The First Opium War


            During 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.

            The 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.

            Unfortunately 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.

Despite 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 into China 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.