The First Opium War (1838-1842)

In the middle of the 19th century, the rising British Empire and the waning Chinese Empire went to war over drug addiction. In a sense, the two powerful countries took turns as drug pusher and addict. At first, the British were addicted to stimulating Chinese tea, which resulted in a trade imbalance because the Chinese bought few European products and demanded silver or gold in return. Because of this wealth sucking trade deficit, British merchants looked in vain for many years for some commodity that the Chinese would buy, until they finally found their answer in Indian opium from the province of Bengal. By the middle of the 19th century, thanks to Chinese addiction to Indian opium, silver flowed in surplus back to Britain. This greatly increased British prosperity and helped pay for the cost of running the colony of India. In short, much of British imperial success in the 19th century was based on hooking more and more Chinese to an extremely dangerous and addictive recreational drug.

China’s wealth and industrial production still dwarfed that of Great Britain at the end of the 18th century. So in 1798 when Lord Macartney won an audience with the Manchu (also known as Qing) emperor, a bit of diplomatic gamesmanship ensued when the British ambassador refused to kowtow on his knees to the august emperor. Instead, Macartney brought manufactured trinkets, such as clocks, and a letter from his king, George III. He aimed to impress the emperor with the manufactured goods and win permission to trade with the Chinese beyond the designated city of Canton (now Guangzhou). The emperor, however, seemed uninterested and sent a dismissive reply to the British king: “Our ways have no resemblance to yours, and even were your envoy competent to acquire some rudiments of them, he could not transplant them to your barbarous land . . Strange and costly objects do not interest me. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on strange objects and ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures” (Beeching 17). Macartney’s mission largely failed. The emperor preferred to hold Europeans at a distance and limit foreign commerce to just one port of entry, but opium would soon work its way far past the designated trade city of Canton.

The lucrative and illegal opium trade spread rapidly in China in the early 19th century. Arabs had traded opium to China for centuries for use as a painkiller. Few used it as a recreational drug, however, because it tasted lousy when swallowed and was in short supply. Then a new smoking technique increased demand by making the drug more accessible and pleasurable to the user. The Chinese Manchu emperor declared an edict in 1799 that prohibited smoking or selling opium (Beeching 25). But the key ingredient, morphine, created a chemically addictive euphoric effect on its users. Just seven to ten days of smoking could leave the user addicted for life (Beeching 27). In 1819, the East India Company decided to increase the supply of cheaper opium from Bengal to undersell American and Persian opium dealers (Beeching 34). With almost no navy to enforce the drug ban, the Chinese government failed to stop the trade on the seas, especially since the wealthy opium merchants could afford to buy the fastest ships available. Between 1805 and 1839, opium imports into China increased more than one thousand percent, from 3,159 to 40,200 chests (Lovell 36). By the mid 19th century, Opium use permeated Chinese culture, even infecting generals and imperial guards.

In 1838, a Chinese official described the opium transformation throughout society:

“At the beginning, opium smoking was confined to the fops of wealthy families who took up the habit as a form of conspicuous consumption, even they knew that they should not indulge in it to the greatest extreme. Later, people of all social strata—from government officials and members of the gentry to craftsmen, merchants, entertainers, and servants, and even women, Buddhist monks and nuns, and Taoist priests—took up the habit and openly bought and equipped themselves with smoking instruments. Even in the center of our dynasty—the nation’s capital and its surrounding areas—some of the inhabitants have also been contaminated by this dreadful poison” (Smith 36)

Finally, the emperor of the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty decided to stamp out opium once and for all. The imperial court understood that the trade debilitated their people and weakened the economy. One Chinese official commented that they were faced with a “life-destroying drug threatening to degrade the entire Chinese people to a level with reptiles, dogs and swine” (Lovell 21). Still, some Chinese officials wanted to legalize opium in order to tax it and trade it directly for tea so that silver wealth would not leave the country. But the emperor would have none of it. Instead, in 1838, he appointed a High Commissioner to extirpate opium by arresting opium addicts, dealers, growers, and merchants. The emperor wrote a letter to Queen Victoria of England: “There is a class of evil foreigner that makes opium and brings it for sale, tempting fools to betray themselves merely in order to reap profit. Formerly the number of opium smugglers was small; but now the vice has spread far and wide, and the poison penetrated deeper. . . We have decided to inflict very severe penalties on opium dealers and opium smokers. . . This poisonous article is manufactured by certain devilish persons in places subject to your rule. . . What is here forbidden to consume, your dependencies must be forbidden to manufacture. . . When that is done, not only will the Chinese be rid of this evil but your people too will be safe” (Beeching 76). The Queen did not reply, which did not bode well for the emperor’s plan.

The emperor’s High Commissioner, Lin, then confiscated opium in Canton and destroyed it, which quickly spiraled into a conflict between the British and Chinese governments. The British Superintendent of Trade in Canton was the highest-ranking official. Without permission or authority from his government, this official took it upon himself to promise British opium merchants that the British government would insure the value of all the opium that the Chinese government confiscated (Beeching 80). Suddenly, the British government was on the hook for the cost of a lot of illegal opium. Lin destroyed the 20,000 chests that the British merchants handed over (Lovell 69). The commissioner also demanded that the British opium traders sign a bond promising, on penalty of death, not to bring any more opium to China (Lovell 71). The British official refused to comply and so the foreigners were asked to leave China for good (Beeching 81). Meanwhile, on July 12, 1838, thirty British sailors on recreational leave in a village near Hong Kong, demolished a temple and killed a Chinese civilian. Lin demanded the British release the murderer to Chinese authorities, but the British refused, citing extraterritoriality, which means that British citizens cannot be tried in foreign courts (Beeching 88). So Lin then blockaded the British fleet and refused them food, water, and trade until they handed over the murderer and promised not to sell the poisonous drug (Lovell 8). The British official still refused to stop the illegal opium trade and, instead, gave the Chinese a deadline to lift the blockade. When the deadline passed, the British fired on Chinese junks, but the short battle ended in a stalemate because the British navy had not yet arrived. The First Opium War had begun, started by a British Superintendent of Trade’s support for the illegal opium trade.

Thousands of miles away in the London, Parliament debated whether they should go to war over the opium trade or back down from the conflict. Under pressure from British merchants and nationalists, some members of Parliament favored the war. Thomas Macauley, the Secretary of State for War, argued in parliament, “I beg to declare my earnest desire that this most rightful quarrel may be prosecuted to a rightful close. . . . that the name not only of English valour but of English mercy may be established” (Beeching 109). William Gladstone, a member of Parliament who had tried and failed to cure his sister of opium addiction, responded to Macauley’s flag waving speech by focusing on the high moral ground:

“Does [Macauley] know that the opium smuggled in to China comes exclusively from British ports, that is, from Bengal and through Bombay? . . . That we require no preventive service to put down this illegal traffic? We have only to stop the sailing of the smuggling vessels . . . it is a matter of certainty that if we stopped the exportation of opium from Bengal and broke up the depot at Lintin and checked the cultivation of it in Malwa and put a moral stigma on it we should greatly cripple if not extinguish the trade in it. They [the Chinese] gave you notice to abandon your contraband trade. When they found you would not do so they had the right to drive you from their coasts on account of your obstinacy in persisting with this infamous and atrocious traffic . . . justice, in my opinion, is with them; and whilst they, the Pagans, the semicivilized barbarians, have it on their side, we, the enlightened and civilized Christians, are pursuing objects at variance both with justice and with religion . . . a war more unjust in its origin, a war calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of. Now, under the auspices of the noble Lord, that [British] flag is become a pirate flag, to protect an infamous traffic” (Beeching 110).

Despite Gladstone’s famous speech in opposition to the war, Parliament approved military intervention in China by a vote of 271 to 262 (Beeching 111). There seemed to be a larger issue at stake beyond the pretext of free trade. The Lord of the Admiralty wrote enthusiastically to a friend in a private letter, “Afterall, it is nothing more nor less than the conquest of China we have undertaken” (Beeching 98).

As the war proceeded, British advanced military technology made easy work of outdated Chinese defenses. British rifles and cannons were far more deadly, and had a longer range, than their Chinese counterparts of swords, spears, old muskets and ancient cannons. The British also commissioned a new steam ship, the Nemesis, which baffled and shocked the Chinese soldiers. With its shallow bottom, it moved up the Pearl River towards Canton during low or high tides, and regardless of the direction of the wind. Its impenetrable iron sides rebuffed all assaults, and its powerful and accurate canons easily demolished Chinese defensive walls. In the first day of the naval battle at the fort at the mouth of the Pearl River, the Chinese lost 280 dead and 462 wounded (Lovell 132). The British, in contrast, suffered zero losses (Lovell 133). As similarly lopsided victories mounted throughout the war, British military superiority increasingly demoralized Chinese armies. Chinese officials, however, continued to underestimate the importance of British technology.

The Chinese blamed their overwhelming loses on their own poor leadership or the lack of local support. The Imperial Commissioner appointed by the emperor blamed the local people in the Canton region for their lack of support of the Manchu government: “The trouble lies within, not without, because every merchant has got rich through the foreigners, and even the lowest orders make their living from them. All the merchants and people who live near the coast are fluent in the foreigners’ language” (Lovell 149). The Emperor repeatedly changed the High Commissioner in charge of prosecuting the war as defeat followed defeat. But no Chinese general could respond effectively to British military superiority. One Imperial Commissioner insisted on fighting the British on land because he thought the Europeans could not “use fists or swords. Moreover, their waists are stiff, and their legs are straight. Once fallen down they cannot get up again” (Lovell 185). At the battle of Ningpo this same commissioner witnessed 500 of his soldiers die while the British again suffered no losses; after yet another devastating defeat, he killed himself by swallowing a lethal dose of opium (Lovell 190 and Beeching 146).

The disgraceful military defeats were less shameful than the final peace agreement. The Treaty of Nanking, signed on August 29, 1842, humiliated the Chinese. The British insisted that four more city ports be opened to trade, which would surely increase the illegal opium trade. In addition, the Chinese agreed to pay a huge indemnity equal to half of all government revenues for a year, and it had to be paid in silver (Beeching 154-5). To their credit, the Chinese refused to even discuss the legality of the opium trade. They could have gained huge revenue by taxing the drug. The Emperor said in 1842, however, that no defeat would convince him to legalize opium: “Gain-seeking and corrupt men will for profit and sensuality defeat my wishes, but nothing will induce me to derive a revenue from the vice and misery of my people” (Beeching 156). The British, for their part, proclaimed that they would not support or defend opium merchants or pirates. The Chinese commissioner who signed the treaty asked the emperor to punish him as a matter of honor—he was banished as a common convict. Both the British and the Chinese would find ways to squirm out of the key provisions of the treaty. The British did nothing to stop the opium trade and the Chinese refused to let Europeans stay year round to establish residence in Canton. Taking advantage of the degrading defeat, the French and Americans quickly made favorable treaty arrangements with China. The imperial vultures were descending on the moribund Chinese Empire.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton