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The Second Opium War (Arrow War, 1856-1860)

The Treaty of Nanking fell apart despite the significant concessions China gave to Western nations during the aftermath of the First Opium War. The disagreements escalated into the Second Opium War which lasted from 1856-1860. By 1861, China had suffered another loss and was once again forced to grant concessions to Western powers.  These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.

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The Second Opium War (Arrow War, 1856-1860)

China gave major concessions to Britain after its loss in the First Opium War (1839-1842) in the Treaty of Nanking. However, the unpopular and unequal treaty collapsed as the years passed, and war once again seemed inevitable. The British blamed the Qing officials for their lack of cooperation in enforcing the terms of the treaty. The charging of transit duties on goods was another bone of contention between the two parties. They also disagreed on when the Qing officials would finally allow British citizens the freedom to live and trade inside the walls of Guangzhou.   

By 1847, the patience of the Hong Kong administrator and British ambassador John Francis Davis was already wearing thin. He ordered an expedition to Guangzhou and seized several forts in Foshan. Unable to muster an adequate defense, the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces Keying was forced to promise that the authorities would let the British merchants and officials enter Guangzhou in 1849. This concession became unpopular with the inhabitants of Guangzhou, and news of it eventually reached the emperor. Keying was then replaced as governor-general by Xu Guangjin. In 1852, a Chinese official named Ye Mingchen replaced Xu Guangjin as governor of Guangdong.

The British merchants and officials fully expected that Guangzhou would be an open city in two years time. To their disappointment, Xu Guangjin shrugged off Keying’s promise and postponed it again in 1849. The governor of Hong Kong agreed to the postponement which only angered his compatriots.

While British troops were besieging southern China, the rest of the country was racked by civil war with the onset of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). It was followed by the Red Turban Rebellion in 1854 which would last for another two years. Besieged at every point, Qing officials were able to breathe a sigh of relief (though just barely) when Britain became embroiled in the Crimean War in 1854. This respite, however, would not last.

On October 8, 1856, Qing coast guards seized the lorcha named Arrow off Guangzhou on suspicions of piracy. The boat, which sailed under the British flag, was owned by a Chinese settler in Hong Kong who had registered it with the authorities in the colony. Most of the Arrow’s Chinese crew were arrested, but its captain, Thomas Kennedy, managed to secure the freedom of a couple of seamen who served as his skeleton crew. Kennedy and his men immediately returned to Hong Kong and informed the colony’s governor John Bowring of the incident.

The seizure of the Arrow compelled Bowring to authorize a siege on Guangzhou. British ships bombarded the walled city, while Governor Ye Mingchen responded by ordering the destruction of all British factories in the territory. Foreign trade was suspended, while all Englishmen in his jurisdiction were considered fair game.

The murder of missionary Auguste Chapdelaine was the official reason for France’s involvement in the Second Opium War.

When news of the conflict reached Lord Palmerston (now Prime Minister), he immediately ordered an expeditionary force to be sent to besiege China. The fleet was escorted by French forces who had come to seek vengeance for the execution of Auguste Chapdelaine, a French missionary in China. After serving as reinforcements against a rebellion in India, the fleet then proceeded to the waters off Guangdong in 1857.

The Earl of Elgin and British Consul Harry Parkes led this expeditionary force and the bombardment of Guangzhou. When the city finally fell, British soldiers arrested Governor Ye Mingchen and exiled him to India where he died in 1859. Parkes was left behind in Guangzhou as one of its temporary administrators while the British fleet continued north.

Lord Elgin led the bombardment of Taku Forts in 1858. When they came to the city of Tianjin itself, Xianfeng emperor finally sent a representative to negotiate. On June 18, 1858, both parties signed the Treaty of Tianjin (Tientsin) which forced China to:

  • Open ten additional ports to European trade, especially those that lead to China’s interior
  • Legalize opium trade
  • Allow the establishment of a British embassy in Beijing
  • Allow foreign merchants and missionaries to travel unhindered in the country

France and the United States also forced China to sign similar treaties. Russia then entered the fray and forced China to give up the land north of the Amur River in the Treaty of Taigun. It also compelled China to allow a joint administration of the land between the Ussuri River and the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

Allied forces came back to Bohai Bay in June 1859 to ratify the Treaty of Tianjin. Little did they know that while they were away, Xianfeng Emperor had ordered the fortification of Taku Forts and the improvement of its artillery. Fierce bombardment met them, and they were forced to turn back. Elated at their victory, the emperor’s ministers advised him to rescind the treaty and continue the fight against the allied troops.

The fight, however, was not yet over. A bigger allied fleet returned and easily captured Taku Forts. Allied troops soon entered Beijing where they encountered fierce resentment and resistance. Some of Beijing inhabitants captured and harassed the British and French delegation (including the vindictive Harry Parkes). Lord Elgin, in turn, ordered the splendid Summer Palace to be burned to the ground.     

For Xianfeng Emperor and the Chinese people, the concessions and humiliations seemed never-ending. He was forced to allow the foreigners to use Tianjin as a treaty port and cede Kowloon (Jiulong) to the British. To top it all off, China also had to pay war indemnities to allies. Russia took advantage of the moment to nullify its earlier agreement with China and took over the land east of the Ussuri River.

 The 30-year old Xianfeng Emperor died a tired and broken man in 1861. He was succeeded by his six-year-old son Zaichun (the future Tongzhi emperor) who would be guided by his father’s appointed regents.


Picture by: See page for author [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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