First Opium War

The First Opium War was fought over China’s attempt to end the opium trade within its borders. The British victory in the war forced the Chinese Qing government to grant foreign governments diplomatic equality with China and to give British merchants the right to trade and reside in China.

Summary of Event

During the eighteenth century, China was the supreme power in East Asia. Westerners first arrived in China during the early sixteenth century, with the Portuguese followed by the Dutch, the British, and others eager to benefit from the riches to be gained from trade for exotic goods such as tea and silks. China was traditionally wary of outsiders, or “barbarians,” as exemplified in 1793, when the Qing emperor Qianlong Qianlong dismissed George Macartney’s request to open trade with Great Britain, observing that there was nothing that China needed from the West. Opium War, First (1839-1842)
China;and Great Britain[Great Britain]
British Empire;and China[China]
Qing Dynasty;and Opium Wars[Opium Wars]
China;Qing Dynasty
[kw]First Opium War (Sept., 1839-Aug. 29, 1842)
[kw]Opium War, First (Sept., 1839-Aug. 29, 1842)
[kw]War, First Opium (Sept., 1839-Aug. 29, 1842)
Opium War, First (1839-1842)
China;and Great Britain[Great Britain]
British Empire;and China[China]
Qing Dynasty;and Opium Wars[Opium Wars]
China;Qing Dynasty
[g]China;Sept., 1839-Aug. 29, 1842: First Opium War[2120]
[g]British Empire;Sept., 1839-Aug. 29, 1842: First Opium War[2120]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept., 1839-Aug. 29, 1842: First Opium War[2120]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept., 1839-Aug. 29, 1842: First Opium War[2120]
Lin Zexu
Elliot, Sir Charles
Elliot, Sir George
Palmerston, Lord
Palmerston, Lord
[p]Palmerston, Lord;and China[China]
Pottinger, Sir Henry

Great Britain’s power was growing in the late eighteenth century, and it continued to grow during the early nineteenth century. China’s power, however, was more apparent than real. A population explosion during the eighteenth century strained China’s resources, and peasants, inspired by religion compounded with poverty, threatened the government’s stability. The ruling bureaucracy was often corrupt. In addition, while the West was experiencing the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions, China was not modernizing but holding fast to its conservative Confucian values and institutions. Merchants and businessmen were ranked even lower than peasants, a contrast to the transformation of society that was occurring in the West.

Great Britain’s control of India, through the British East India Company British East India Company;and China[China] , compounded the challenges facing China. In the past, Chinese silk and tea had been paid for by hard currency, usually silver, a practice opposed by Western mercantilists who believed that a nation’s bullion should be not traded away. A solution to the problems caused by the expenditure of hard money was the papaver somniferum, or the opium poppy, which could be grown and processed in India and traded and sold in China, forcing the Chinese to pay for opium in silver and reversing the previous practice.

British troops taking formal possession of Hong Kong at the conclusion of the First Opium War.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

China had first attempted to prohibit the use of opium during the 1720’s, but with little success. In 1834, the British East India Company lost its monopoly on trade with China, opening the lucrative market to other merchants and shippers. Opium imports had been increasing and now increased even further. Consumption, usually performed by smoking the opium in long pipes, spread inland from the southeast coast around Guangzhou (Canton) even to the capital of Beijing. Beijing The imperial government debated whether to legalize and regulate the opium trade or attempt to stamp it out and destroy it. In 1838, Emperor Daoguang Daoguang decided in favor of total prohibition and appointed Lin Zexu Lin Zexu to end the trade. Lin, a Confucian scholar and office holder, arrived in Guangzhou in March, 1839.

Pointing out opium’s deleterious impact on health and arguing in favor of Confucian morality, Lin also resorted to coercion. By May, more than sixteen hundred Chinese had been arrested, and by July, more than fifty thousand pounds of opium had been seized. Not desiring an armed confrontation with foreigners, Lin ordered Chinese merchants to pressure the British and others to end the trade. Lin even wrote to Britain’s Queen Victoria, appealing to her sense of morality and justice, but opium, in the form of laudanum, was used in Britain, and Lin’s letter never reached Victoria in any event.

Lin demanded that all foreign opium be turned over to the government. The foreign merchants made only a token submission, however. To teach them a lesson, several hundred merchants including Sir Charles Elliot Elliot, Sir Charles , the British commissioner of trade in Guangzhou were confined to their “factories,” or depots. They eventually capitulated and turned over more than twenty thousand chests of opium to Lin. Three million pounds of opium were then dissolved in lime and salt in several long trenches, with the resulting mass flowing into a nearby creek.

Lin’s destruction of the opium was the final catalyst for war between Britain and China. China’s traditional antipathy toward foreign “barbarians” was fueled by the spread of addiction among the Chinese population. Increased opium production in India, in part the result of the assumption that opium use would be legalized in China, raised economic expectations that led to an oversupply in the country just when the Chinese government prohibited consumption. Elliot Elliot, Sir Charles was a British official, not just a representative of the East India Company British East India Company;and China[China] , which increased the diplomatic stakes of his confinement, and the merchants demanded the backing of the British government against China’s destruction of their property the opium.

Initially, the British government was not particularly sympathetic to the plight of the merchants. However, the destruction of the opium and the confining of Commissioner Elliot along with the merchants resulted in a letter of protest from Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston Palmerston, Lord
Palmerston, Lord
[p]Palmerston, Lord;and China[China] to Lin. Parliament, moreover, authorized a fleet to sail to China to gain reparations for the loss of British property, as well as satisfaction for the disrespect shown to Great Britain. Admiral Sir George Elliot Elliot, Sir George , Charles Elliot’s cousin, commanded the fleet, which comprised sixteen warships, armored steamers and transports, and four thousand troops.

Lin continued seizing opium, and the resulting shortage quickly increased the price from $500 to $3,000 per chest. British merchants were driven from Macao as well as Guangzhou, and Charles Elliot Elliot, Sir Charles was forced to take up residence on the deserted island of Hong Kong Hong Kong;British occupation of . Lin fortified the water routes into Guangzhou with cannon, and clashes occurred between British ships and Chinese junks near Hong Kong and Guangzhou in September and October, 1839. With ships sunk and lives lost, the possibility of peaceful negotiations ended.

Admiral Elliot arrived in June, 1840, but instead of attacking Guangzhou, Elliot blockaded the harbor with four ships and sailed north to Ningbo, blockading that port with two ships. The British then seized the major town on the island of Zhoushan, reducing shipping from the Yangtze River. From there, the fleet sailed to the Bei He, or North River, threatening the city of Tianjin. Given the British successes, the Chinese regional governor, Qishan, Qishan entered into negotiations in August.

Under Qishan’s urging, the British returned to Guangzhou for further discussions. Qishan replaced the disgraced Lin Zexu, Lin Zexu and in January, 1841, an agreement was reached. Hong Kong was to be given to Britain, the Chinese would pay a $6 million indemnity, the British were promised direct official diplomatic contacts with the Qing government, and the Guangzhou trade was to be reopened. However, Lord Palmerston, Palmerston, Lord
Palmerston, Lord
[p]Palmerston, Lord;and China[China] believing that Charles Elliot Elliot, Sir Charles should have negotiated better terms, angrily replaced him with Sir Henry Pottinger Pottinger, Sir Henry , and Daoguang, Daoguang equally angry, removed Qishan Qishan and ordered his execution, a penalty later reduced to banishment.

Violence began again. Local Chinese militia assaulted British troops, who in turn occupied much of Guangzhou. In August, 1841, Pottinger and the British fleet sailed north, capturing Xiamen, Ningbo, and Zhoushan again. With additional troops from India, in the spring of 1842 the British blockaded China’s Grand Canal and Yangtze River. Shanghai was captured in June and Zhenjiang in July. The Chinese fought bravely, and when defeat became imminent, many Qing officers and officials committed suicide. By August, the British troops had reached the outskirts of Nanjing. The Qing capitulated, and the Treaty of Nanjing Nanjing, Treaty of (1842) , ending the war with a British victory, was signed on August 29, 1842.


The Treaty of Nanjing illustrated the weakness of Imperial China and forcibly opened China to the outside world. British merchants were authorized to reside and trade in the cities of Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo, and Shanghai. An indemnity of $21 million was to be paid by China for the destroyed opium and for British military expenses in the war. The island of Hong Kong Hong Kong;British occupation of came under British rule. Finally, future diplomatic relations between Britain and China would be on the basis of equality, rather than as earlier, when foreigners were treated as inferiors.

The First Opium War also advanced military technology, with the use of steamships in combat, such as the British Nemesis, an iron-covered paddle wheel boat. Its immediate economic consequences were minimal. Except for payment for the destruction of opium by Lin, the narcotic was not mentioned in the treaty, nor was it legalized in China. In 1844, following the precedent of the Treaty of Nanjing, the United States signed the Treaty of Wanghia with the Qing government, giving Americans the same rights in China as the British, but including the right of Americans to learn Chinese, a boon to Christian missionaries Missionaries;in China[China] . In October, 1844, the French signed a similar treaty. Other nations followed. Within a few years, the integrity of China had been breached, and the Chinese had lost sovereign control of their foreign and economic policies.

Further Reading

  • Fay, Peter War. The Opium War, 1840-1842. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975. The best narrative covering all aspects of the war from causes to consequences.
  • Gelber, Harry Gregor. Opium, Soldiers, and Evangelicals. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Excellent on the religious influence on the First Opium War and its aftermath.
  • Melancon, Glenn. Britain’s China Policy and the Opium Crisis. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. A discussion of Britain’s attempt to balance drugs and national honor in dealing with China.

China’s Taiping Rebellion

Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion

Perry Opens Japan to Western Trade

Second Opium War

France and Spain Invade Vietnam

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises

Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power

Scramble for Chinese Concessions Begins

Boxer Rebellion

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