The Opium Wars were two clashes fought in the middle of the 19th century between China and Western powers. The two wars opened the commercial privileges of Chinese trade to the western powers. Read here to learn more about the Opium wars.
The Chinese government’s attempt to enforce its ban against opium trafficking by British merchants led to the First Opium War, which took place between 1839 and 1842 between China and the United Kingdom.
From 1856 to 1860, Britain and France engaged in the Second Opium War with the Chinese Qing dynasty.
Each time, the foreign powers emerged triumphant and acquired China’s commercial advantages as well as legal and geographical concessions.
The confrontations heralded the beginning of a period of unfair treaties and other intrusions on Qing sovereignty that contributed to the dynasty’s decline and eventual overthrow in favor of republican China in the early 20th century.
At the beginning of the 19th century, British traders were making enormous profits from the trade in Chinese products including tea, silks, and porcelain.
The issue was that the Chinese refused to purchase British goods in exchange. They would only exchange their wares for silver; thus, a lot of silver was leaving Britain as a result.
The East India Company and other British traders started smuggling Indian opium into China illegally to halt this, and they demanded payment in silver.
Thereafter, tea and other products were purchased like this. Opium sales to China in 1839 covered the cost of the whole tea trade.
The Opium Wars arose from China’s attempts to suppress the opium trade.
First Opium War (1839-42)
Opium was being illegally exported from India to China by foreign traders (mostly British) since the 18th century, but the trade increased significantly starting around 1820.
The resultant widespread addiction in China was seriously upsetting the country’s social and economic order. Illegal opium imports were also eroding what had once been a favorable balance of trade.
- Some 1,400 tonnes of opium were seized and burned by the Chinese authorities in the spring of 1839 from British merchants’ storage facilities in Canton (Guangzhou).
Chinese efforts to end the trade were initially successful.
1839: Some drunken British sailors killed a Chinese villager. The British government, which did not wish its subjects to be tried in the Chinese legal system, refused to turn the accused men over to the Chinese courts.
1840: Chinese put a blockade on the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang) estuary in Hong Kong. British warships went sent in to destroy the blockade.
1841: The British fleet proceeded up the Pearl River estuary to Canton, and, after months of negotiations there, attacked and occupied the city in May 1841.
1842: The Qing forces were inferior in front of the technologically advanced British forces, hence the Qings were mainly on the back foot.
The British captured Nanjing (Nanking), ending the fighting.
The Treaty of Nanjing was signed putting an end to the First Opium War.
- By its provisions, China was required to pay Britain a large indemnity and cede Hong Kong Island to the British.
- Increase the number of treaty ports where the British could trade and reside from one (Canton) to five (Ports of Guangzhou, Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai, and Ningpo).
- The treaty committed the Chinese to free trade, including the opium trade.
- Another treaty the following year gave the most favored nation status to Britain and added provisions for British extraterritoriality.
- France secured the same concessions in the treaties of 1843 and 1844.
The ease with which the British had defeated the Chinese armies seriously affected the Qing dynasty’s prestige. This contributed to the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64).
Second Opium War (1856-60)
When the Qing government was occupied with trying to put a stop to the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), the British, looking to expand their commercial rights in China, sought a pretext to restart hostilities in the middle of the 19th century.
The Qing rulers still wanted to irradicate the opium trade which was technically still illegal according to their rules.
1856: The Qing Imperial Commissioner appointed at Canton seized a British Ship named Arrow as a provocation against the British opium trade.
In response, a British warship sailed up the Pearl River estuary and began bombarding Canton, and there were skirmishes between British and Chinese troops.
Later, the Chinese in Canton burned foreign factories such as trading warehouses there, and tensions escalated.
The assassination of a French missionary in the interior of China in early 1856 served as the French justification for their decision to join the British military campaign.
1857: The allies started military operations in late 1857 after delays in collecting the forces in China (British troops on their way were initially diverted to India to aid in putting an end to the Indian Mutiny of 1857).
They swiftly captured Canton.
1858: The allied troops in British warships reached Tianjin (Tientsin) and forced the Chinese into negotiations.
The treaties of Tianjin were signed which provided foreign envoys residence in Beijing, the opening of several new ports to Western trade and residence, the right of foreign travel in the interior of China, and freedom of movement for Christian missionaries.
In further negotiations in Shanghai later, the importation of opium was legalized.
1859: The Chinese refused to ratify the treaties, and pushed back the foreign forces that tried to enter Dagu to proceed toward Beijing.
1860: A larger force of warships and British and French troops destroyed the Dagu entry points and proceeded upriver to Tianjin.
They later captured Beijing and plundered and burned the Yuanming Garden, the Qing emperor’s summer palace.
The Chinese accepted defeat and signed the Beijing Convention, in which they agreed to observe the treaties of Tianjin and also ceded to the British the southern portion of the Kowloon Peninsula adjacent to Hong Kong.
The aftermath of the Opium Wars
The war ended with a greatly weakened Qing Dynasty that was now confronted with the need to rethink its relations with the outside world and to modernize its military, political, and economic structures.
A powerful dynasty structure and highly developed culture that had existed in China for hundreds of years came to an end with the first Opium War, according to Chinese history.
The conflict also marked the start of China’s “century of humiliation,” as it is now known there. China’s failure in both conflicts was an indication that the legitimacy and capacity of the Chinese state to project force were eroding.
The Western powers received a lot of rights and benefits as a result of the accords signed in after the Opium wars.
New ports were opened to Western commerce along the Chinese coast, on the islands of Taiwan and Hainan, and along the Yangtze River in the country’s interior, increasing the number of treaty ports.
Foreigners now had complete access to China’s interior. They were free to travel, do business, and carry out missions everywhere in the country as a result of the Yangtze River’s opening.
Hong Kong became a British territory through the opium wars.
-Article written by Swathi Satish