The First Opium War
the Qing Dynasty in China,
trade was heavily regulated. The only
thing that was allowed in was silver.
One of the few things allowed out was tea and it was only allowed out of
Canton. Since Britain
had a monopoly of its own in the region (East India Trading Company) they
controlled what went in and what came out of China. Since Britain
was only using gold to buy items, it became very expensive to buy silver from
other European countries to exchange with China. Britain
needed another product that they could get into China and use to get the tea
out. Fortunately for Britain, they had claims of land in India where
opium could easily be grown on what had been cotton-producing land. Opium had a long history of medicinal uses
going back hundreds of years, but Britain hoped that they could cash
in on the illegal trade of the product.
Chinese found themselves trading tea for drugs.
With millions of his people addicted to opium, Emperor Manchu Daoguang sent Lin Zexu to the Canton region to clean up
the trade and start filling the reserves with silver again. Zexu tried to
convince Queen Victoria
to stop the illegal trade, but his letter never got to her. The ports of Canton were closed with several British ships
still inside the borders. Charles
Elliot, the Chief Superintendent of Trade in China (British) was dispatched to
try and resolve the problem. The Chinese
demanded that the British stop importing opium into China and that the current load be
destroyed. Elliot handed over some one
thousand tons of opium to be destroyed by the Chinese government. Elliot promised the ships that the British
government would compensate them for their losses.
for the traders, the British government could not, nor would they cover the
losses of the opium deal gone bad. The powder keg was touched off when a British
commodore was arrested and, while another merchant ship was being re-provisioned, several sailors vandalized a local temple. The Chinese had a very dissimilar legal
system to that of Britain
and the Qing refused to hand the British soldiers back to Britain for
trial. The British took Hong Kong (not the major city that it is today) and
fought against, and traded blockades as both sides
postured before all out war began.
Elliot had to try and stop British ships from trying to continue trade
in the region while the Qing emperor had to try and stop the foreigners and
native Chinese who were making money in the opium market.
the embargo and eventual war being denounced in Parliament, Elliot continued to
push for control of the region. The
British ships laid waste to the Chinese whose only real tactic was fireboats
that were used to try and sink the British vessels. The British took control of the Pearl River
and Yangtze River and occupied Shanghai. When the fighting was done the Chinese,
despite their superior numbers, had to give up control of Hong Kong and the Canton ports and were forced to open trade with Britain. Christian missionaries were finally allowed
since the Qing emperor showed that he could deal with the British politically
no better than he had militarily. Lin Zexu was made a public scapegoat (though he was revered by
many as a hero) for not being able to handle the affairs that lead to the war,
though he had arrested over fifteen hundred opium dealers and destroyed nearly
three million pounds of opium. In the
end, Britain continued to
make money by trading opium with China and controlled the region for
years to come.
This depiction of one of the naval battles of the First Opium
War shows how vastly outmatched the simple Chinese ships (junks) were when
faced with the famed British navy ships, many of which were powered by steam.