20 Facts About the Opium Wars

Tom Ames

7 mins

14 Aug 2019

China started accepting foreign trade into the port of Canton in the late 17th century. To counter the trade deficit caused by British demand for Chinese goods, the East India Company (EIC) began importing opium to China.

Highly addictive and expensive, opium was devastating for the Chinese. Their attempts to prevent the drug entering their country resulted in two major conflicts, the effects of which can still be seen today.

Here are 20 facts about the Opium Wars:

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1. The East India Company were smuggling opium into China before the First Opium War

The opium was brought to the trading port of Canton then smuggled into the rest of China, which was still not open to international trade. Produced in India, Opium production and smuggling soon provided 15-20% of the EIC’s revenue.

The British Empire annexed entire parts of the Indian subcontinent, such as Sindh, in order to protect the EIC’s monopoly on opium production.

Stacking room in the opium factory at Patna, India.

2. Opium was socially devastating in China

By the early 1800s, there were 10-12 million opium addicts in China. Despite a total ban on the drug in 1796 every social class was affected. Coastal cities were hit particularly badly, as the United States, France and Portugal joined Britain in the profitable trade.

In 1810 the Emperor released an edict concerning the opium crisis. It banned the substance, adding that,

“Opium has a harm. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality”.

The edict had little effect. By 1839 up to 27% of the male Chinese population was addicted to the drug.

Opium imports into China 1650-1880. Image Credit: Philg88 / Commons.

3. Lin, the Emperor’s viceroy, wrote to Queen Victoria asking her to intervene

In the late 1830s the British were selling 1,400 tons of opium to China per year. Special Imperial Commisioner Lin Zexu was tasked by the emperor with eradicating the trade. He wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria questioning the morality of the British government’s behaviour.

Lin cited Britain’s own ban on opium, saying

“You do not wish opium to harm your own country, but you choose to bring that harm to other countries such as China”.

The letter received no response.

4. Lin finally confiscated over 1,200 tons of opium

Eventually, Lin confiscated 1,200 tons of opium, 70,000 opium pipes and arrested the dealers. Many British ships escaped Canton harbour, but some traders were forced to hand over their stock at great cost. The opium was destroyed and its trade was made punishable by death.

The British Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot, was now in command of a fleet of Royal Navy and merchant vessels idling outside Canton harbour.

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5. The war began when the Royal Navy fired on a British trading vessel

Elliot ordered a blockade to prevent any British ships trading with the Chinese. In November 1839 the Royal Saxon tried to sail into Canton, and the HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth fired warning shots at it. This caused Chinese ships to sail out of the harbour to protect the Royal Saxon.

In the ensuing naval battle, several of the Chinese ships were disabled, foreshadowing their naval inferiority throughout the conflict.

6. It took almost a year for the British to send troops

The incident caused debate and outrage in Britain. Some sympathised with the Chinese but many were angry that free trade had been violated. Tories and liberals opposed the Whig government going to war but their motion was defeated by only 9 votes.

Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister.

In June 1840, British land and naval forces arrived. Palmerston, the Prime Minister, instructed them to engage the Chinese in a punitive expedition and seize an island as a future trading post.

7. The British victory is an example of gunboat diplomacy

The Royal Navy outclassed the Chinese fleet and British troops were successful in capturing major ports. Disease was often more of a threat to British soldiers than the fighting. The British suffered only a few hundred casualties, whereas the Chinese lost up to 20,000 men.

The Royal Navy’s artillery bombardments ensured the capture of Chinese ports and river cities, including Shanghai. When the British fleet reached Nanking the Chinese finally asked to negotiate.

HMS Nemesis destroying Chinese war junks.

8. The British fleet was in a league of its own

Steam ships like the HMS Nemesis could move against wind and tides, which was very useful when attacking Chinese cities further up the Pearl River and the Yangtze. Several of the British warships carried more guns on board than entire fleets of Chinese war junks.

9. The treaty after the war was very one-sided

The Treaty of Nanking was signed aboard HMS Cornwallis on 29 August 1842. China agreed to open more ports to foreign trade, in addition to reopening Canton harbour and exempting British citizens from Chinese law. This put China at a great disadvantage in international trade.

The British also demanded $21,000,000 in compensation for their opium and the cost of the war, with $6,000,000 to be paid immediately.

The Treaty of Nanking, 1842.

10. After the First Opium War, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in perpetuity

As part of the Treaty of Nanking, Hong Kong island and a number of smaller surrounding islands were ceded to the British. When the Royal Navy first landed on Hong Kong in 1841 it had a population of 7,500; by 1865 its success as a trading post and difficulties in China meant the population had grown to 126,000.

Hong Kong remained a British colony for 156 years. It was transferred back to the Chinese government in July 1997, by which time it was home to 6.5 million people. Hong Kong was granted the status of a ‘special administrative region’, meaning that its governing and economic systems are different to those of mainland China.

HMS Cornwallis saluting the conclusion of the Treaty of Nanking.

11. Tensions remained high after the treaty

Chinese antagonism to the opium trade continued and they continued attacking British subjects near Canton. In 1847 the British seized important river forts as punishment for these abuses, in the Expedition to Canton. Britain soon began demanding a renegotiation of the Treaty of Nanking and the legalisation of the opium trade.

12. Eventually Chinese marines seized a cargo ship

In October 1856 Chinese marines in Canton seized a cargo ship, the Arrow, on suspicion of piracy. In the process they were reported to have lowered the British flag; the British fleet responded by destroying Chinese forts outside Canton. Tensions rose when the Chinese Commissioner issued a $100 bounty on every British head taken.

Chinese opium smokers, c.1858.

13. The problems caused a general election in Britain

Lord Palmerston’s Whig government in Britain was condemned for its actions on moral grounds. Radicals, liberals and Tories voted to censure the government and won by a majority of 16. As a result, the 1857 General Election was held.

However, Palmerston’s nationalist, pro-war stance was popular and he gained a majority of 83. A large-scale war was now inevitable.

14. France joined the British

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 meant that Britain was forced to divert troops to India. They sought the help of France, America and Russia against the Chinese. The French, angry over the Chinese executing one of their missionaries, joined them.

The two armies attacked and occupied Canton on 1 January 1858. Ye Mingchen, the Chinese Commissioner who had antagonised the British was captured.

Chinese Commissioner Ye Mingchen after the Fall of Canton.

15. A new treaty was nearly agreed

In June 1858 the Chinese agreed to open ten more ports to international trade and to allow foreigners to enter the internal regions of mainland China for the first time. The truce did not last long.

Within weeks the Chinese military refused to allow Anglo-French envoys and their military escort to enter Beijing. Fighting resumed, and Britain’s successes in the Indian Mutiny enabled more troops to be sent to China.

16. The Summer Palaces were looted by Anglo-French troops

Anglo-French forces captured Beijing on 6 October 1860. To exact revenge on the Chinese for mistreating prisoners, they looted the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace. This resulted in priceless works of art being brought back to France and Britain.

Capture of the Summer Palace.

17. The Second Opium War was also concluded with an unequal treaty

After Beijing was seized, the Chinese agreed a new treaty at the Convention of Peking (24 October 1860). The Chinese had to pay reparations to France and Britain, and a significant portion of the Kowloon Peninsula came under British control; importantly, the opium trade was finally legalised.

The victory in the war was a triumph for Lord Palmerston. Russia, who had helped convince Anglo-French forces to leave Beijing, was also granted land in northern China where they would establish the major port of Vladivostok.

18. The Opium Wars crippled China’s economy

By 1870, China’s share of global GDP had fallen by half. Many economists, including Angus Maddison, have argued that China’s economy was the largest in the world until the Opium Wars. The conflicts put China at a disadvantage in foreign trade and international relations for decades.

19. Gladstone was strongly opposed to both wars

William Ewart Gladstone, opponent of the opium trade.

William Ewart Gladstone, later Prime Minister of Great Britain, detested the opium trade. Gladstone called it “most famous and atrocious”, denouncing the First Opium War as “unjust in its origin” and “calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace”.

20. The Wars sparked a major modernisation movement

The Chinese army had been thoroughly beaten in two successive wars, and China realised they were lagging behind the West. They began a process called the Self-Strengthening Movement, in which China westernised its armaments and technology.

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