FIRST OPIUM WAR
The First Opium War was a major conflict between the Qing Dynasty of China and Britain that took place from September 4th, 1839 until August 29th, 1842. It was related to the period of imperialism in China and paved the way for the major imperialistic nations of the time to establish spheres of influence in China. As such, historians consider the First Opium War to be a significant event in the Age of Imperialism and was important to both British and Chinese history.
CAUSES OF THE FIRST OPIUM WAR
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many nations were practicing imperialistic policies throughout Asia, including China. The major nations of the time that were putting imperialistic pressure on China included Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Russia and Japan. At the time, China was ruled by the Qing Dynasty, which attempted to control outside influence in the country through a trading system referred to as the ‘Canton System’. In short, the Canton System forced all foreign nations to trade only at the port of Canton. The city of Canton, which today is called Guangzhou, is a city in the south of China. The Qing restricted all foreign nations and companies to trade at this port in the hopes of limiting outside influence on Chinese society. The Canton System annoyed the European merchants, because it limited their access to other parts of the country.
The demand for Chinese goods (tea, silk and porcelain) and increased trade led the European nations, especially Britain and France, to push China to end the Canton System of trade. This situation led to increasing tensions between the Qing rulers and foreign nations. In fact, the tensions erupted into the events of the First Opium War between Britain and the Qing.
Another cause of the First Opium War, was the emergence of a trade imbalance between Britain and China in the 18th century. To overcome a trade imbalance that had emerged with China, Britain began selling opium to Chinese merchants for sale in China. Opium comes from the seeds of poppy plants and can be refined into a narcotic. For instance, opium is used in the production of heroin. In the mid-19th century, the British Empire controlled a large portion of international opium trade due to its colonization in India and other parts of Asia. As such, Britain pushed Chinese merchants to accept its large supplies of opium. However, Chinese leadership of the time wanted to restrict the use of opium in China because of the impact it was having on Chinese society. This led to the next major cause of the First Opium War, which was the Chinese crackdown on the sale and trade of opium. In fact, the opium trade in China was arguably the primary cause of the First Opium War.
British opium first arrived in China though the trade port in Canton and quickly made its way throughout the rest of China. For example, at the time, opium users in China smoked it in dens, which led to more wide spread use of the drug. The Qing leadership was also concerned with the impact it was having on the larger Chinese society. For instance, as with any widespread use of a drug, the government was worried that it was having a negative impact on Chinese families and businesses due to people spending too much time in opium dens.
As a result, the Qing emperor pushed back against opium use in China and officially banned its sale in 1799. The Qing government seized opium from merchants, and punished those who were caught selling it. However, this failed to stopped its use because merchants responded by smuggling it into the country through several different means. As well, American merchants began selling opium in China in the early 1800s, which helped spread its availability in China. This resulted in Daoguang Emperor issuing an edict in regards to opium and its impact on China. His edict is stated below.
“Opium has a harm. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law! However, recently the purchasers, eaters, and consumers of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch'ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no responsibility with regard to opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the police and police-censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates. If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung [Guangdong] and Fukien [Fujian], the provinces from which opium comes, we order their viceroys, governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!”
The Qing battle against the opium trade continued well into the mid-19th century. For example, in 1839, Commissioner Lin Zexu, an official with the Chinese government, wrote an open-letter to Queen Victoria in regards to the sale of opium in China. In his, ‘Letter to Queen Victoria’ he called on her morality to help stop British merchants from selling opium in China. Supposedly, the letter never arrived to the queen. Regardless, the Chinese government pushed forward with its crackdown on the opium trade.
In fact, the Qing Dynasty crackdown on the opium trade was the event that sparked the outbreak of the First Opium War. For instance, the Qing government began seizing and destroying opium shipments. This angered the British and pushed the two countries towards war. This is because the British wanted to the Qing government to allow free trade, which would empower the British merchants to continue the sale of opium in China.
MAJOR EVENTS OF THE FIRST OPIUM WAR
Following the Qing crackdown on the British opium trade in China in 1839, the British government moved quickly to counter with a military assault. For instance, the British government immediately began to assemble an expeditionary force, which they sent to the Far East in 1840. The British expeditionary force arrived in China in June of 1840 and was accompanied by several gunboats and other naval vessels.
First, the British forces attacked the Chinese-held island of Zhoushan off the eastern coastline of mainland China. By early July, the British had captured control over the island and its main port of Dinghai. Overwhelming naval power had allowed the British to easily bombard the Chinese forces defending the island. The plan for the British was to use the island of Zhoushan as a launching point from which they could carry out further attacks against China.
The British continued their attacks in the region and began the Pearl River Campaign. The goal of this campaign was for the British forces to work their way up the Pearl River until they reached the city of Canton. Throughout the winter and spring of 1841, the British forces pushed their way up the Pearl River. Along the way, they captured or destroyed several Chinese forts and strongholds. The military assault allowed the British forces to capture large sections of China including Canton. While the Qing forces attempted to recapture significant locations, they were no match for the superior British weapons and tactics. In the end, the British forces were threatening the city of Nanking, which led to the end of the war. As a result, the war ended in August of 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. Britain had won the war and secured itself a trade position in mainland China.
OUTCOME & SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FIRST OPIUM WAR
The First Opium War was a major victory for the British Empire in the Far East. For instance, the victory resulted in the Treaty of Nanking and gave Britain significant trading power in China. The Chinese referred to it as an ‘unequal treaty’, which is a term they gave to a series of treaties that they signed with western powers.
The Treaty of Nanking was a peace treaty signed between Britain and the Qing Dynasty on August 29th, 1842. It ended the First Opium War and provided Britain with significant gains in China. For instance, one of the main outcomes of the Treaty of Nanking was the establishment of a more open trading system for foreign merchants. Instead of only being allowed to trade in the port of Canton, China was forced to have five trading ports, which included the cities of: Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Fuchow, and Amoy. There was also special considerations made for British merchants at these trading ports and controls placed on tariffs.
Next, the Treaty of Nanking, forced the Qing government to pay back the British for their losses in the opium crackdown. Also, the treaty guaranteed the British extraterritoriality in the Chinese ports, which meant they were not held accountable to local Chinese law. As well, British prisoners of war were to be released. For their part, the British agreed to withdraw their troops from Nanking and other regions in China.
Finally, Britain gained control over the island of Hong Kong as part of the Nanking Treaty. More formally, Hong Kong was ceded to Queen Victoria and remained under the control of the British until 1997, when it was returned to the People’s Republic of China.
Today, the First Opium War is seen as a major event in the history of imperialism in China. It led to a greater degree of western influence in China and began the series of ‘unequal treaties’ that western powers signed with the Chinese government. As well, historians consider the First Opium War to be an example of ‘gunboat diplomacy’, which is a type of foreign policy where one nation exerts its control over another by using its naval power as a source of intimidation.
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