The First and Second Opium War | History of China (1839-1860)

The First and Second Opium War | History of China (1839-1860)

China, the middle kingdom, had been one of
the mightiest powers of the world for centuries. Their hegemony led to its isolation from most
geopolitical developments and world politics. After all, “China lacked no products within
its borders”, according to the Qianlong Emperor. When the British Empire demanded trading rights,
a contemptuous refusal was all that was given. The Chinese would soon be strong-armed into
allowing Western powers to trade on their territory however, and this all happened during
two wars that became known as the Opium Wars. -intro- Historical Background The early stages of the 19th century had been
tumultuous for China. In the south the White Lotus Rebellion waged
over provinces in central China. As for its international relations, they consisted
of tributary states that assumed a subordinate role to the empire. When the British Macarthey expedition reached
China, Macarthey himself was rather surprised the Chinese emperor refused all their requests
– such as trade and exchanging diplomatic contacts. Aside from this different take on international
relations, the industrialized west far superseded China in terms of industrial and military
power. There was an enormous discrepancy in power
relations of which China was not yet aware. It was during this time the British started
shipping Opium, from British-controlled India, into China. Unable to directly trade with China, Western
powers were forced into a separate trading area, the Thirteen Factories, outside of Canton
and had to rely on Chinese middle-men that charged high taxes. Thing is, tea, porcelain and silk were goods
sold with an enormous profit in Europe. As such, trade continued, though the situation
was far from ideal. Now, Opium was traded for China’s silver
currency leading to the outflow and drain of silver from the country. It had a rather negative effect on China’s
currency system, resulting in hardship on all levels for the population. While opium trade and usage was banned several
times, the Brits simply started smuggling opium into the country. There was a movement in China that voiced
their support for the legalization of opium. If legalized, the Qing could levy tariffs
and taxes on it, they reasoned. This movement was opposed by the Beijing court,
however. When in 1934 British Lord Napier arrived in
Canton as the first superintendent of trade, one of many misunderstandings arose. He refused to trade via the Chinese middle-men,
instead demanding relations with the Chinese governor-general. Chinese officials were forbidden from holding
relations with foreigners, however. Traditional system and all. When refused, Napier forced his fleet up to
Canton. He passed away of malaria before fighting
seriously escalated. But his death postponed war only by a few
years. Cooperation between the governments remained
impossible As suppressing opium trade and smuggling didn’t work, the Qing instated
more rigorous measures such as the death penalty for both users and smugglers. All the while, tensions kept rising… Anti-Opium alliance The conditions under which the Qing allowed
Western trade in Canton slowly became more problematic for Britain. But for China too the situation remained extremely
negative. Silver flowed out of the country at an incredible
pace. In 1839 the Qing government sent the imperial
envoy, Lin Tse-hsü, to Canton. He was authorized by the Daoguang Emperor
to put a halt to the opium trade. Known for being incorruptible and efficient,
he seemed like the perfect man for the job. He even sent a letter to Queen victoria in
which he wrote “Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for
sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly you would
deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused…” I feel that letter properly describes the
opium trade in China. Lin wanted to root out the opium importers
and distributors in Canton. He proved very able to do so. Initially not willing to use force, much less
to provoke war, British merchants resisted and Lin saw it necessary to isolate them in
their Thirteen Factories. They were forced to rescind their opium stock,
which Lin publicly destroyed. Lin certainly was efficient. He secured over 20.000 chests of Opium, but
his treatment of British citizens was seen as a crime against the London government and
her Majesty, Queen Victoria. The Chinese did not fully realize how their
course of action would be perceived. British merchants demanded compensation, the
British government pointed to the Qing as those that had to pay up. Lord Palmerston, the British PM, was initially
unsympathetic to British merchants not abiding to Chinese law. He changed his opinion in 1839 and now started
advocating for British trading rights. Tensions worsened further when a drunken English
sailor killed a Chinese citizen in Canton. The British refused to have him be tried under
Chinese law. The case was symbolic for the two different
perceptions of international relations. All the while Lin continued the cleanse of
Guangdong province – addicts and dealers were arrested and the price of opium skyrocketed. The Opium War When news of opium seizure reached England,
parliament voted to take retaliatory action. Wealthy opium merchants such as William Jardine
even returned to England to advocate their cause. Though parliament was angry, war was not officially
declared. British warships under Admiral George Elliot’s
command, from the Indian squadron appeared in China’s pearl-river in June 1840. By then there had already been skirmishes
between Brits and Chinese at Hong Kong. Local population in Canton and Hongkong poisoned
wells and refused to sell food to the British troops. Chinese soldiers, Braves and Junks were mobilized. Instead of attacking Chinese fortifications,
Elliot’s fleet simply blocked the harbour and sailed their force north, blocking other
harbours along the way. Sailing along the coast the British eventually
reached the Dagu forts where serious negotiations with Qishan, governor-general of the region,
were undertaken. While Qishan was initially praised by the
emperor for his negotiation tactics, within half a year he would be sentenced to death
as it became clear the British didn’t adhere to Chinese demands. On the British side PM Lord Palmerston was
equally furious with Elliott, replacing him with Sir Henry Pottinger. All the while, fighting on the Chinese coast
and countryside continued. Often led by Chinese gentry, militants attacked
the Brits. These would retaliate by virtually annihilating
garrisons, fortresses, junks and occupying parts of Canton. With less than 7000 armed troops the British
managed to beat the Qing both on sea and land. It was their technological and naval superiority
that made the Qing barely a match for them. The Qing’s military backwardness became
evident on land as the bannermen that fought the British troops were often scrambled together
groups of undisciplined soldiers. In August 1841 Pottinger sailed north once
again and seized multiple ports. He decided to force the Qing to capitulate
by cutting off China’s main river and seizing Shanghai and Zhenjiang. Local officials were afraid to report the
extreme defeats and as such the emperor received fabricated reports of victories over the Brits. But when the expeditionary force conquered
Chusan Island south of Shanghai, it became clear that Lin had failed his task. He was dismissed in disgrace. It wasn’t difficult for the Brits to amass
victory over victory, The amount of casualties by the end of the war shows this all too clear. There were under 1000 British casualties,
while the Chinese suffered around 20.000. They now started to wonder how to capitalize
on their overwhelming military power. After all, they weren’t eager to gain more
territory in China. They simply wanted to be able to use the country
as their foreign market. Open it up, so to speak. Eventually British forces started to close
in on Nanjing, China’s second largest city. Pottinger, refused to negotiate with the Qing
until they agreed to a complete deal. Eventually the Qing gave in. They had to give in if it wanted to continue
its rule over the Chinese people, retain some form of domestic stability, and maintain its
mandate of heaven. Ch’i-ying brokered the peace treaty – he
would play an important role during the second opium war as well. Peace of Nanjing When the Treaty of Nanjing was signed by Chi
all demands by the British were met. Ironically, the reason this war started, opium,
was not mentioned at all. To begin with, the Qing conceded Hong Kong
which would become a British stronghold in China. Furthermore, Canton, Shanghai, Amoy, Fu-chou
and Ning-po were the first ‘treaty ports’, opened to foreign trade. China was only allowed to raise extremely
low tariffs which could not be altered. British merchants were not subjected to Chinese
law, but to British law, as long as they traded within the treaty port. Britain was acknowledged as a diplomatic equal
and lastly the most favoured nations clause was implemented. This meant all privileges other powers enjoyed
in China, the Brits now automatically would enjoy. An indemnity to pay for confiscated opium
and war reparations had to be paid as well. Other Western powers now hurried to the table
to force similar treaties upon the Qing. In short, an entire system of treaties was
signed – referred to as ‘unequal treaties’ in Chinese historiography. The British Supplementary Treaty, American
Treaty and French Treaty followed in the years after the Nanjing treaty. These treaties and Western powers gaining
a foothold in China, undermining the traditional power, eventually led to a second set of wars
and treaties in the late 1850s. The Second Opium War (Arrow War) Shortly after the peace of Nanjing tensions
once again arose. After all, the Qing accepted the peace terms
with much reluctance. The Treaty of Nanjing was considered a temporary
setback and the most favoured nation clause was considered a way to pit the Western powers
against each other. Opium trade expanded along the Chinese coast. During the 1850s opium import rose to between
50 and 60 thousand chests a year – double that of the 1830s. Opium addiction increased and silver kept
flowing out of the country. In 1851 the anti-Western Hsien-feng Emperor
ascended to the throne. He was faced with the deadliest civil war
the world had ever seen, the Taiping rebellion, and concurrent Nian and Muslim rebellions. Now, although rebellion spread, foreign trade
in tea, silk and opium increased. Now, when the provisions of the Nanjing treaty
came up for debate in 1854, the emperor refused to concede any more treaty ports nor should
Westerners be allowed to move freely within China. Allowing foreign diplomats in Beijing was
completely out of the question. In treaty ports themselves Westerners were
continuously subjected to anti-foreign sentiment, unstable tariffs and corruption. The assassination of a French missionary and
the disregarding of a British flag on a Chinese vessel (named Arrow), provided the pretext
to once again wage war against China. French and British naval fleets sailed onto
Canton and without too much trouble the port was captured and a puppet government was installed
in the city. In 1858 the Qing quickly sued for peace. Accompanying the British and French delegation
were American and Russian plenipotentiaries. These secured near identical treaties for
their own countries. One of the treaty terms stated the Qing had
to allow foreign diplomats to stay in Beijing. Considering this would uproot the entire traditional
system of tributary states, the Qing became hesitant. They decided to not concede this point, although
it had been agreed to in drafts. When British and French ministers wanted to
enter beijing, they were refused passage. British warships were sunk out of nowhere
and the delegations were repelled from the capital for now. But in 1860, a year later, the French and
Brits returned with a vengeance. Outmatching the Qing troops under Prince Sengge
Rinchen in both technology and numbers, the bannermen were quickly defeated. Beijing was captured and the emperor fled
to Jehol. British negotiator, Lord Elgin, was subsequently
arrested during negotiations even though he flew a flag of truce. Twenty of his men were executed. As a reprisal, once he was released, Elgin
made sure to burn down the emperor’s summer palace. Prince Gong, now the main Chinese negotiator,
agreed to a treaty encompassing all those demands of 1858. This treaty is considered the official opening
of the Chinese Empire to the Western World. Foreign privileges had been increased and
trade would soon blossom for the West. These Western powers would play a big role
in the next couple of decades of Chinese history, and Prince Gong too played an important role
in Chinese politics, most notably as a proponent of the self-strengthening movement. Conclusion In 1858 the import of opium was legalized,
yet ever since 1839 there barely were any obstacles imposed by the Chinese to its import. It was not until the last phase of the Qing,
in 1906, that laws were implemented to object opium usage and trade. Actual effective combating has been in place
since 1949, over a century after the first Opium War. As the French and Brits waged war against
China, the Taiping rebellion, the deadliest civil war the world had ever seen broke out. These concurrent events were testament to
the dire instability the Qing dynasty found itself in during these years. After the Second Opium War a movement propagating
Chinese reform, led by Prince Gong, was launched. This self-strengthening movement was opposed
by hardline conservatives in Chinese politics, led by Empress Dowager Cixi. If you want to know what happened in the decades
after the Opium Wars, up until the eventual downfall of the Qing dynasty and abdication
of China’s last emperor, click on the playlist on the screen right now. Thank you for watching this video and don’t
forget to subscribe. See you next time.

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. Timestamps and sources in this comment

    Consider checking out the entire documentary about the collapse of the Chinese Empire and Qing dynasty:

    End of Empire – Downfall of the Qing Dynasty playlist:


    0:45 Historical Background

    3:05 Anti-Opium Alliance

    5:04 The First Opium War

    7:59 The Treaty of Nanking

    10:24 The Second Opium War (Arrow War)

    12:18 Conclusion


    Baum, R. (2010). The Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses: Modern History.

    Fairbank, J. K., & Reischauer, E. O. (1989). China: tradition & transformation (Vol. 57). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

    Horst, D. (1977). Geschiedenis van China. Het Spectrum.

    Spence, J. D. (1990). The search for modern China. WW Norton & Company.

  2. Probably just a coincidence but I took note that a lot of British people mentioned in this video have been born in year 1784. Quite suspicious and weird if you ask me.

  3. Another brilliant and high quality episode.
    It sort of reminds us of the trade war between US and China now.

  4. It's just hilarious that probably the biggest drug dealer in history was the British government. Great video man!

  5. Wouldn't the outflow of gold for silk and tea from the British offset the loss in silver that destabilized the economy? This is beyond my area of knowledge but I thought the Chinese traders dealt mostly with gold when it came to Britain and the other Western merchants? Any help on this?

  6. a wrong has been done-to fix it,great britain should now allow chinese triads to freely do commerce in opiods in the u.k.

  7. For people interested in an excellent book on the subject, I would suggest reading Imperial Twilight by Stephen Platt. It's also available in audiobook form.

  8. Well, actually the domestic opium had higher market occupation than the India one soon after the First Opium War. Even Lin ZeXu become an advocator of promoting domestic opium in 1847. After all, these are wars about silver not opium.
    Another interesting fact, the 'Thirteen Factories' of Qing own a quite notable amount of debt to the British they should have paid before the war.

  9. Could you clarify at 2:21 you say British Lord Napier arrived in 1934, but the photo on the screen shows he lived from 1786 – 1834? Was it a different Napier? …. Thanks in advance.

  10. Ironic how we Westerns peddled the drugs to others and used military force to protect those narcotics markets. Now we fight against what we created and fostered.

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