The Opium War
The Opium War

The Opium War

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  • Published: November 22, 2018
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The Opium War

The Opium War, also called the Anglo-Chinese

War, was the most humiliating defeat China ever suffered. In European history,

it is perhaps the most sordid, base, and vicious event in European history,

possibly, just possibly, overshadowed by the excesses of the Third Reich

in the twentieth century.

By the 1830’s, the English had become

the major drug-trafficking criminal organization in the world; very few

drug cartels of the twentieth century can even touch the England of the

early nineteenth century in sheer size of criminality. Growing opium in

India, the East India Company shipped tons of opium into Canton which it

traded for Chinese manufactured goods and for tea. This trade had produced,

quite literally, a country filled with drug addicts, as opium parlors proliferated

all throughout China in the early part of the nineteenth century. This

trafficing, it should be stressed, was a criminal activity after 1836,

but the British traders generously bribed Canton officials in order to

keep the opium traffic flowing. The effects on Chinese society were devestating.

In fact, there are few periods in Chinese history that approach the early

nineteenth century in terms of pure human misery and tragedy. In an effort

to stem the tragedy, the imperial government made opium illegal in 1836

and began to aggressively close down the opium dens.

Lin Tse-hsu

The key player in the prelude to war was

a brilliant and highly moral official named Lin Tse-hsu. Deeply concerned

about the opium menace, he maneuverd himself into being appointed Imperial

Commissioner at Canton. His express purpose was to cut off the opium trade

at its source by rooting out corrupt officials and cracking down on British

trade in the drug.

He took over in March of 1839 and within ...


two months, absolutely invulnerable to bribery and corruption, he had taken

action against Chinese merchants and Western traders and shut down all

the traffic in opium. He destroyed all the existing stores of opium and,

victorious in his war against opium, he composed a letter to Queen Victoria

of England requesting that the British cease all opium trade. His letter

included the argument that, since Britain had made opium trade and consumption

illegal in England because of its harmful effects, it should not export

that harm to other countries. Trade, according to Lin, should only be in

beneficial objects.

To be fair to England, if the only issue

on the table were opium, the English probably (just probably) would have

acceded to Lin’s request. The British, however, had been nursing several

grievances against China, and Lin’s take-no-prisoners enforcement of Chinese

laws combined to outrage the British against his decapitation of the opium

trade. The most serious bone of contention involved treaty relations; because

the British refused to submit to the emperor, there were no formal treaty

relations between the two countries. The most serious problem precipitated

by this lack of treaty relations involved the relationship between foreigners

and Chinese law. The British, on principle, refused to hand over British

citizens to a Chinese legal system that they felt was vicious and barbaric.

The Chinese, equally principled, demanded that all foreigners who were

accused of committing crimes on Chinese soil were to be dealt with solely

by Chinese officials. In many ways, this was the real issue of the Opium

War. In addition to enforcing the opium laws, Lin aggressively pursued

foreign nationals accused of crimes.

The English, despite Lin’s eloquent letter,


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to back down from the opium trade. In response, Lin threatened

to cut off all trade with England and expel all English from China. Thus

began the Opium War.

The War

War broke out when Chinese junks attempted

to turn back English merchant vessels in November of 1839; although this

was a low-level conflict, it inspired the English to send warships in June

of 1840. The Chinese, with old-style weapons and artillery, were no match

for the British gunships, which ranged up and down the coast shooting at

forts and fighting on land. The Chinese were equally unprepared for the

technological superiority of the British land armies, and suffered continual

defeats. Finally, in 1842, the Chinese were forced to agree to an ignomious

peace under the Treaty of Nanking.

The treaty imposed on the Chinese was

weighted entirely to the British side. Its first and fundamental demand

was for British “extraterritoriality”; all British citizens would be subjected

to British, not Chinese, law if they committed any crime on Chinese soil.

The British would no longer have to pay tribute to the imperial administration

in order to trade with China, and they gained five open ports for British

trade: Canton, Shanghai, Foochow, Ningpo, and Amoy. No restrictions were

placed on British trade, and, as a consequence, opium trade more than doubled

in the three decades following the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty also established

England as the “most favored nation” trading with China; this clause granted

to Britain any trading rights granted to other countries. Two years later,

China, against its will, signed similar treaties with France and the United


Lin Tse-hsu was officially disgraced

for his actions in Canton and was sent to a remote appointment in Turkestan.

Of all the imperial officials, however, Lin was the first to realize the

momentuous lesson of the Opium War. In a series of letters he began to

agitate the imperial government to adopt Western technology, arms, and

methods of warfare. He was first to see that the war was about technological

superiority; his influence, however, had dwindled to nothing, so his admonitions

fell on deaf ears.

It wasn’t until a second conflict with

England that Chinese officials began to take seriously the adoption of

Western technologies. Even with the Treaty of Nanking, trade in Canton

and other ports remained fairly restricted; the British were incensed by

what they felt was clear treaty violations. The Chinese, for their part,

were angered at the wholescale export of Chinese nationals to America and

the Caribbean to work at what was no better than slave labor. These conflicts

came to a head in 1856 in a series of skirmishes that ended in 1860. A

second set of treaties further humiliated and weakened the imperial government.

The most ignominious of the provisions in these treaties was the complete

legalization of opium and the humiliating provision that allowed for the

free and unrestricted propagation of Christianity in all regions of China.

The Illustrated Gazatteer of Maritime


China’s defeat at the hands of England

led to the publication of the Illustrated Gazatteer of Maritime Countries

by Wei Yuan (1794-1856). The Gazatteer marks the first landmark event

in the modernization of China. Wei Yuan, a distinguished but minor

official, argued in the Gazatteer that the Europeans had developed technologies

and methods of warfare in their ceaseless and barbaric quest for power,

profit, and material wealth. Civilization, represented by China, was in

danger of

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