In the 19th century, China was ruled by the Qing dynasty, who had been in power since the overthrow of the Ming dynasty in 1644. International trade during this time was conducted under tight controls with foreign merchants being confined to a small enclave in Guangzhou known as the Factories. The foreign traders could only trade through a guild of Chinese merchants, the Cohong, which was a source of great irritation for the international merchants. There was a prevailing feeling that gigantic profits were kept just out of reach.1
Part of the reason that this was such a large issue was that the demand was incredibly high for Chinese goods like silk, porcelain, and especially tea. The British in particular had an insatiable desire for tea, which led to a huge trade deficit between the two nations. An attempt to negotiate a more equal trade partnership was made in 1793 when King George III dispatched a trade delegation led by Lord George Macartney. The gifts offered by Macartney were not received with much enthusiasm, with the emperor viewing them as tribute offered by a vassal rather than an equal. The emperor believed the Chinese had everything they needed and had no desire to extend better terms to the British or any foreign power. While Macartney’s mission was a failure, a great deal was learned about China in the effort.
In the meantime, the popularity of opium began to rapidly increase in China as the original medicinal use of the drug shifted to mixing it with tobacco for recreational use. Recreational use of opium was initially a pastime of the aristocracy, but it eventually extended to all levels of society, creating an incredibly high demand for the product. The production and sale of opium had been illegal in China since 1729, but the trade was too lucrative for less scrupulous merchants to ignore. For instance, British ships would quietly trade with Chinese smugglers off the coast. With the end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade on China in 1833, even more opium flooded the market.
To tackle the growing problem of opium addiction, the Daoguang Emperor dispatched one of his most capable officials, Lin Zexu, to the Canton region in March 1839 to clamp down on the practice. Lin was one of the most accomplished administrators in the country, noted for his clarity of thought, incorruptibility, and the quality of his work. He launched a thorough investigation of the opium trade and recommended a series of hardline measures fully endorsed by the emperor.
Over 1,700 opium dealers were arrested and over 70,000 opium pipes were confiscated during Lin’s crackdown. He then turned his attention to the source of the problem, the foreign merchants who enabled the trade. He demanded the merchants hand over all their opium and not accept any further shipments of the drug. Hoping to buy him off, 1,000 chests of opium were offered to Lin which were worth millions in today’s dollars. He refused the gift and instead confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of opium.
It took 500 laborers, who were strip-searched after every shift, several days to dig a massive trench and dissolve the priceless powder with lime and salt. This action had the unintended consequence of causing the price and demand for opium to skyrocket. A further incident involving British sailors and the death of a local heightened tensions and culminated in Lin forbidding the sale of food to the British, which was enforced with a blockade. The first shots of the Opium war were fired when Charles Elliot, the British Superintendent, demanded the lifting of the blockade. On September 3, 1839, a brief and inconclusive naval skirmish was fought off the coast of the Kowloon Peninsula.
Food eventually got through and a few weeks later, on November 3rd, two British ships defeated a flotilla of Chinese boats known as “junks” and fire ships in the Battle of Chuenpi. A period of inaction followed this as the British gathered forces from half a world away. The Qing doubted it was possible for the British to fight a campaign so far from home. It wasn’t until the following July that the next noteworthy action took place when the British task force took the city of Chusan with minimal losses.
The British enjoyed a sizable advantage in naval power and confined their efforts to capturing coastal forts and naval blockades. Royal Navy officers were particularly keen to test out the newly-commissioned iron warship, the HMS Nemesis. On January 7, 1841, the Nemesis and a modern British fleet won a decisive victory in the second battle of Chuenpi. Lin Zexu was blamed for the string of defeats and dismissed from service. He was replaced by Qishan, a noble of Mongolian descent.
Following the battle, Charles Elliot and Qishan negotiated a peace treaty, the Convention of Chuenpi. The treaty granted Britain Hong Kong and $6 million in reparations. This was considered a fairly lenient deal, which outraged Elliot’s superior, the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston. As such, Elliot was dismissed soon after. Qishan was ordered by the emperor to be executed but was eventually pardoned in 1842.
With neither side happy with the 1841 treaty, the war continued and the British became more aggressive in order to force better terms. The discrepancy in firepower was such that most British casualties from the war weren’t from gunfire but from dysentery. Strangely enough, a lot of these casualties could have been avoided with opium, of all things!
In June 1842, the British took Shanghai and proceeded up the Yangtze River to take Zhenjiang and get within touching distance of Nanking, the capital, by July. This prompted the emperor to concede defeat and begin peace negotiations while he still had some bargaining power. The Treaty of Nanking was eventually agreed upon and was a great deal harsher than the Convention of Chuenpi. The indemnity payment increased to $21 million, Hong Kong was ceded in perpetuity, the monopoly of the Cohong was abolished, and four more ports were opened for business. Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai were all opened to Britain without any restrictions or conditions regarding trade.
The Treaty of Nanking was the first of the Unequal Treaties, a series of one-sided agreements forced upon the Qing dynasty in the 19th and 20th centuries. Each new treaty imposed upon the Qing demanded greater concessions which they were powerless to refuse. The Treaty of Nanking did not really resolve anything related to opium. In fact, opium was not mentioned at all in the agreement. It remained illegal but imports still rose in the war’s aftermath. It should be stated that some British statesmen weren’t exactly comfortable with the empire’s role in drug trafficking. William Gladstone, the four-time Prime Minister, denounced the Opium War and its outcome, saying
“A war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of.”
The war damaged the political careers of both Lin Zexu and George Elliot. Lin spent a few years in exile in Xinjiang but eventually regained a place in the Qing government, though his career never reached its prewar heights. Elliot was similarly sidelined with a diplomatic posting to the Republic of Texas.
It wasn’t long before the Second Opium War broke out. In 1856, the British were joined by the French in a four-year conflict fought much the same way with much the same outcome as the first. If that wasn’t enough, the second war occurred at the same time as the Taiping rebellion, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. But that’s a topic for another video.
Okay, before we go, let’s quickly recap what we’ve discussed. The Opium War of 1839-1842 was the first of two 19th-century conflicts fought over the opium trade in China. The Qing dynasty’s attempts to clamp down on the sale of opium led to an armed confrontation with the British Empire that began in the fall of 1839. The superior technology of the British navy led to a fairly straightforward victory in the limited war. The war led to the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 which ceded Hong Kong, opened trade ports, and granted a huge payment to Britain. The weakening of the Qing dynasty led to further concessions to other foreign powers and other conflicts in the 19th and 20th centuries.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!