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What Is The Opium Wars In China. Why Did The Chinese Fight Britain Over Trade And How They Were Abused!

Opium A Profitable Trade Enterprise

It was in the middle of the Qing Dynasty in China, That the leaders of the Qing Government did not really promote trade with other countries. They did not want their people to come in contact with anyone from outside the country. I f the Qing government found something it did not approve of, it simply destroyed it.

The government of China did not wish to participate in international, economic, or political relations. Mostly due to religious reasons. The Qing Dynasty most likely did not want China's population exposed to the other religions of the world.

There was only one Port that the Chinese allowed foreigners to trade with. it was the Port at Guangzhou. Britain faced a huge problem during this era. They had an immense desire for Chinese Products. Things like Tea, Silk,and Porcelain brought huge profits to the companies that were able to acquire these items. The downside of this economic situation was that China desired nothing from Britain for trade. Nothing except for one commodity, that commodity being that the Chinese demanded payment in Silver.


Britian Faces Economic Troubles

This created quite a complicated situation in Britain. Britain was paying out more Silver for Chinese products then they sere taking into their Treasury. Britain never received payments from the Chinese Government simply because China did not want any of the goods that Britain had to offer.

Britain soon found a solution to this perplexing dilemma. They would sell Opium to the Chinese. The Chinese were already familiar with Opium due to medicinal purposes but in the 1800's, Opium would become a recreational drug for the Chinese Population.

The British heavily influenced the Chinese to accept the Opium even though they had no need or desire for it. The desire was created as more and more Chinese people became addicted to the drug. This created an increasing demand for Opium from British Sources.

The EEIC or English East India Company,was the company that quickly monopolized the Opium Trade to China. The increase in Opium sales began to turn around Britian's economic woes as more Silver was filling their coffers.

Opium Wars

Opium Creates Terrible Problems With The Chinese Population

In the 1830's the Chinese handed over Thirty Four Million Silver Dollars in payment for British Opium. Once British India also entered into the Opium Trade (around 1819) with China the price of the drug dropped dramatically

To make up for the decrease in price, the amount of Opium sold to China increased. The English East India Company lost their monopoly on the Opium trade in 1833. Merchants worldwide were competing to deliver their drugs to the Chinese People.

In 1729 it was declared by the Yongzheng Emperor that the import of Opium into China would no longer be allowed by law. Therefore any Opium deliveries done after 1729 was done against Chinese Law and was in fact illegal. Britain could not maintain her economy without the Silver from the Drug Trade. Therefore the British simply ignored the Chinese ban.


Chinese Farmers in 1797, began to buy Opium from the British illegally so they could sell it and make a hefty profit. The estimate in 1730 of the amount of Opium smuggled into China was in the range of fifteen tons. A little over forty years later in 1773. the number of tons of Opium brought into China from Britain came to about seventy five tons.

With one more attempt to stop the Drug Addiction problem within China, the Qing Empire issued a Decree banning the Opium Imports. They outlawed the smuggling of Opium as well as Opium use itself. Opium had combined to create a large amount of drug addicts within the country, and also it was emptying the Chinese Treasury of its Silver.

It was a valiant effort but came too late as the Opium Problem in China had become too big to be blocked so easily. Due to the location of the Capital of the Qing Government being located far to the north in Beijing. It was very difficult to enforce the Government Decree to stop Opium Imports and sale so far in the South. By this point in time China was consuming well over 800 tons of Opium every single year.

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Opium Trade in China 1800 to 1850

The First War Fought Over The Opium Trade

Britain made efforts to convince China to allow the British to legally import Opium into China. The effort was to no avail as the Chinese Government refused to allow the Drug Trade to continue. These decisions by the Chinese Government did not dissuade the British from continuing with their Illegal Drug Trade with the Chinese.

The Chinese Government even went as far as to declare that any Opium Dealers born in China and participating in Drug Activities would be punished by death. The Chinese went even further when they created a Commissioner to Control the Opium Trade directly at the Port of Guangzhou, this Commissioners name was Lin Zexu.

Lin Zexu created a situation where the British was not allowed to trade with China at all. He also held any British Merchants that were in China as hostages.


In Britain decisions were made promptly. The British Superintendent of Trade had all subjects of Britain relinquish their Opium Supply to the Chinese immediately. The quantity of Opium that the British Merchants turned over to the Chinese was enough to supply China's Opium needs for over a year. Lin Zexu had all the Opium the British relinquished to the Chinese obliterated.

The British looked at the destruction of their Opium as a financial loss to their property. The Chinese allowed trade to proceed with Britain as long as the British did not import drugs into China. Lin Zexu had a Memorial sent to Queen Victoria claiming that the fact that the Royal British Government condoned the Opium Trade had been an erroneous decision.

The Chinese was doing everything possible to halt the Opium Trade and obliterate it from their Nation. The Memorial sent to Queen Victoria angered the British, they wanted the Opium Trade to be a legal commodity. The British were also upset that the Chinese caused the destruction of their Opium property without compensating the British merchants for the drug.


The First War fought over the Opium Trade in China began in 1839 and ended in 1842. The Superintendent of the British fleet, Captain Elliot requested as many ships as the British could send to fight the war against the Chinese.

There was two objectives that the British wanted accomplished through the war. The first goal was to protect the ships that that were still loaded with Opium from being destroyed by the Chinese. The second goal was to destroy significant sites in China to force China to legalize and allow the sale of Opium to their country.

The British had the upper hand, they were in possession of muskets and cannons. They were also much more experienced in warfare. The British left negotiations down to one choice for the Chinese. They demanded payment for all the Opium that the Chinese destroyed during the battle.

The Chinese turned down the British offer only to have Britain wreak more terror upon Chinese cities. In 1843 the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanjing, they did so at the point of a gun! The treaty caused China to turn over Hong Kong to the British, they were also forced to open four more ports for trading purposes. The Chinese were also coerced into paying over twenty one million dollars for the lost British Opium.

The Second War Fought Over The Opium Trade

The Arrow War, was what history calls the Second War fought over the Opium Trade. It is called The Arrow War because the impetus for the conflict involved a ship which was called the Arrow.

The Arrow ship was docked in the Chinese city of Canton. British Authorities had the ship registered at Hong Kong for over one year. The Chinese, who was pursuing a pirate thought the pirate was aboard the Arrow. The Chinese searched the ship without gaining permission from Britain first.

The Chinese tore down the British Flag that was on the ship while in the process of searching the vessel. The British were desperate to engage in legal Opium Trade with China so they used the crisis of the Arrow to start a second war. This time the British were allied with France who also proceeded to attack China.

The French reason for the attack was the death of French Missionaries in China. Both the United States and Russia sent delegates to China to try to negotiate but neither Nation provided any Military support. There was one other incident in which Chinese Bakers tried to poison Europeans by sending them poisoned food.

These were the incidents that started the Second Opium war.

The Second War over Opium lasted four years, from 1856 through 1860. By 1858 the British were already successful in taking over and occupying Tianjin. There was no way that China could stand up to a United European opponent, they were just too powerful.


This left the Chinese with no other option except to sign the Treaty of Tianjin. This Treaty allowed the British, French, Russians, and also the Americans create permanent bases to conduct diplomatic affairs. the Treaty also forced the Chinese to open up ten more ports for trade with Foreign Entities.

The Chinese also had to pay for all British property that was destroyed during the war. There was another Treaty that mainly affected the Russians. this was known as the Treaty of Aigun. This Treaty turned over Coastal Land in Northern China to Russia.

One year later the Treaties were ratified once the British and French arrived in China. Instead of this occurring the Chinese ambushed the British and killed many British men. This did not work out well for the Chinese as the Europeans returned the next year with an Army and proceeded to attack the Chinese Capital.

The Europeans went so far as to raze the Emperors Summer Palace to the ground. After an enormous amount of devastation and destruction the Governor of China submitted to negotiations. This led to the Chinese signing and ratifying the treaties that were offered to them. These Treaties gave Britain, Russia, America, and France the bases in China that they had desired.

Once the Treaties were in place, many of the bans on foreign travel within China was lifted. This allowed European Missionaries to purchase and own land in China. It also allowed them to work to spread European Religions throughout the Chinese mainland.


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Kamal Mohta from Guangzhou on November 03, 2012:

Interesting and informative article!

TheTruth on November 01, 2012:

The information above was so glossed over as to appear it was Britain's altruistic desire to open up 'trade' with China that led to the wars, culminating in the brutalization of its people, and ultimately their colonization and occupation by foreign powers. Not once had the author touched upon the issue of war crimes against the Chinese by the British during that period, nor the atrocity of racism fostered in its wake.

Padraig Beirne on January 19, 2012:

Surly this makes Britian's Queen Victoria the must gigantic drug pusher the world has ever known. She, like today’s drug barons, did not do the front line stuff she used her foot solders to do the dirty work. The British prime minister, Palmerston, was much closer to the front line action. When we consider that they forced the Chinese Emperor (also an unelected dictator) to reverse the anti-drug laws they were far worse than Columbians, US Mafia, Russian Mafia… combined.

Considering the above, Great Britian should be complimented for today making a serious effort in combating the spread of narcotics with their horrendous social consciences.

However, it still has a descendant of that gigantic drug pusher as head of state with no mandate other than the inherited title. Surly she must also inherit the war crimes?

andrebreynolds on October 23, 2011:

Very informative article about the popular wars between China and Britain. Thanks for sharing.

The Blagsmith from Britain on October 03, 2011:

Very interesting. I love history and this has been enlightening.

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