The 6 Main Causes of the Opium Wars | History Hit

The 6 Main Causes of the Opium Wars

Richard Bevan

15 Feb 2022
Commissioner Lin Zexu oversees the destruction of contraband opium seized from British traders. In June 1839, Chinese workers mixed the opium with lime and salt before it washed out to sea near Humen Town.
Image Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The Opium Wars were waged primarily between Britain and the Qing dynasty of China over questions of trade, opium, silver and imperial influence. The first was fought in 1839-1842, while the second occurred in 1856–1860.

In what is regarded as one of the most shameful episodes in British history, the government-chartered East India Company, desperate to cancel its own debts, encouraged the sale of opium to China in the 18th and 19th centuries. The trade of opium contributed to mounting tensions between Britain and China that, amongst other disputes, culminated in the Opium Wars and two Chinese defeats.

Here are 6 of the chief causes of the Opium Wars.

1. British economic interests

In 1792, Britain needed new sources of revenue and trade after it had lost its colonies in America. Wars had dented the national treasury, as had the cost of maintaining military bases across the vast British Empire, particularly in India.

By the 1800s, the East India Company (EIC) was reeling in debt. The EIC looked to Asia for new trading partners and in particular China as the country that could provide a new lucrative exchange of goods. A hugely profitable demand in England for Chinese tea, along with other goods such as silk and porcelain had led to a three-pointed trade operation, where Britain shipped Indian cotton and British silver to China in exchange for China’s highly desired goods.

The problem for Britain was a trade imbalance between the two countries, mainly due to the fact that China had little interest in British products. Even an envoy mission from Britain to China by ship laden with a treasure trove of goods that included clocks, telescopes and a carriage, failed to impress emperor Qianlong. Britain needed to find something the Chinese desperately wanted.

2. The tea craze

Britain’s demands for black tea were high as Britain’s households discovered a new recreational pastime. In 1792, the British were importing tens of millions of pounds (weight) of tea every year. Within two decades import duties would account for 10% of the government’s entire revenue.

Tea was one of the major drivers of the British economy and was so essential to the country that the Canton system (where all foreign trade into China was restricted to the southern port city of Canton, present-day Guangzhou) was no longer acceptable to British traders and the British government.

The European ‘factories’ at Guangzhou (Canton) China ca 1840. Engraving based on a drawing made during the First Opium War by John Ouchterlony.

Image Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

As a result of British demand for tea, Britain was running a huge trade deficit with the Chinese: silver was flooding out of Britain and into China, and it desperately wanted to change that. For all Britain’s power, it didn’t have the raw currency needed to continue paying for its tea habit.

3. The scourge of opium

By the 19th century, the East India Company was reeling under the staggering debt it owed the British government for underwriting its military conquests in India. As China had shown little interest in importing products from Britain, the EIC needed to find something other than silver that the Chinese wanted to import, to offset the massive cost for Victorian’s need for tea. The answer was opium.

It seems morally repugnant that any country from the industrialised West could justify trading opium to make a profit. But the view in Britain at the time, under the leadership of Prime Minister Henry Palmerston, was that getting the empire out of debt took precedence.

Where the East India Company’s plans to grow cotton in India had gone awry, it discovered that all that available land was suitable to grow poppies. A new trade was set up converting poppies into opium in India, then selling it at a profit in China. The profits bought the much sought-after tea in China, which was then sold at a profit in Britain.

Illustration of opium smokers in China, created by Morin, published in Le Tour du Monde, Paris, 1860.

Image Credit: Marzolino/Shutterstock

4. China’s crackdown on opium smuggling

The distribution and use of opium was illegal in China at the time. This reality caused a problem for the EIC, which had plans to swamp China with the addictive substance. As it didn’t want to risk being banned from China and losing its access to tea, the company set up a base in Calcutta, India, near to the Chinese border. From there, smugglers, with the endorsement of the EIC, handled the distribution of large quantities of opium into China.

Indian-grown opium turned out to be more potent than China’s domestically-grown product, resulting in opium sales in China skyrocketing. By 1835, the East India Company was distributing 3,064 million lbs per year into China. The figure was to become even bigger by 1833 when the British government decided to revoke the EIC’s monopoly on the opium trade, allowing an unregulated trade of the lethal product into China and driving prices down for buyers.

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5. Lin Zexu’s siege of foreign opium traders

In response to the influx of opium in China, Emperor Daoguang (1782-1850) appointed an official, Lin Zexu, to address the effects of opium on the country. Zexu saw the morally corrupting effect of opium on the people of China and implemented a total ban on the drug, to the point of death sentences for those who traded in it.

In March 1839, Zexu planned to cut off the source of opium in Canton, arresting thousands of opium traders and putting addicts into rehabilitation programmes. As well as confiscating opium pipes and closing down opium dens, he turned on the western traders forcing them to surrender their stores of opium. When they resisted, Zexu rounded up troops and put the foreign warehouses under siege.

The foreign traders surrendered 21,000 chests of opium, which Zexu burned. The opium destroyed was worth more than the British government had spent on its empire’s military the previous year.

Further to this, Zexu ordered the Portuguese to eject all British from the port of Macau. The British retreated to what was then an insignificant island off the coast, which would eventually become known as Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was a small British settlement in the early 1840s. After the Opium Wars, China ceded Hong Kong to Britain.

Image Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

6. British desires to trade with China outside of Canton

Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) had seen foreign traders as a potentially destabilising influence on China and placed strict controls on foreign trade, limiting trade to just a few ports. Traders weren’t allowed to set foot in the empire except for a handful of cities, and all trade had to go through a trade monopoly known as the Hong, who taxed and regulated foreign trade.

By the middle of the 18th century, trade for the British was restricted to a single port, Canton. Foreign traders, including the EIC and the British government, were firmly opposed to this system. Straining under debt, they wanted to open China up to unrestricted trade.

After the Opium Wars, China surrendered a number of ports to foreign trade. In June 1858, the treaties of Tianjin provided residence in Beijing for foreign envoys and the opening of new ports to Western trade. Foreign travel in the interior of China was also sanctioned and freedom of movement for Christian missionaries was granted.

Richard Bevan