The Opium War… when Britain used drugs as a weapon against China Encyclopedia

In the middle of the 19th century, China witnessed a bloody conflict known as the Opium Wars, and historians described it as “the dirtiest war in history” due to Britain’s use of opium as a weapon against China. This war took the form of two armed conflicts between the British Empire and the Qing dynasty ruling China.

The modern military equipment at that time contributed to Britain achieving an easy victory over China, and inflicted many losses on it in the treaties that it was required to sign, which led to the weakening of the rule of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese government and the empire, and forced Beijing to open its ports to European trade traffic. England also took sovereignty over Hong Kong, and did not return it to China until 1997.

the reasons

The first conflict was known as the “First Opium War” and took place between 1839 and 1842, between China and Britain, while France joined the Second Opium War (1856-1860), also known as the “Arrow War” or the “Anglo-French War in China” to support Britain against the Chinese. .

The main reason for the outbreak of war was at the beginning of the 19th century when China faced a stifling moral and economic crisis, represented by the spread of the illegal opium trade practiced by English merchants through the East India Company.

The opium trade has increased dramatically since the 1820s, causing catastrophic social and economic damage to the Chinese people. As opium abuse increased, health problems worsened, the workforce collapsed, and chaos increased, threatening the stability of the state.

In 1839, the Chinese government decided to confront this disaster, so it burned a huge stock of opium that English merchants were storing in the Guangzhou region, and confiscated 1,400 tons of this substance.

Episode of the war in China, Second Opium War, drawing by Gustave Dore (1832-1883), illustration from Le Musee Francais, n 41, May 1858.
The Second Opium War by Gustave Dore (Getty)

This step did not satisfy Britain, which was seeking huge profits from the opium trade, so it used military force to force China to open its markets to it.

As tensions increased between the two countries due to the illegal opium trade, an incident occurred that sparked the war in July 1839, when a British sailor rioted in a Chinese village, killing a villager and vandalizing a Buddhist temple. At that time, Beijing demanded that the guilty be extradited for trial, but the London government refused.

The Beijing government took a firm stance against the illegal opium trade practiced by British merchants, refusing to allow foreign trade except under conditions that included adherence to Chinese law, stopping opium smuggling, and subjecting foreign merchants to Chinese jurisdiction.

Charles Elliott, the British Controller of Trade with China, rejected these conditions, suspended trade between the two countries and withdrew all British ships from there, which led to a significant escalation of tension, and China took military steps against the British, including blockading the port of Canton.

Beginning of the First Opium War (1842-1839)

With the escalation of tension between China and Britain, the Opium War broke out in 1839, when the British merchant Royal Saxon tried to break the Chinese embargo, and Chinese naval ships went out to repel him. But the British fleet intervened to protect the Saxons, and launched a devastating attack on the Chinese ships.

Hostilities then began when a British warship bombed a Chinese barracks in Hong Kong. In 1840, Britain sent a military force to China, equipped with advanced weapons at the time, and by May 1841, British forces occupied Canton, then defeated the Chinese forces in a counterattack due to their weak equipment and armament.

Sir Charles Elliot, KCB (1801 Ð 9 September 1875, Chinese: __Y“l_) was a British naval officer, diplomat, and colonial administrator.  He became the first administrator of Hong Kong in 1841 while serving as both Plenipotentiary and Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China.  He was a key founder in the establishment of Hong Kong as a British colony.  In late 1833, Elliot was appointed as Master Attendant to the staff of Lord Napier, Chief Superintendent of British Trade.  His position was involved with British ships and crews operating between Macao and Canton.  In 1839 Elliot wrote to Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston that he regarded the opium trade as a 'disgrace and sin'.  I have independently discountenanced it by all the lawful means in my power, and at the total sacrifice of my private comfort in the society in which I have lived for some years past.  During the First Anglo-Chinese War, he was on board the Nemesis during most of the battles.  In January 1841, he negotiated terms with Chinese Imperial Commissioner Qishan in the Convention of Chuenpee.  Elliot declared, among other terms, the cession of Hong Kong Island to the United Kingdom.  However, Palmerston disapproved of the terms and dismissed Elliot.  Henry Pottinger was appointed to replace him as plenipotentiary in May 1841. Responding to the accusation that 'It has been particularly objected to me that I have cared too much for the Chinese', Elliot wrote to Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen on 25 June 1842: ' I submit that it has been caring more for lasting British honor and substantial British interests, to protect friendly and helpful people, and to return the confidence of the great trading population of the Southern Provinces, with which it is our chief purpose to cultivate more intimate , social and commercial relations.'.  (Photo by: Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Charles Elliott, Principal Superintendent of British Trade in China and First Director of Hong Kong (Getty)

End of the first war

In late August 1842, the British seized Nanjing, the capital of China at the time. The Chinese Emperor had no choice but to negotiate with Britain, so he announced his surrender and signed the Treaty of Nanjing, the terms of which included:

  • Opening 5 Chinese ports to foreign trade.
  • Paying huge reparations to Britain.
  • China cedes Hong Kong Island to Britain.
  • Allowing Britain to establish a settlement in Shanghai.

This defeat was the first in a long series of defeats suffered by China in the Opium War. Within two and a half years, the British captured important coastal cities such as Canton, Zhousan, Ningbo, Dinghai, and Shanghai.

Under the agreement, China paid a large compensation to Britain, ceded Hong Kong Island, and increased the number of ports designated for trade with London from one port to five, including Shanghai.

The English also reserved the right to appear before British courts only, not the Chinese, and the United Kingdom obtained the status of the most favored foreign country in China, and London did not offer anything in return except an agreement to end the fighting.

19th January 1861: A crowd in Peking reading the treaty which ended the Chinese Wars.  (Photo by HultonArchive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images)
A crowd in Beijing reads the treaty that ended the Chinese wars (Getty)

Second Opium War (1860-1856)

In the aftermath of the First Opium War, mixed feelings gripped the Chinese. As the country faced the aftermath of the bitter defeat, Chinese officials tried to come to terms with the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing.

This treaty was not the only obstacle, as both France and the United States imposed unequal treaties on China in 1844, which increased tensions. Matters were greatly aggravated by new British demands in 1854, which included opening all Chinese ports to foreign merchants and reducing the tariff imposed on British products to zero.

In addition to this, Britain demanded the legalization of the opium trade brought from Burma and India to China. These demands sparked widespread anger in China, and the government refused to submit to them.

Most prominent stations

In 1856, Britain and France launched a second war against China, known as the Second Opium War, and it was more cruel than the previous one, as British and French forces occupied the capital, Beijing, and burned the Summer Palace.

The spark of the war began with the “Arrow” incident, a smuggling ship registered in China, but the headquarters of its subsidiary was in the British colony of Hong Kong. When Chinese officials intercepted the ship and arrested its crew of 12 people on suspicion of involvement in smuggling and piracy activities, the British protested. Note that the Chinese authorities were legally entitled to intercept the ship because its registration license in Hong Kong had expired.

Signing of the Treaty of Peking by Lord Elgin and Prince Kung.  Date published 1883 Source S. Wells Williams (1883).  The Middle Kingdom.  Volume 2. London: WH Allen.  AuthorFrom a Chinese painting
Lord Elgin and Prince Kong sign the Treaty of Beijing (Getty)

Britain took advantage of this incident as an excuse to launch a new war against China, forcing it to release the crew of the ship “Arrow”. When China complied, the British not only did that, but also destroyed 4 coastal forts and sank more than 20 Chinese ships, and China did not have sufficient military power to defend its sovereignty in the face of this new attack.

At that time, China was still suffering from the effects of the First Opium War, and did not possess the modern weapons that Britain and France had. The French decided to join the British military campaign, using as a pretext the killing of a French missionary in the interior of China early in 1856.

Britain was late in assembling its forces in China, as it diverted those that were on the way to India to help suppress the Indian rebellion, and did not begin its military operations with France until late 1857. British and French forces quickly seized Canton, overthrew the city’s governor, and installed an official who complied with orders. .

In May 1858, allied forces forced China to sign the Treaties of Tianjin, which provided for the establishment of foreign envoys in Beijing, the opening of new ports for Western trade and residence, and the free movement of Christian missionaries in China.

But after signing them, China did not fully ratify the treaties, and rejected some of their provisions, especially those related to the residence of foreign ambassadors in Beijing. This prompted Britain to escalate its attacks on Chinese fortresses.

In 1859, Chinese forces repelled a British attack on the Dagu forts, but that did not prevent the attacking forces from making their way north to Beijing. The French joined the British and entered the city, and burned the Summer Palace in the northwestern surroundings, to avoid attacking the Forbidden City, the home of the Chinese Emperor.

Opium is extracted from poppy buds (Getty)

The British withdrew from Tianjin in the summer of 1858, but returned to the region in June 1859 on their way to Beijing with French and British diplomats to ratify the treaties. The Chinese refused to allow them to pass through the Dago forts and proposed an alternative route to Beijing.

The British-led forces decided not to take the other route, and instead tried to advance through Dago, but were repulsed by the Chinese and inflicted heavy losses.

The Chinese then refused to ratify the treaties, and the Allies resumed their attacks on Beijing. In August 1860, a British-French force destroyed the Dagu batteries and advanced upriver towards Tianjin.

In October, British forces captured Beijing, destroying and burning Emperor Yuanming’s Summer Palace. Later that month, the Chinese signed the Beijing Agreement, in which they agreed to be bound by the Tianjin Treaties, and also ceded to the British the southern part of the Kowloon Peninsula adjacent to Hong Kong.

human losses

The Opium War left deep scars in Chinese history, not only on the political and economic levels, but also on the human level. Nearly 20 million people were killed during the war, equivalent to 10% of China’s population at the time, including 3 million soldiers from both sides.

The difference in the number of casualties was enormous, with only approximately 350 British soldiers killed compared to more than 3,000 Chinese, and although the Second Opium War was shorter than its predecessor, the results were similar, with hundreds of European casualties compared to thousands of Chinese casualties.

(Original Caption) Illustration showing the signing of the Peace Protocol of Peking by the Plentipotentaries, bringing an end to the Boxer Rebellion in China.  On the left side of the table is the multi-national delegation from the east and on the right are the Chinese leaders.  Undated illustration circa 1900.
Commissioners sign the peace protocol in Beijing (Getty)

Results of the Second Opium War

In both conflicts, foreign powers prevailed and gained trade, legal, and territorial privileges in China. The Second Opium War is considered a milestone in Beijing’s history, as it led to radical changes in China at all levels, and left a legacy of anti-foreign sentiment in China.

These conflicts marked the beginning of an era of unjust treaties and other interference with Chinese sovereignty, which contributed to the weakening of the Qing dynasty and its fall to the Republic of China in the early twentieth century. This war resulted in:

  • Weakening the authority of the Qing dynasty.
  • Opening new ports for foreign trade.
  • Allowing foreign ambassadors to reside in Beijing.
  • The right of foreigners to travel within China.
  • Large reparations to the Allies.
  • Free movement of Christian missionaries.
  • Legalization of the opium trade.

Finally, the war led to foreign powers plundering China’s wealth, controlling the country’s trade, and hindering economic development.

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