The Opium War

“From the first day to this, sheer greed was the driving spirit of civilization”
Friedrich Engels

“The ignorant mind, with its infinite afflictions, passions, and evils, is rooted in the three poisons. Greed, anger, and delusion.”

For thousands of years China was the world’s economic, scientific, and artistic leader. Nations around the world emulated and admired Chinese culture. During the Qing Dynasty, in the 19th century, the power of the Red Dragon began to wane. The trade and usages of the drug opium was destroying China. The culmination of the battle against the drug was the Opium War. Several points will be considered in examining this conflict between China and Great Britain. What motivated the British to trade deadly opium with the Chinese? How did opium affect the Chinese country and its people? And lastly what steps did the Chinese take to stop the drug trade and how did this lead them into war with the British?

The Manchus ruled China from 1644 to 1912. This Period was known as the Qing Dynasty. The Manchus ran a strong government, but their bureaucratic power began to decline in the 18th century. Though their economy and agriculture were strong, many military campaigns had stretched resources. Government officials were also becoming exceedingly corrupt as in the case of the Government’s trade firms, the Cohong.

The Cohong dealt with all foreign trade and merchants. There were thirteen Cohong firms in all. All firms were located in Canton, the only Chinese city open to foreign traders and they could reside only in the trading area of Canton. In fact, China only had contact with foreigners through trade.

Britain began trading in earnest during the 18th century. Traders acquired ceramics, silk, cotton, and many other goods in great quantities from the Chinese. The Chinese were proud of their commodities and with good reason.

Within a short time Chinese silks were being worn in the streets of Kyoto and Lima. Chinese cottons were being sold in Filipino and Mexican markets, and Chinese porcelain was being used in fashioning homes from Sakai to London.

The Chinese were confident that everyone needed their goods, but they needed no one else’s. “As Your Amabssador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” Emperor Qianlong once said to the British Lord Macartney. Selling wares poured money into the Chinese coffers and out of the hands of British traders. With the heightened demand for Chinese tea from the British nobility, more money began to flow into China. One-tenth of Chinese tax revenue came from its sale of tea. The British trading firm, the East India Company controlled nearly all trade with China, and even an Act of Parliament ordered them to maintain a year’s supply of Chinese tea.

British traders were concerned with one thing, making money. They wanted to exploit Chinese resources, economy, and workers. The British saw a solution to this trade deficit with the Chinese. That solution was the drug opium. The Portuguese traded Opium with the Chinese since the 1750s. The British picked up the trade in the 1770s. Funded by the East India Company, the opium trade grew significantly each year and by the 1820’s, the Chinese paid two million silver each year for opium. During the 1830’s the number had increased by nine million each year. The uneven British trade with China was quickly tipping into Britain’s favor.

Using its Indian colony to grow and produce Opium, Britain pumped the drug into China. Corrupt Cohong officials gladly helped traders get the drug into China. Smuggling networks once used for salt were quickly converted to haul opium. By 1834, the East India Company had a monopoly on the production and sale of opium. The company even sold pamphlets on how to properly sell the drugs. One British official went so far as to say “British East Indian Company is the Father of all drug smuggling and smugglers.”

The East India Company avoided implication in the illegal trade by not selling directly to the Chinese. They simply sold what they produced in India to British merchants. Where the merchants sold the opium was none of their business. The Chinese government did not agree.

The sale of opium in China greatly affected their economy and citizens. Silver had been flowing into China’s coffers for some time before the opium trade began. As stated earlier, Chinese made goods were being sold and transported all over the world while the Chinese bought nothing from traders. The sale of opium siphoned money from the Chinese at an astonishing rate. This raised the amount of copper coins it took to equal silver coins. This hurt the ordinary citizen a great deal. Economic hard times worsened the already troubling problem of opium addiction in China.

Opium smoking attracted rich and poor alike. Drug usage was becoming an epidemic. In 1835 thirty thousand chests of opium were sold in China; forty thousand sold in 1838. The Chinese government could stand for this no longer. Scholars assembled to discuss solutions to the China’s opium problem. Some suggested legalizing opium. This proposition was quickly turned down. They concluded that the use of opium was immoral and needed to be condemned morally and politically. The Emperor just needed someone to carry out his war on drugs to end the opium trade for good. This man would be Lin Zexu.

Lin had served the Emperor as an anti drug agent in his home province. Bribes did not work with Lin; the British considered him incorruptible. Lin was a strong man morally. He took many cues from Confucius thought. After arriving at Canton in 1839, Lin Zexu put a three part anti drug plan into action.

Lin set out to educate the Chinese on the evils of opium. He gave lectures personally to citizens of all classes. If those caught violating the anti-opium law had been educated they would receive stiffer punishments. Lin used Confucian moral arguments to bolster his lectures. He stated that using drugs were morally wrong and that they were damaging, wasting their money and their body away. Profiting from such a destructive product was also immoral.

Lin offered a grace period for addicts and dealers to fall in line with the new laws. After this grace period he used troops to enforce the anti drug laws, raiding opium dens and arresting dealers. Punishments were heavy for violation of the laws. “Opium dealers and addicts were prosecuted with great vigor, and imprisonments and executions were widespread.” Lin dealt with the Cohong merchants as well. The moral argument against the use and sale of opium was made to the Cohong, backed up by the threat of the end of the business.

Thirty three thousand opium pipes and thirty five hundred pounds of opium were confiscated by mid May of 1839. Sixteen hundred arrests were made. The anti-drug programs, with Lin Zexu’s direction, were progressing well domestically. Drug users soon had no place to purchase opium. The foreign trade continued.

Not wanting to outwardly provoke the British, Lin Zexu wrote a letter to Queen Victoria appealing to her morality. Laid out in the letter were reasons for ceasing the opium trade and the clear consequences if Britain did not. Lin fingers the British people as the traders bringing the opium to China. The traders were referred to as barbarians in the letter; something British subjects were not accustomed to being labeled. These barbarians, Lin claimed, were only interested in exploiting the wealth of the Chinese, taking what is China’s rightful share. If they were to cease bringing opium to China then the Chinese people would not smoke it, so Lin informed Queen Victoria that traders caught with the drug would face the same penalties as the Chinese dealers. The Chinese gave the English a grace period of one year for ships that came from England and six months for ships that came from India. After this time, any trader carrying opium was considered willfully violating the law and was executed. The production of opium in India was demanded to be ceased as well.

The Chinese were not seeking compromise when Lin Zexu sent his letter to Queen Victoria. The Chinese laws would be followed as they set them out or punishments would be handed down. Certain phrases in the letter certainly assert China’s feelings of superiority over outsiders.

Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to people…On the other hand, articles coming from the outside to China can only be used as toys. We can take them or get along without them. Since they are not needed by China, what difficulty would there be if we closed the frontier and stopped trade? Nevertheless our Celestial Court lets tea, silk, and other goods be shipped…

The condescending tone continues throughout the letter, often resembling a parent explaining to a child while they are forbidden to do something.

The British were furious. During this time, after the victory over Napoleon’s forces at Trafalgar, the British ruled the seas. The time of Pax Britannia had almost arrived. The British were not used to being dealt with in such a fashion. They refused to be held accountable, nor would they allow the Chinese to dictate what they did in their own colonies. “The Chinese government have committed outrages against our British subjects,” stated the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston.

Lin replied by closing all Chinese foreign trade zones. Foreign traders did not want all trade stopped with China as Chinese goods were still in demand and profitable. Merchants began turning over their opium to the Chinese government. Still the British resisted.

Three hundred foreigners lived in the Canton trade zone at the time. Lin Zexu ordered these foreigners not to leave the trade compound. All Chinese workers in the compound were asked to leave. The Chinese government had effectively acquired hostages. The British were forced to act.

The British Superintendent of Trade, Charles Elliot ordered British merchants to turn over their stocks of opium to the British government. The British government, for the loss of their stocks, reimbursed the merchants. Elliot delivered 21,306 chests of opium to Lin Zexu.

Lin saw this as a great victory. Though he had done well in confiscating a great deal of opium, the British were far from acquiescing to China’s demands. The British weren’t condemning the sale of opium by turning over their stocks. Elliot was, perhaps working in conjunction with British trading firms, giving the companies back in London ammunition to take to Parliament. These trade firms, such as the East India Company, pressured the British government to take military action against the Chinese. Lin unknowingly gave the British the catalyst they needed.

Lin wished the British merchants to sign a pledge saying they would no longer sell opium. The penalty for disobeying was death. The British were furious.

The Queen of England desires that Her Subjects who may go into Foreign Countries should obey the Laws of those Countries; and Her Majesty does not wish to protect them from the just consequences of any offense which they may commit in foreign parts. But, on the other hand, Her Majesty cannot permit that Her Subjects residing abroad should be treated with violence, and be exposed to insult and injustice; and when wrong is done to them, Her Majesty will see that they obtain redress.

The Queen, herself, would determine how her subjects would be punished for their crimes, not some “lesser” ruler. Elliot refused to sign the pledge.

Tensions were running high in the summer of 1839. British and Chinese relations were strained to the breaking point. The beating of a Chinese villager by British seamen set the powder keg off. The Chinese wished to prosecute the men, but Elliot refused to hand them over. Instead, the men were tried on a British vessel and returned home to England. The men were set free upon reaching England; it had been determined that Elliot did not have the authority to indict the men. The two nations were soon at war.

From the evidence given, war between China and England was unavoidable. Both nations felt they were superior to the other. This made any negotiations nearly impossible. Neither side was willing to make any concessions. The origins of this conflict can be traced to pure human greed. The search for greater profit drove the British to bring opium into China. They could not be satisfied with the already lucrative legal trade. The Cohong merchants, looking for further wealth, accepted bribes from merchants to allow opium into the country. Were it not for these gluttonous individuals opium never would have been introduced in China and the Opium War could certainly have been avoided.

Gluttony and the desire for extreme wealth exists in humans thus conflicts that erupted long after the Opium War ended were often fueled by greed. The Boer War in South Africa over gold, the Second World War over power, land, and resources, the current Iraqi war over ideals and oil, and the bloodshed and strife in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia over diamonds are all glaring examples of human greed. Scholars may one day look back on the Opium War and other conflicts and attempt to ponder how humans ever acted so covetous. The opium trade and war, certainly provide us with a lesson we must not soon forget.


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