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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 Great Qing and the British Government and concerned their imposition of trade of opium upon China. The resulting concession of Hong Kong compromised China's territorial sovereignty. The clashes included the First Opium War (1839–1842), with the British naval forces, and in the Second Opium War (1856–1860), also known as the Arrow or Anglo-French Wars to the Chinese, Britain was aided by French forces. The wars and subsequently imposed treaties weakened the Qing dynasty and Chinese governments, and forced China to open specified Treaty ports (especially Shanghai and Canton) that handled all trade with imperial powers.[1][2] Around this time China's economy also contracted slightly, but the sizable Taiping Rebellion and Dungan Revolt had a much larger effect.[3][4][3][5][6]

First Opium WarEdit

The fighting of the First Opium War

The First Opium War, fought over illegal opium trade,[7] financial reparations,[8] and diplomatic status,[9] began in 1839.

In the late 18th century, the British East India Company or EIC, contravening Chinese laws, began smuggling Indian opium to China through various means, and became the leading suppliers by 1773.[10] By 1787, the Company was illegally sending 4,000 chests of opium to China a year, each chest weighing 170 lbs or 77 kilos.[11]

The Chinese Emperor passed many decrees/edicts making opium trade illegal in 1729, 1799, 1814 and 1831, but smuggling still occurred as the British paid smugglers to take opium into China, causing the population to become more and more addicted. This in turn let tons of opium into China's markets [12] Some Americans entered the trade by smuggling opium from Turkey into China. Some of the individual American opium smugglers included the grandfather of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and ancestors of Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry.[13] By 1833, the number of chests of opium trafficked into China soared to 30,000.[11] According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the East India Company sent the opium to their warehouses in the free trade region of Canton (Guangzhou), from where Chinese smugglers would take the opium farther into China.[12] In 1834, the East India Company monopoly ceased.[14] The illegal trade, however, continued. In 1839, after having the Lin Tse-hsu Letter to the British monarch Queen Victoria pleading for a halt to the opium contraband ignored, the Emperor issued an edict ordering the seizure of all the opium in Canton, including that held by foreign governments and placed matters in the hands of a High Commissioner, Lin Tse-hsu.[15] The smugglers lost 20,000 chests (1,300 metric tons) of opium without compensation.[12]

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 illegal opium supply.

The British trade commissioner in Canton, Captain Charles Elliot, wrote to London advising the use of military force against the Chinese. Almost a year passed before the British government decided, in May 1840, to send troops to impose reparations for the economic losses of the British illegal traders in Canton including financial compensation, and to guarantee future security for smugglers. However, the first hostilities had occurred some months earlier with a skirmish between British and Chinese vessels in the Kowloon Estuary on 4 September 1839.[15] On 21 June 1840 a British naval force arrived off Macao then moving to bombard the port of Ting-ha. In the ensuing conflict, the Royal Navy used its naval and gunnery power to inflict a series of decisive defeats on the Chinese Empire,[16] a tactic later referred to as gunboat diplomacy.

The war was concluded by the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1842, the first of the treaties between China and foreign and illegal drug trading imperialist powers.[17] The treaty forced China to cede the Hong Kong island with surrounding smaller islands, to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, and it established five treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo (Ningbo), Foochow (Fuzhou), and Amoy (Xiamen).[18] The treaty also demanded a twenty-one million dollar payment to Great Britain, with six million paid immediately and the rest through specified instalments thereafter.[19] Another treaty the next year gave most favored nation status to the British Empire and added provisions for British extraterritoriality.[17] France secured concessions on the same terms as the British, in treaties of 1843 and 1844.[20]

Second Opium WarEdit

Depiction of the 1860 Battle of Taku Forts in the 3rd China War.

In 1853 civil war broke out in China with a rival Emperor establishing himself at Nanking. Notwithstanding this, a new Imperial Commissioner, Yeh Ming-ch'en was appointed at Canton, the principal trading port of foreigners, whom he loathed; he was determined to stamp out the illegal opium trade. In October 1856 he seized the British ship Arrow and threw its crew into chains. Sir John Bowring, Governor of Hong Kong, called up Admiral Sir Michael Seymour's fleet which, on 23 October, bombarded and captured the forts which guarded the approach to Canton on the Pearl River, and then 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.[18] Following the gruesome murder of a French missionary, Britain now had French support. Britain now sought greater concessions from China, including legalization of the opium trade, to expand trade in coolies (cheap laborers), to open all of China to British merchants and opium traffickers, and to exempt foreign imports from internal transit duties.[21] The war resulted in the Treaty of Tientsin (26 June 1858), which imposed on the Chinese the obligation to pay reparations for the expenses of the recent war, a second group of ten more ports being opened to European commerce, the legalisation of the opium trade, and foreign traders and missionaries gained rights to travel within China.[18]


  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. ^ Horn, Jeff; Rosenband, Leonard N.; Smith, Merritt Roe (2010). Reconceptualizing the Industrial Revolution. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-28950-4.
  4. ^ Pomeranz, Kenneth (2001). The great divergence : China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691090108.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Thompson, Peter. "Karl Marx, part 4: 'Workers of the world, unite". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "Opium trade - History & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  11. ^ a b 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.
  12. ^ a b c "A Century of International Drug Control" (PDF).
  13. ^ Meyer, Karl E. "The Opium War's Secret History". Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  14. ^ Haythornthwaite, Philip J., The Colonial Wars Source Book, London, 2000, p.237. ISBN 1-84067-231-5
  15. ^ a b Haythornthwaite, 2000, p.237.
  16. ^ Tsang, Steve (2007). A Modern History of Hong Kong. I.B.Tauris. pp. 3–13, 29. ISBN 1-84511-419-1.
  17. ^ a b
  18. ^ a b c Haythornthwaite, 2000, p.239.
  19. ^
  20. ^ Xiaobing Li (2012). China at War: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 468.
  21. ^ 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. 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 (Univ of North Carolina Press, 1975).
  • 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) excerpt
  • 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). excerpt
  • Platt, Stephen R. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age (NY Vintage, 2018), 556 pp. excerpt
  • Polachek, James M., The inner opium war (Harvard Univ Asia Center, 1992).
  • 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) excerpt
  • Yu, Miles Maochun. "Did China Have A Chance To Win The Opium War?" Military History in the News July 3, 2018

External linksEdit