officials to hand the gunner over to them, but the latter refused. After a long dispute, the emperor sentenced the gunner to death by strangulation. British officials had no choice but to hand him over to Chinese authorities who immediately had him strangled.
Charles Elliott did not want a repeat of the Lady Hughes incident, so he refused to hand the sailors over to the authorities. Lin Zexu enlisted the help of the Portuguese authorities in Macau and asked them to boot the English out of the colony. They had no choice but to leave Macau and set up a temporary shelter at Hong Kong (Xianggang).
Meanwhile, the opium trader Dr. William Jardine had traveled to London to inform Lord Palmerston of the merchants’ situation. Jardine encouraged the foreign secretary to send a naval fleet to evacuate the merchants, as well as to reassert Britain’s “right” to trade opium in China. He was able to convince the minister to support three main goals which included:
- The disbandment of the Cohong (guild of hong merchant-brokers) that would allow the British to deal directly with Qing officials
- Forcing China to compensate the British merchants for the opium stocks they lost during Lin Zexu’s crackdown
- Compelling China to hand over one of its islands that the British could use as a base in East Asia
The fleet arrived off the coast of China in 1839, and immediately rescued the superintendent Charles Elliott and his companions in Hong Kong. During the greater part of 1840, Charles and his cousin Admiral George Elliott led the devastating naval attacks on China. British ships easily blockaded Guangzhou before sailing north to take Zhoushan Island off the coast of Ningbo.
This was too close for comfort to the capital. Daoguang Emperor sacked Lin Zexu in frustration, and replaced him with the Viceroy of Zhili, Qishan, as chief negotiator. In January 1841, the two parties came to an agreement in the Convention of Chuanpi. Superintendent Charles Elliott represented the British side, while Qishan negotiated for the Qing. But to the emperor’s dismay, Qishan gave significant concessions to the British including the cession of Hong Kong. Despite receiving the island, the British were still unhappy with the deal. Chief negotiator and superintendent Charles Elliott was replaced with Sir Henry Pottinger when the negotiations finally broke down. Elliott’s troops, meanwhile, landed in Guangzhou and started to harass the people living in the city.
Pottinger himself was able to capture the ports of Ningbo, Zhoushan, Xiamen, and Zhapu between 1841 and 1842 in spite of the fierce resistance of the Manchu defenders. When Shanghai fell to the British navy in 1842, the emperor was forced to summon another parley. The result was the Treaty of Nanking which was signed by both parties on August 29, 1842, aboard the HMS Cornwallis. The terms of the treaty included:
- The opening of the ports of Shanghai, Ningbo, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Guangzhou to British trade
- The cession of the island of Hong Kong
- The establishment of fixed tariffs (set at 5 percent during the Treaty of Bogue)
- The condition that Britain would no longer be a Qing tributary, but a co-equal state
- The abolishment of the Cohong guild of merchants
This was later supplemented by the Treaty of the Bogue in 1843. Bullied into submission, China gave Britain the most favored nation status and allowed British citizens to enjoy the benefits of extraterritoriality. Eager to take advantage of the lucrative Chinese market, France, and the United States soon entered into similar treaties in 1844. China also granted an edict of toleration to Roman Catholicism after entering into a treaty with France.
Picture by: Edward Belcher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bury, J. P. T., ed. The New Cambridge Modern History. Vol. 10. The New Cambridge Modern History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge (Mass.): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.
Fairbank, John K., ed. The Cambridge History of China. Late Ch’ing 1800–1911. Vol. 10. The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Roberts, J.A.G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
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