The Opium Wars (simplified Chinese: 鸦片战争; traditional Chinese: 鴉片戰爭) were two wars waged between China and European powers in the mid-19th century. The First Opium War, was fought in 1839–1842 between China and Great Britain. Opium was illegal in China but a profitable trade good for Britain which initiated war to keep the trade flowing. The Second Opium War was fought between the China and Britain and France, 1856–1860. In each war, the European force's modern military technology led to easy victory over the Chinese forces, with the consequence that its government was compelled to sign unequal treaties to grant favourable tariffs, trade concessions, reparations and territory to the Europeans.

Opium Wars
Naval battle in the First Opium War (left), Battle of Palikao (right)
  • First Opium War:
    4 September 1839 – 29 August 1842
    (2 years, 11 months, 3 weeks and 4 days)
  • Second Opium War:
    8 October 1856 – 24 October 1860
    (4 years, 2 weeks, 2 days)
  • Total:
    4 September 1839 – 24 October 1860
    (21 years, 1 month, 2 weeks and 6 days)
First Opium War: First Opium War:
Second Opium War: Second Opium War:
British bombardment of Canton from the surrounding heights, 29 May 1841. Watercolour painting by Edward H. Cree (1814–1901), Naval Surgeon to the Royal Navy.

The wars and the subsequently-imposed treaties weakened the Qing imperial government and forced China to open specified treaty ports (especially Shanghai) that handled all trade with imperial powers.[1][2] In addition, China gave the sovereignty over Hong Kong to the United Kingdom.

Around this time, China's economy also contracted slightly, but the Taiping Rebellion (1849–1864) and later Dungan Revolt had a much larger effect.[3]

First Opium WarEdit

The 98th Regiment of Foot at the attack on Chin-Kiang-Foo (Zhenjiang), 21 July 1842, effecting the defeat of the Manchu government. Watercolour by military illustrator Richard Simkin (1840–1926).

The First Opium War began in 1839 and was fought over trading rights, open trade, and especially diplomatic status. In the eighteenth century, China had a trade surplus with Europe, selling porcelains, silk, and tea in exchange for silver. In the late 18th century, the British East India Company expanded cultivation of opium in its Indian Bengal territories, selling it to private traders who transported it to China and passed it on to Chinese smugglers.[4] By 1797, the Company was sending 4,000 chests of opium (each 77 kg) per year.[5]

In earlier times, opium was taken as a relatively harmless medicine, but the new practice of smoking opium recreationally increased demand tremendously and often led to addiction. The Chinese Emperor issued edicts making opium illegal in 1729, 1799, 1814, and 1831, but imports grew as smugglers and colluding officials sought profit.[6] Some Americans entered the trade by smuggling opium from Turkey into China, including Warren Delano Jr., the grandfather of twentieth-century President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Francis Blackwell Forbes; in American historiography this is sometimes referred to as the Old China Trade.[7] By 1833, the opium traffic soared to 30,000 chests.[5] The East India Company sent opium to their warehouses in the free-trade region of Canton (Guangzhou), and sold it to Chinese smugglers.[6][8]

In 1834, the East India Company's monopoly on the China trade ceased, as the illegal opium trade burgeoned. Partly concerned with the moral decay of the people and partly with the outflow of silver, the Emperor charged High Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu with ending the trade. In 1839, Commissioner Lin published in Canton an open Letter To The English Ruler pleading for a halt to the opium contraband. The letter never reached the Queen. [9] It was later printed in the London Times as a direct appeal to the British public.[10] An edict from the Daoguang Emperor followed on 18 March,[11] emphasising the serious penalties for opium smuggling that would now apply. Lin ordered the seizure of all opium in Canton, including that held by foreign governments and trading companies (called factories),[12] and the companies prepared to hand over a token amount to placate him.[13][page needed] Charles Elliot, Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China, arrived 3 days after the expiry of Lin's deadline, as Chinese soldiers enforced a shutdown and blockade of the factories. The standoff ended after Elliot paid for all the opium on credit from the British Government (despite lacking official authority to make the purchase) and handed the 20,000 chests (1,300 metric tons) over to Lin, who had them destroyed at Humen.[citation needed]

Charles Elliott then wrote to London advising the use of military force against the Chinese. A small skirmish occurred between British and Chinese vessels in the Kowloon Estuary on 4 September 1839.[12] After almost a year, the British government decided, in May 1840, to send troops to impose reparations for the financial losses of the British traders in Canton and to guarantee future security for trade. On 21 June 1840 a British naval force arrived off Macao and moved to bombard the port of Dinghai. In the ensuing conflict, the Royal Navy used its superior ships and guns to inflict a series of decisive defeats on the Chinese Empire.[14]

The war was concluded by the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1842, the first of the Unequal Treaties between China and Western powers.[15] The treaty forced China to cede the Hong Kong Island and surrounding smaller islands to Britain, and it established five treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo (Ningbo), Foochow (Fuzhou), and Amoy (Xiamen).[16] The treaty also imposed a twenty-one million dollar payment to the Britain, with six million paid immediately, and the rest through specified installments thereafter.[17] Another treaty the following year gave most favoured nation status to the British Empire and added provisions for British extraterritoriality.[15] France secured the same concessions in treaties of 1843 and 1844.[18]

Second Opium WarEdit

Depiction of the 1860 battle of Taku Forts. Book illustration from 1873.

In 1853, northern China was convulsed by the Taiping Rebellion, which established its capital at Nanking. In spite of this, a new Imperial Commissioner Ye Mingchen was appointed at Canton, determined to stamp out the opium trade, which was still technically illegal. In October 1856 he seized the Arrow, a ship claiming British registration, and threw its crew into chains. Sir John Bowring, Governor of British Hong Kong, called up Rear Admiral Sir Michael Seymour's East Indies and China Station fleet which on 23 October bombarded and captured the Pearl River forts on the approach to Canton, and proceeded to bombard Canton itself, but had insufficient forces to take and hold the city. On 15 December, during a riot in Canton, European commercial properties were set on fire and Bowring appealed for military intervention.[16] The execution of a French missionary inspired support from France.[citation needed]

Britain and France now sought greater concessions from China, including legalization of the opium trade, expansion of the transport of coolies (cheap labourers), opening all of China to British merchants and opium traffickers, and exempting foreign imports from internal transit duties.[19] The war resulted in the Treaty of Tientsin (26 June 1858), which forced the Chinese to pay reparations for the expenses of the recent war, open a second group of ten ports to European commerce, legalize the opium trade, and grant foreign traders and missionaries rights to travel within China.[16] After a second phase of fighting which included the sack of the Old Summer Palace and the occupation of the Forbidden City palace complex in Beijing, the Treaty was confirmed by the Convention of Peking in 1860.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Taylor Wallbank; Bailkey; Jewsbury; Lewis; Hackett (1992). "A Short History of the Opium Wars". Civilizations Past And Present. Chapter 29: "South And East Asia, 1815–1914" – via Schaffer Library of Drug Policy.
  2. ^ Kenneth Pletcher. "Chinese history: Opium Wars". Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  3. ^ Desjardins, Jeff (15 September 2017). "Over 2000 years of economic history, in one chart". World Economic Forum. Retrieved 28 November 2021.
  4. ^ "Opium trade – History & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  5. ^ a b Hanes III, Wiliam Travis; Sanello, Frank (2004). The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. United States: Sourcebooks. pp. 21, 24, 25. ISBN 978-1402201493.
  6. ^ a b "A Century of International Drug Control" (PDF).
  7. ^ Meyer, Karl E. "The Opium War's Secret History". Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  8. ^ Haythornthwaite, Philip J., The Colonial Wars Source Book, London, 2000, p.237. ISBN 1-84067-231-5
  9. ^ Fay (1975), p. 143.
  10. ^ Platt (2018), p. online.
  11. ^ Hanes & Sanello 2002, p. 43.
  12. ^ a b Haythornthwaite, 2000, p.237.
  13. ^ Hanes, W. Travis; Sanello, Frank (2002). Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks. ISBN 9781402201493.
  14. ^ Tsang, Steve (2007). A Modern History of Hong Kong. I. B. Tauris. pp. 3–13, 29. ISBN 1-84511-419-1.
  15. ^ a b Treaty of Nanjing inBritannica.
  16. ^ a b c Haythornthwaite 2000, p. 239.
  17. ^ Treaty Of Nanjing (Nanking), 1842 on the website of the US-China Institute at University of Southern Carolina.
  18. ^ Xiaobing Li (2012). China at War: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 468. ISBN 9781598844160.
  19. ^ Zhihong Shi (2016). Central Government Silver Treasury: Revenue, Expenditure and Inventory Statistics, ca. 1667–1899. BRILL. p. 33. ISBN 978-90-04-30733-9.

Further readingEdit

  • Beeching, Jack. The Chinese Opium Wars (Harvest Books, 1975)
  • Fay, Peter Ward (1975), The 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, University of North Carolina Press.
  • Gelber, Harry G. Opium, Soldiers and Evangelicals: Britain's 1840–42 War with China, and Its Aftermath. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
  • Hanes, W. Travis and Frank Sanello. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another (2014)
  • Kitson, Peter J. "The Last War of the Romantics: De Quincey, Macaulay, the First Chinese Opium War" Wordsworth Circle (2018) 49#3 online
  • Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China (2011).
  • Marchant, Leslie R. "The War of the Poppies," History Today (May 2002) Vol. 52 Issue 5, pp 42–49, online popular history
  • Platt, Stephen R. (2018), Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age, New York: Knopf, ISBN 9780307961730 556 pp.
  • Polachek, James M., The inner opium war (Harvard Univ Asia Center, 1992).
  • Wakeman, Frederic E. (1966). Strangers at the Gate; Social Disorder in South China, 1839- 1861. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520212398.
  • Waley, Arthur, ed. The Opium War through Chinese eyes (1960).
  • Wong, John Y. Deadly Dreams: Opium, Imperialism, and the Arrow War (1856–1860) in China. (Cambridge UP, 2002)
  • Yu, Miles Maochun. "Did China Have A Chance To Win The Opium War?" Military History in the News July 3, 2018

External linksEdit