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British bombardment of Canton from the surrounding heights, May 1841

The Opium Wars were two wars in the mid-19th century involving China and the British Empire over the British trade of opium and China's sovereignty. The clashes included the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the Second Opium War (1856–1860). The wars and events between them weakened the Qing dynasty and forced China to trade with the other parts of the world.[1][2]

In 1820, China's economy was the largest in the world, according to British economist Angus Maddison.[3] Within a decade after the end of the Second Opium War, China's share of global GDP had fallen by half.[4] In another research paper published by Michael Cemblast of JP Morgan and updated by the World Economic Forum, similar conclusions were reached—i.e. China's economy was the largest in the world for many centuries until the Opium Wars.[3][4]


First Opium WarEdit

The First Opium War, fought over opium trade,[5] financial reparations,[6] and diplomatic status,[7] began in 1839.

In the late 18th century, the British East India Company started smuggling opium from India into China through various means and became the leading suppliers by 1773.[8] By 1787, the British were sending 4,000 chests – one chest weighed 170 lbs – of opium to China a year.[9] The Chinese Emperor passed many decrees/edicts against opium in 1729, 1799, 1814 and 1831, but the trade flourished.[10] Even some Americans entered the trade by bringing opium from Turkey into China. Some of the American opium smugglers included the great-grandfather of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and ancestors of the former US Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry.[11] By 1833, the number of chests of opium trafficked into China soared to 30,000.[9] According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the British sent the opium to their warehouses in the free trade region of Canton (Guangzhou), from where Chinese smugglers would take the opium into mainland China.[10] The opium trade resulted in 4–12 million Chinese addicts and devastated especially the large coastal Chinese cities.[9] In 1839, after having a letter to the Queen of England pleading for a halt to the import of opium ignored, the emperor issued an edict ordering the seizure of all the opium in Canton, including that held by foreign governments.[citation needed] British traders alone lost 20,000 chests (1,300 metric tons) of opium, without compensation.[10]

China initially attempted to get foreign companies to forfeit their opium stores in exchange for tea, but this ultimately failed too. Then China resorted to using force in the western merchants' enclave. Forces confiscated all supplies and ordered a blockade of foreign ships to get them to surrender their opium supply.

The British government responded by dispatching a military force to China and in the ensuing conflict, the Royal Navy used its naval and gunnery power to inflict a series of decisive defeats on the Chinese Empire,[12] a tactic later referred to as gunboat diplomacy.

The war was concluded by the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1842. The treaty ceded the Hong Kong island to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, and it established five treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo (Ningbo), Foochow (Fuzhou), and Amoy. Another treaty the next year gave most favored nation status to the United Kingdom[citation needed] and added provisions for British extraterritoriality.[citation needed] Then France secured concessions on the same terms as the British, in treaties of 1843 and 1844.[citation needed]

Second Opium WarEdit

Depiction of the 1860 Battle of Taku Forts

During 1856–1860, British forces fought towards legalization of the opium trade, to expand trade in coolies (cheap laborers),[13] to open all of China to British merchants, and to exempt foreign imports from internal transit duties[citation needed]. France joined the British. The war resulted in the second group of treaty ports being set up; eventually, more than 80 treaty ports were established in China, involving many foreign powers. All foreign traders gained rights to travel within China[citation needed].


  1. ^ Taylor Wallbank; Bailkey; Jewsbury; Lewis; Hackett (1992). "A Short History of the Opium Wars (from: Civilizations Past And Present, Chapter 29: South And East Asia, 1815–1914)".
  2. ^ Kenneth Pletcher. "Chinese history: Opium Wars". Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Thompson, Peter. "Karl Marx, part 4: 'Workers of the world, unite". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  5. ^ Farooqui, Amar (2005). Smuggling as Subversion: Colonialism, Indian Merchants, and the Politics of Opium, 1790-1843. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0739108864. OCLC 57286105.
  6. ^ Teng, Ssu-Yu; Collis, Maurice; Pelcovits, Nathan A. (August 1948). "Foreign Mud; Being an Account of the Opium Imbroglio at Canton in the 1830's and the Anglo-Chinese war that Followed". The Far Eastern Quarterly. 7 (4): 435. doi:10.2307/2049731. ISSN 0363-6917. JSTOR 2049731.
  7. ^ Treaty of Nanking - Nanking, August 29, 1842 - Peace Treaty between the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Emperor of China - Ratifications exchanged at Hongkong, 26th June 1843.
  8. ^ "Opium trade - History & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-07-03.
  9. ^ a b c Hanes III, William 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.
  10. ^ a b c "A Century of International Drug Control" (PDF).
  11. ^ Meyer, Karl E. "The Opium War's Secret History". Retrieved 2018-07-03.
  12. ^ Tsang, Steve (2007). A Modern History of Hong Kong. I.B.Tauris. pp. 3–13, 29. ISBN 1-84511-419-1.
  13. ^ Yun, Lisa (2008). The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba. Temple University Press. p. 14.

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