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The First Opium War or the First Anglo-Chinese War was fought between the British East India Company and the Qing Dynastymarker of Chinamarker from 1839 to 1842 with the aim of forcing China to allow free trade, particularly in opium. The Treaty of Nanjing, first of the unequal treaties, granted an indemnity to Britain, opening of five Treaty Ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island, ending the monopoly of trading in the Canton System. The wars are often cited as the end of China's isolation and the beginning of modern Chinese history.


During the 19th century, trading in goods from China was extremely lucrative for Europeans and Chinese merchants alike. Due to the Qing Dynasty's trade restrictions, whereby international trade was only allowed to take place in Canton (Guangzhoumarker) conducted by imperially sanctioned monopolies, it became uneconomic to trade in low-value manufactured consumer products that the average Chinese could buy from the British like the Indians did.

Instead, the Sino-British trade became dominated by high-value luxury items such as tea (from China to Britain) and silver (from Britain to China), to the extent that European specie metals became widely used in China. Britain had been on the gold standard since the 18th century, so it had to purchase silver from continental Europe to supply the Chinese appetite for silver, which was a costly process at a time before demonetization of silver by Germanymarker in the 1870s. In casting about for other possible commodities to reverse the flow of silver out of the country and into China, the British discovered opium. Opium as a medicinal ingredient was documented in texts as early as the Ming dynasty but its recreational use was limited and there were laws in place against its abuse. It was with the mass quantities introduced by the British motivated by the equalization of trade that the drug became prevalent. British importation of opium in large amounts began in 1781 and between 1821 and 1837 import increased fivefold. The drug was produced in the traditionally cotton growing regions of India under British government monopoly (Bengalmarker) and in the Princely states (Malwa) and was sold on the condition that it be shipped by British traders to China. The Qing government had largely ignored the problem until the drug had spread widely in Chinese society.

Alarmed by the reverse in silver flow and the epidemic of addiction (an estimated 2 million Chinese were habitual users), the Qing government attempted to end the opium trade, but its efforts were complicated by corrupt local officials (including the Viceroy of Canton). In one isolated incident, in 1818, the Laurel carried word to Sydney of a US ship laden with opium and treasure which was invaded by Chinese pirates. The crew of the US vessel had all been killed, but for the escaping first mate, who later identified the pirates to the authorities. In 1839, the Qing Emperor appointed Lin Zexu as the governor of Canton with the goal of reducing and eliminating the Opium trade. On his arrival, Lin Zexu banned the sale of opium, asked that all opium be surrendered to the Chinese authorities, and asked that all foreign traders sign a 'no opium trade' bond the breaking of which was punishable by death. He also forced the British hand by closing the channel to Canton, effectively holding British traders hostage in Canton. The British Chief Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot (who, surprisingly, broke the blockade to arrive in Canton) 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. (This promise, and the inability of the British government to pay it without causing a political storm, was an important cause for the subsequent British action). Overall 20,000 chests (each holding about 55 kg) were handed over and destroyed beginning June 3, 1839. Following the collection and destruction of the opium, Lin Zexu wrote a "memorial" (摺奏) to the Queen of Great Britain in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the trade of the drug, as it had poisoned thousands of Chinese civilians (the memorial never reached the Queen).

Kowloon Incident (July 1839)

After the chest seizure in April the atmosphere grew tense and at the end of June the Chinese coast guard in Kowloon arrested the commodore of the Carnatic, a British clipper. On Sunday, 7 July 1839, a large group of British and American sailors, including crew from the Carnatic, was ashore at Kowloonmarker, a provisioning point, and found a supply of samshu, a rice liquor, in the village of Chien-sha-tsui (Tsimshatsui). In the ensuing riot the sailors vandalized a temple and killed a man named Lin Weixi. Because China did not have a jury trial system or evidentiary process (the magistrate was the prosecutor, judge, jury and would-be executioner), the British government and community in China wanted "extraterritoriality", which meant that British subjects would only be tried by British judges. When the Qing authorities demanded the men be handed over for trial, the British refused. Six sailors were tried by the British authorities in Canton (Guangzhoumarker), but they were immediately released after they reached England. Charles Elliott's authority is in dispute; the British government later claimed that without authority from the Qing government he had no legal right to try anyone, although according to the British Act of Parliament that gave him authority over British merchants and sailors, 'he was expressly appointed to preside over ' Court of Justice with Criminal an Admiralty Jurisdiction for the trial of offenses committed by His Majesty's subjects in the said Dominions or on the high sea within a hundred miles of the coast of China'".

The Qing authorities also insisted that British merchants not be allowed to trade unless they signed a bond, under penalty of death, promising not to smuggle opium, agreeing to follow Chinese laws, and acknowledging Qing legal jurisdiction. Refusing to hand over any suspects or agree to the bonds, Charles Elliot ordered the British community to withdraw from Canton and prohibited trade with the Chinese. Some merchants who didn't deal in opium were willing to sign the bond, thereby weakening the British trading position.


Preparing for war, the British seized Hong Kong (then a minor outpost) as a base on 23 August 1839. In late October, the Thomas Coutts arrived in China and sailed to Guangdongmarker. This ship was owned by Quakers who refused to deal in opium, and its captain, Smith, believed Elliot had exceeded his legal authority by banning trade. The captain negotiated with the governor of Canton and hoped that all British ships could unload their goods at Chuenpeh, an island near Humenmarker. In order to prevent other British ships from following the Thomas Coutts, Elliot ordered a blockade of the Pearl Rivermarker. Fighting began on 3 November 1839, when a second British ship, the Royal Saxon, attempted to sail to Guangdong. Then the Volage and Hyacinth fired a warning shot at the Royal Saxon. The official Qing navy's report claimed that the navy attempted to protect the British merchant vessel and also reported a great victory for that day. Elliot reports that they were protecting their 29 ships in Chuenpeh between the Qing batteries. Elliot knew that Chinese would reject any contacts with British and there would be an attack with fire boats. Elliot ordered all ships to leave Chuenpeh and head for Tung Lo Wan, from Macaumarker, but the merchants liked to harbor in Hong Kong. In reality, they were out-classed by the Royal Naval vessels and many Chinese ships were sunk. In 1840, Elliot asked the Portuguese governor in Macau to let British ships load and unload their goods at Macau and they would pay rents and any duties. The governor refused for fear that the Qing Government would discontinue to supply food and other necessities to Macau. On 14 January 1840, the Qing Emperor asked all foreigners in China to stop helping British in China.

Lord Palmerston, the English Foreign Secretary, initiated the Opium War in order to obtain full compensation for the destroyed opium. China lost the war and was forced to open its five ports to foreign merchants and to permit a territorial concession of Hong Kong.

The war was denounced in Parliament as unjust and iniquitous by young William Ewart Gladstone, who criticized Lord Palmerston's willingness to protect an infamous contraband traffic. Outrage was expressed by the public and the press in America and England as there was a perception that British interests may well have been simply supporting the drugs trade.

In retaliation, the British Government and British East India Company had reached a conclusion that they would attack Guangdong. The military cost would be paid by the British Government. In June 1840, an expeditionary force of 15 barracks ships, 4 steam-powered gunboats and 25 smaller boats with 4000 marines reached Guangdong from Singaporemarker. The marines were headed by James Bremer. Bremer demanded the Qing Government compensate the British for losses suffered from interrupted trade. Following the orders of Lord Palmerston, then Foreign secretary of Britain, the British expedition blockaded the Mouth of Pearl Rivermarker and moved north to take Chusan.

The next year, 1841, the British captured the Bogue fortsmarker which guarded the mouth of the Pearl River — the waterway between Hong Kong and Canton. By January 1841, British forces commanded the high ground around Canton and defeated the Chinese at Ningbomarker and at the military post of Chinghaimarker.

By the middle of 1842, the British had defeated the Chinese at the mouth of their other great riverine trade route, the Yangtzemarker, and were occupying Shanghai. The war finally ended in August 1842, with the signing of China's first Unequal Treaty, the Treaty of Nanking. Gen. Sir Anthony Blaxland Stransham led the Royal Marines during the Opium War as a young officer, and as the 'Grand Old Man of the Army', was awarded two knighthoods by Queen Victoria.


The ease with which the British forces had defeated the numerically superior Chinese armies seriously affected the Qing Dynasty's prestige. This almost certainly contributed to the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). The success of the First Opium War allowed the British to resume the drug trafficking within China. It also paved the way for the opening of the lucrative Chinese market and Chinese society to missionary endeavors.

Among the most notable figures in the events leading up to military action in the Opium War was the man the Manchu Daoguang emperor assigned to suppress the opium trade; Lin Zexu, known for his superlative service under the Qing Dynasty as "Lin the Clear Sky". Although he had some initial success, with the arrest of 1,700 opium dealers and the destruction of 2.6 million pounds of opium, he was made a scapegoat for the actions leading to British retaliation, and was blamed for ultimately failing to stem the tide of opium import and use in China. Nevertheless, Lin Zexu is popularly viewed as a hero of 19th century China, and his likeness has been immortalized at various locations around the world.

See also


  1. "Foreign Mud: The opium imbroglio at Canton in the 1830s and the Anglo-Chinese War," by Maurice Collis, W. W. Norton, New York, 1946
  3. Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839. From Chinese Repository, Vol. 8 (February 1840), pp. 497–503; reprinted in William H. McNeil and Mitsuko Iriye, eds., Modern Asia and Africa, Readings in World History Vol. 9, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 111–118. The text has been modernized by Prof. Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
  4. Hanes, W. Travis III, Ph.D. and Frank Sanello, 'The Opium Wars; the Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another', New York: Barnes & Noble, 2002.
  5. All about Oscar
  6. Opium War
  7. East Asian Studies
  8. Monument to the People's Heroes, Beijing - Lonely Planet Travel Guide
  9. whoguys
  10. Lin Zexu Memorial
  11. Lin Zexu Memorial Museum Ola Macau Travel Guide

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