First Opium War
|First Opium War|
|Part of the Opium Wars|
The Nemesis destroying Chinese war junks during the Second Battle of Chuenpee, 7 January 1841
|23x15px Qing dynasty|
|Commanders and leaders|
|19,000 troops</td>||200,000 troops</td></tr>|
|Casualties and losses</tr>|
|18,000–20,000 killed or wounded</td></tr>|
The First Opium War (1839–42), also known as the Opium War and as the Anglo-Chinese War, was fought between Britain and China over their conflicting viewpoints on diplomatic relations, trade, and the administration of justice for foreign nationals.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the demand for Chinese goods (particularly silk, porcelain, and tea) in the European market created a trade imbalance because the market for Western goods in China was virtually non-existent; China was largely self-sufficient and Europeans were not allowed access to China's interior. European silver flowed into China when the Canton System, instituted in the mid-17th century, confined the sea trade to Canton and to the Chinese merchants of Thirteen Hongs. The British East India Company (E.I.C.) had a matching monopoly of British trade. E.I.C. began to auction opium grown on its plantations in India to independent foreign traders in exchange for silver. The opium was then transported to the China coast and sold to Chinese middlemen who retailed the drug inside China. This reverse flow of silver and the increasing numbers of opium addicts alarmed Chinese officials.
In 1839, the Daoguang emperor, rejecting proposals to legalise and tax opium, appointed Lin Zexu to solve the problem by abolishing the trade. Lin confiscated around 20,000 chests of opium (approximately 1210 tons or 2.66 million pounds) without offering compensation, blockaded trade, and confined foreign merchants to their quarters. The British government, although not officially denying China's right to control imports of the drug, objected to this arbitrary seizure and used its naval and gunnery power to inflict quick and decisive defeat.
In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking—the first of what the Chinese later called the unequal treaties—granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island. The failure of the treaty to satisfy British goals of improved trade and diplomatic relations led to the Second Opium War (1856–60). The war is now considered in China as the beginning of modern Chinese history.
Background – European trade with Asia
See also: History of opium in China
Direct maritime trade between Europe and China began in 1557 when the Portuguese leased an outpost at Macau. Other European nations soon followed the Portuguese lead, inserting themselves into the existing Asian maritime trade network to compete with Arab, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese traders in intra-regional trade. Mercantilist governments in Europe objected to the perpetual drain of silver to pay for Asian commodities, and so European traders often sought to generate profits from intra-regional Asian trade to pay for their purchases to be sent back home.
After the Spanish acquisition of the Philippines, the exchange of goods between China and western Europe accelerated dramatically. From 1565, the annual Manila Galleon brought in enormous amounts of silver to the Asian trade network, and in particular China, from Spanish silver mines in South America. As demand increased in Europe, the profits European traders generated within the Asian trade network, used to purchase Asian goods, were gradually replaced by the direct export of bullion from Europe in exchange for the produce of Asia.
British ships began to appear sporadically around the coasts of China from 1635; without establishing formal relations through the tributary system, British merchants were allowed to trade at the ports of Zhoushan and Xiamen in addition to Guangzhou (Canton).
Trade further benefited after the Qing dynasty relaxed maritime trade restrictions in the 1680s, after Taiwan came under Qing control in 1683, and even rhetoric regarding the "tributary status" of Europeans was muted. Guangzhou (Canton) was the port of preference for most foreign trade; ships did try to call at other ports but they did not match the benefits of Guangzhou's geographic position at the mouth of the Pearl river trade network and Guangzhou's long experience in balancing the demands of Beijing with those of Chinese and foreign merchants. From 1700–1842, Guangzhou came to dominate maritime trade with China, and this period became known as the "Canton System".
Official British trade was conducted through the auspices of the EIC, which held a royal charter for trade with the Far East. The EIC gradually came to dominate Sino-European trade from its position in India.
From the inception of the Canton System in 1757, trade in goods from China was extremely lucrative for European and Chinese merchants alike. However, foreign traders were only permitted to do business through a body of Chinese merchants known as the Cohong and were restricted to Canton. Foreigners could only live in one of the Thirteen Factories, near Shameen Island, and were not allowed to enter, much less live or trade in, any other part of China.
While silk and porcelain drove trade through their popularity in the west, an insatiable demand for tea existed in Britain. However, only silver was accepted in payment by China, which resulted in a chronic trade deficit. From the mid-17th century around 28 million kilograms of silver were received by China, principally from European powers, in exchange for Chinese goods.
Britain had been on the gold standard since the 18th century, so it had to purchase silver from continental Europe and Mexico to supply the Chinese appetite for silver. Attempts by a British embassy (led by Macartney in 1793), a Dutch mission (under Van Braam in 1794), Russia's (Golovkin in 1805) and the British again (Amherst in 1816) to negotiate access to the China market were all vetoed by successive Emperors.
By 1817, the British realized they could reduce the trade deficit as well as turn the Indian colony profitable by counter-trading in narcotic Indian opium. The Qing administration initially tolerated opium importation because it created an indirect tax on Chinese subjects, while allowing the British to double tea exports from China to England, thereby profiting the monopoly on tea exports held by the Qing imperial treasury and its agents.
Opium was produced in traditionally cotton-growing regions of India under EIC monopoly (Bengal) and in the Princely states (Malwa) outside the company's control. Both areas had been hard hit by the introduction of factory-produced cotton cloth, which used cotton grown in Egypt. The opium was auctioned in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on the condition that it be shipped by British traders to China. Opium as a medicinal ingredient was documented in texts as early as the Tang dynasty but its recreational use was limited and there were laws against its abuse.
British sales of opium began in 1781, and sales increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837[verification needed]. East India Company ships brought their cargoes to islands off the coast, especially Lintin Island, where Chinese traders with fast and well-armed small boats took the goods for inland distribution, paying for them with silver and causing a shift in its flow. By 1820, just when the Qing treasury needed to finance the suppression of rebellions, the flow of silver had reversed: Chinese merchants were now exporting it to pay for opium. The imperial court debated whether or how to end the opium trade, but its efforts were complicated by local officials (including the Governor-general of Canton) who profited greatly from the bribes and taxes involved.
A turning point came in 1834: reformers in England who advocated free trade had succeeded in ending the monopoly of the EIC under the Charter Act of the previous year, finally opening British trade to private entrepreneurs, many of whom joined in the lucrative trade of opium to China. American merchants then got involved and began to introduce opium from Turkey into the Chinese market — this was of lesser quality but cheaper to produce, and competition between and among British and American merchants drove down the price of opium, increasing sales.
In late 1834, to accommodate the revocation of the East India Company's monopoly, the British sent Lord William John Napier to Macau along with John Francis Davis and Sir George Best Robinson, 2nd Baronet as British Superintendents of Trade in China. Napier was instructed to obey Chinese regulations, communicate directly with Chinese authorities, superintend trade pertaining to the contraband trade of opium, and to survey China's coastline. Napier tried to circumvent the restrictive Canton System that forbade direct contact with Chinese officials by attempting to send a letter directly to the Viceroy of Canton. The Viceroy refused to accept it, and on 2 September of that year an edict was issued which closed trade. Other nations, such as the Americans, prospered through their continued peaceful trade with China but the British were all told to leave Canton for either Whampoa or Macao.Lord Napier had to return to Macau (where he died a few days later) After Lord Napier's death, Captain Charles Elliot received the King Commission in 1836 to continue Napier's work of conciliating the Chinese but failed to do so.
Destruction of opium at Humen
Main article: Destruction of opium at Humen
By 1838, the British were selling roughly 1,400 tons of opium per year to China. Legalisation of the opium trade was the subject of ongoing debate within the Chinese administration, but it was repeatedly rejected, and as of 1838 the government sentenced native drug traffickers to death.
In 1839, the Daoguang Emperor appointed scholar-official Lin Zexu to the post of Special Imperial Commissioner, with the task of eradicating the opium trade. Lin sent an open letter to Queen Victoria questioning the moral reasoning of the British government. Citing what he understood to be a strict prohibition of the trade within Great Britain, Lin questioned how it could then profit from the drug in China. He wrote: "Your Majesty has not before been thus officially notified, and you may plead ignorance of the severity of our laws, but I now give my assurance that we mean to cut this harmful drug forever." The letter never reached the queen, with one source suggesting that it was lost in transit.
Lin pledged that nothing would divert him from his missions," If the traffic in opium were not stopped a few decades from now we shall not only be without soldiers to resist the enemy, but also in want of silver to provide an army.
Lin banned the sale of opium and demanded that all supplies of the drug be surrendered to the Chinese authorities. He also closed the channel to Canton, effectively holding British traders hostage in the city. As well as seizing opium supplies in the factories, Chinese troops boarded British ships in international waters outside Chinese jurisdiction, where their cargo was still legal, and destroyed the opium aboard.
At first Charles Elliot protested and ordered the opium ships to flee and prepare for battle. Lin then quarantined the foreign dealers in their warehouses and kept them from communicating with their ships in port.
The British Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot, got the British traders to agree to hand over their opium stock with the promise of eventual compensation for their loss from the British government. While this amounted to a tacit acknowledgment that the British government did not disapprove of the trade, it also placed a huge liability on the exchequer. This promise, and the inability of the British government to pay it without causing a political storm, was an important casus belli for the subsequent British offensive.
During April and May 1839, British and American dealers surrendered 20,283 chests and 200 sacks of opium which was publicly destroyed on the beach outside of Guangzhou. Lin was able to sustain stability and prohibition policy for many months.
After the opium was surrendered, trade was restarted on the strict condition that no more drugs would be smuggled into China. Lin demanded that all merchants sign a bond promising not to deal in opium, under penalty of death. The British officially opposed signing of the bond, but some merchants who did not trade opium, such as Olyphant & Co. were willing to sign.
In late October, the Thomas Coutts arrived in China and sailed to Canton Province. This ship was owned by Quakers, who refused to deal in opium. The ship's captain, Warner, believed Elliot had exceeded his legal authority by banning the signing of the "no opium trade" bond. The captain negotiated with the governor of Canton and hoped that all British ships could unload their goods at Chuenpee, an island near Humen.
To prevent other British ships from following the Thomas Coutts, Elliot ordered a blockade of the Pearl River. Fighting began on 3 November 1839, when a second British ship, the Royal Saxon, attempted to sail to Canton. Then the British Royal Navy ships HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth fired a warning shot at the Royal Saxon.
The Qing navy's official report claimed that the navy attempted to protect the British merchant vessel, also reporting a great victory for that day. In reality, they were out-classed by the Royal Naval vessels and many Chinese ships were sunk. Elliot reported that they were protecting their 29 ships in Chuenpee between the Qing batteries. Elliot knew that the Chinese would reject any contacts with the British and there would eventually be an attack with fire boats. Elliot ordered all ships to leave Chuenpee and head for Tung Lo Wan, Script error: No such module "convert". from Macau, but the merchants preferred to harbour in Hong Kong.
In 1840, Elliot asked the Portuguese governor in Macau to let British ships load and unload their goods there in exchange for paying rent and any duties. The governor refused for fear that the Qing Government would discontinue supplying food and other necessities to Macau. On 14 January 1840, the Qing Emperor asked all foreigners in China to halt material assistance to the British in China. In retaliation, the British Government and EIC decided that they would attack Canton. The military cost would be paid by the British Government.
Some commentators claim that Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, initiated the Opium War to maintain the principle of free trade. Professor Glenn Melancon, for example, argues that the issue in going to war was not opium but Britain's need to uphold its reputation, its honour, and its commitment to global free trade. China was pressing Britain just when the British faced serious pressures in the Near East, on the Indian frontier, and in Latin America. In the end, says Melancon, the government's need to maintain its honour in Britain and prestige abroad forced the decision to go to war.
Critics, however, focused on the immorality of opium. William Ewart Gladstone denounced the war as "unjust and iniquitous" and criticised Lord Palmerston's willingness "to protect an infamous contraband traffic." The public and press in the United States and Britain expressed outrage that Britain was supporting the opium trade. Lord Palmerston justified military action by saying that no one could "say that he honestly believed the motive of the Chinese Government to have been the promotion of moral habits" and that the war was being fought to stem China's balance of payments deficit. John Quincy Adams commented that opium was "a mere incident to the dispute... the cause of the war is the kowtow—the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal."
In June 1840, an expeditionary force of British Indian army troops aboard 15 barracks ships, four steam-powered gunboats and 25 smaller boats reached Canton from Singapore. The marines were headed by James Bremer. Bremer demanded the Qing Government compensate the British for losses suffered from interrupted trade.
British military superiority drew heavily on newly applied technology. British warships wrought havoc on coastal towns; the steam ship Nemesis was able to move against the winds and tides and support a gun platform with very heavy guns and congreve rockets. In addition, the British troops were the first to be armed with modern rifles, which fired more rapidly and with greater accuracy than matchlock muskets and artillery wielded by Manchu Bannermen and Han Green Standard Army troops, though Chinese cannons had been in use since previous dynasties.
Following the orders of Lord Palmerston, a British expedition blockaded the Mouth of Pearl River and moved north to take Zhoushan. Led by Commodore J.J. Gordon Bremer in the Wellesley, they captured the empty city after an exchange of gunfire with shore batteries that caused only minor casualties.
The next year, 1841, the British captured the Bogue forts that guarded the mouth of the Pearl River—the waterway between Hong Kong and Canton. Meanwhile, at the far west in Tibet, the start of the Sino-Sikh war added another front to the strained Qing military. By January 1841, British forces commanded the high ground around Canton and defeated Bannermen at Ningbo and at the military post of Dinghai. In the same year the British made three unsuccessful attempts to capture the harbour of Keelung on the northeast coast of Taiwan.
Once the British took Canton, they sailed up the Yangtze and captured the emperor's tax barges, a devastating blow since it slashed the revenue of the imperial court in Beijing to just a fraction of what it had been.
By the middle of 1842, the British had defeated the Chinese at the mouth of their other great riverine trade route, the Yangtze, and occupied Shanghai. The war finally ended in August 1842, with the signing of China's first Unequal Treaty, the Treaty of Nanking.
In the supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, the Qing empire also recognised Britain as an equal to China and gave British subjects extraterritorial privileges in treaty ports. In 1844, the United States and France concluded similar treaties with China, the Treaty of Wanghia and Treaty of Whampoa respectively.
The war marked the start of what 20th century nationalists called the "Century of Humiliation". The ease with which the British forces defeated the numerically superior Chinese armies damaged the Qing dynasty's prestige. The Treaty of Nanking was a step to opening the lucrative Chinese market to global commerce and the opium trade. The interpretation of the war, which was long the standard in the People's Republic of China, was summarized in 1976: The Opium War, "in which the Chinese people fought against British aggression, marked the beginning of modern Chinese history and the start of the Chinese people's bourgeois-democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism."
The Treaty of Nanjing, the Supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, and two French and American agreements were all "unequaled treaties" signed between 1842 and 1844. The terms of these treaties undermined China's traditional mechanisms of foreign relations and methods of controlled trade. Five ports were opened for trade, gunboats, and foreign residence: Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai. Hong Kong was seized by the British and a free and open port. Tariffs were abolished thus preventing the Chinese from raising future duties to protect domestic industries and extraterritorial practices exempted Westerners from Chinese law. This made them subject to their own civil and criminal laws of their home country. Most importantly, the opium problem was never addressed and after the treaty was signed opium addiction doubled. China was forced to pay 21 million silver taels as an indemnity, which was used to pay compensation for the traders' opium destroyed by Commissioner Lin. A couple years after the treaties were signed internal rebellion began to threaten foreign trade. Due to the Qing government's inability to control collection of taxes on imported goods, the British government convinced the Manchu court to allow Westerners to partake in government official affairs. By the 1850s the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, one of the most important bureaucracies in the Manchu Government, was partially staffed and managed by Western Foreigners. Sometime between 1858 and 1860 opium was legalised.
Commissioner Lin, often referred to as "Lin the Clear Sky" for his moral probity, was made a scapegoat. He was blamed for ultimately failing to stem the tide of opium imports and usage as well as for provoking an unwinnable war through his rigidity and lack of understanding of the changing world. Nevertheless, as the Chinese nation formed in the 20th century, Lin became viewed as a hero, and has been immortalized at various locations around the world.
The First Opium War both reflected and contributed to a further weakening of the Chinese state's power and legitimacy. Anti-Qing sentiment grew in the form of rebellions, such as the Taiping Rebellion, a war lasting from 1850–64 in which at least 20 million Chinese died. The decline of the Qing dynasty was beginning to be felt by much of the Chinese population.
Contemporaneous Qing Dynasty wars:
References and further reading
Fictional and narrative literature