Friday, August 15, 2014

Opium War, First (1839–1842)

Opium War, First (1839–1842)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Great Britain vs. China


DECLARATION: China attacked the British ships sent to
protect the opium trade on September 4, 1839.

trade policies against the importation of opium and
China’s treatment of opium merchants as a cause for
going to war and forcing “open” trade policies on the
traditionally insular Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty.

OUTCOME: China was forced to open its ports to British
and other foreign trade and to grant a number of
humiliating concessions

British forces, 12,000; Chinese forces, 45,000

CASUALTIES: Britain, about 100 killed or wounded; China,
about 6,800 killed, wounded, or captured

TREATIES: Treaty of Nanking, August 29, 1842

Basically trade wars in which Western nations gained
commercial privileges in China, the Opium Wars (fought
from 1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860) were the first major
military confrontations between China and the European
West. Since the beginning of the 19th century British
traders had been illegally importing the drug into China,
leading to widespread social and economic disruption and
degradation. They not only ended Chinese isolation from
other civilizations, but began for China a century of mistreatment
and humiliation at the hands of foreign powers,
leading to the decay of the Qing dynasty and, ultimately,
revolution, civil war, and the ascendancy of communist
The First Opium War began when British merchants
ignored a Chinese prohibition against the importation of
opium. On March 30, 1839, the Chinese imperial commissioner,
Lin Zexu (Lin Tse-hsü)—frustrated by the insouciance
of British merchants toward official China—
confiscated and destroyed all the smuggled opium in
British warehouses and ships in Canton (Guangzhou
[Kwangchow]), British tempers, from merchant to skivvy,
flared, and the antagonism between the British and Chinese
officialdom only increased a few days later when
drunken British sailors killed a Chinese villager. The
British government, which did not recognize the Chinese
legal system, refused to turn the accused men over to the
local courts.
Hostilities broke out, and Britain responded by dispatching
warships and troops to attack the China coast. In
rapid succession, the cities of Hangzhou (Hangchow),
Hong Kong, and Canton fell under attack and were blockaded
by the British. A small amphibious force sailed up
the Pearl River and assaulted the fortifications surrounding
Canton. The city fell in May 1841, followed soon by
Amoy and Ningbo (Ning-po). After a lull in the fighting
when disease struck the British forces, renewed efforts
resulted in the taking of Shanghai and Xinjiang (Chinkiang).
Outmatched by British troops and equipment, the
Chinese capitulated when British navy ships appeared in
August 1842.
The subsequent Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking) was
harsh. In addition to agreeing to pay a $20 million indemnity,
the Chinese opened the ports of Canton, Xiamen
(Amoy), Fuzhou (Foochow), Ningbo, and Shanghai to
British trade and residence. China also granted Britain the
right of “extraterritoriality,” whereby British residents in
China were subject not to Chinese legal jurisdiction but to
that of special consular courts. The greatest prize ceded to
the Crown was Hong Kong, which was transferred to
Britain in perpetuity.
The trade and legal concessions made to the British
under the treaty were soon extended to other Western
powers, and China’s long isolation came to an end. The

Second OPIUM WAR erupted in 1856.

Further reading: Jack Beeching, The Chinese Opium
Wars (New York: Harcourt, 1977); Hsin-pao Chang, Commissioner
Lin and the Opium War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1964); Peter Ward Fay, The Opium
War, 1840–1842 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 1975); W. Travis Hanes and Frank Sanello,
The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption
of Another (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks Inc.,

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