The (First) Opium War 1839-1842

A.) The Situation Preceding the War

The E.I.C. (East India Company) long had enjoyed a monopoly, among English merchants and companies, in the Asia trade. Trade was conducted by rules established by the Chinese, through the port of Canton; the E.I.C. exported silk, tea, porcelain a.o. from China, while the Chinese bought cotton and a few other items from the English - and in addition accepted payment in silver. The trade balance, seen from the English perspective, was negative, over a lengthy period of time. The E.I.C. attempted a number of measures to address this imbalance - growing tea in plantations in Assam and growing opium (since 1781) on plantations in British India were two of them.
At first, opium was a drug, legitimately traded for medicinal purpose and highly priced on the Chinse market. Yet, at an early stage, opium trade was declared illegitimate in China. Such regulations were not enforced in Canton, for the Chinese mandarins were underpaid, and the Chinese merchants in charge of trading with foreigners were taxed excessively; the illegal opium trade provided both with the opportunity to break even. The E.I.C. did not directly import opium to China, but auctioned off the Indian opium harvest in Calcutta, leaving the opium import to China to private merchants.
Until into the 1820es, the opium import through Canton remained at a high, but stable level (c. 4,000 chests per annum); toward the late 1820es and into the 1830es the opium import grew sharply (c.18,000 chests in 1826). Lin Ch'ing t'ien, new Chinese governor of Canton, decided to crack down on the illegitimate opium trade.
Two previous attempt to establish diplomatic relations between the U.K. and China had failed; the Chinese treated the English merchants without any understanding of English/Western law, and with Confucian contempt for merchants in general. The English merchants, on the othr hand, lacked proper organization. As long as trade was profitable, they were putting up with the humiliating conditions forced on them in Canton, but voices were raised to force China change her policy toward foreign merchants.
Captain Charles Elliot acted as representastive of the British government in the colony of British mrchants in Canton. He gave in on Chinese demands, had the stock of opium on British ships collected and handed over to Chinese authorities; they were burnt. Governor Lin then declared trade reopened for those British merchants who signed a document in which they promised not to import opium and to agree to the punishment of death to offenders. This document was bilingual, in Chinese and in a poor English translation leaving room open for interpretation; Elliot forbade any British merchant to sign the document (June 1839). Meanwhile, English warships had arrived in the Pearl River estuary, and were at Elliot's disposal. On October 26th two British ships defied Elliot's ban on sailing to Canton, and a British vessel opened fire at them; this event triggered the war.

B.) Elliot's War, 1839-1841

Charles Elliot was more of a diplomat than of an admiral. His main goal lay in reopening the profitable China trade, and in gaining compensation for the amount of opium previously handed over to Chinese authorities for destruction. With communication with London and Calcutta difficult, he had to make decisions on his own; he conducted a war with restraint. A British expedition occupied the island of Chusan in the Yangtse Delta (Aug. 1840) and appeared in the Gulf of Chihli, without making too much of an impression there. In April 1841, British forces stormed the forts at Ch'uen-pi. The British virtually were in control of Canton. Governor Lin was sacked; the new Chinese governor, Ch'i San, signed an agreement accepting the reopening of trade and the British occupation of Hong Kong; in return the British evacuted Chusan.

C.) Pottinger's War, 1841-1842

In London and Calcutta, Elliot's action - the evacuation of Chusan - was resented; Elliot was dismissed and replaced by Sir Henry Pottinger, an experienced military commander who in 1843 had forced the submission of Sindh. Pottinger wanted to force the Chinese government to sign a peace under British conditions - compensation for both the amount of opium confiscated and for the costs of the war; opening of further ports to international trade; the establishment of diplomatic relations. Elliot's policy of war with restraint was given up; Pottinger sought military engagement. When a British fleet sailed up the Yangtse and placed itself in position to both bombard Nanking and block the confluence of the angtse and the Grand Canal, the Chinese government gave in.

D.) The Legacy

ACED estimates Chinese losses at 30,000, British losses at 10,000. The latter figure seems exaggerated, the major cause of British fatalities as disease, especially among the British garrison at Chusan.
The Treaty of Nanking of 1842 is regarded, in Chinese terminology, the first of a series of Inequal Treaties. China was opened to international trade, no longer conducted according to Chinese rules. Now, China experienced an outflow of bullion, which caused poverty, and poverty again caused the emigration of Chinese coolies; it was also the foundation on which the Taiping Rebellion unfolded, the latter also influenced by the influx of christian missionaries.
The Chinese administration took long to realize the need to reform. A Second Opium War was fought in 1859-1860.

A Short History of the Opium Wars, from Drug Library
The Opium War and the Opening of China, by Xiangyu Tang, posted in 1997
Entry Opium War 1839-1842, from ACED
DOCUMENTS Document March 27 1839, posted by J. O'Brien, CUNY
Treaty of Nanking 1842, posted by J. O'Brien, CUNY
List of Documents posted (a good number on the Opium War) by J. O'Brien, CUNY; scroll down
REFERENCE Frank Welsh, A Borrowed Place. The History of Hong Kong, NY : Kodansha 1993, 624 pp.

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on October 1st 2004, last revised on November 19th 2004

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