The Opium Wars were ignited over trade balances, but burned effulgent over imperial power. Chinese manufactured porcelain and silk were in high demand throughout the United Kingdom. Even in British protectorates or garrisons across the world there was always a British upper class that surrounded themselves with fine things. Things like silk. Things like Chinese end tea, which is more culturally English than English. On the balance, the Chinese would not allow foreign nationals to travel unimpeded into the country’s interior. So The East India Company pressured Chinese rulers to relax the restrictions against such incursions.
British trading companies then decided to curate opium from India, a nation under the purview of British plenipotentiaries. Those drugs were then sold to a complex series of shadow companies and middlemen and ended up in the streets of China. The Opium trade became instantly profitable. The British were facing uprisings in India, in the Mid East and in Latin America. Famous lLiberal William Gladstone chanted” “Lord Palmerston’s willingness to protect an infamous contraband traffic” was unjust and iniquitous. Millions were being hurt by Opium addiction. Businesses were seeing reduced production, hospitals were seeing overdoses, and crime lords were inserting themselves as middle men and were making money. The Daoguang Emperor sent viceroy Lin Zexu to stop the opium trade. He conducted a police action and arrested the traders. He seized 20,000 large chests dilled with street quality opium, displayed all of on the beaches of Guangzhou and burned it all. Lin closed off the estuaries and ports to Canton, effectively incarcerating the British merchant vessels and crews already in port. Captain Charles Elliott, a British naval commander, convinced the British traders to relinquish their stocks and submit themselves to local authority in the matter. He also let Lin Zexu know that this purloin of British opium stocks and ships would be consider a casus belli.
It’s odd to note that even John Qunicy Adams doubted the Chinese tok umbrage over Opium. He considered them less than equal humans. Opium, trade, he argued was “a mere incident to the dispute… the cause of the war is the kowtow the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal.”
Qing dynastic forces were no match for the British. The British Expeditionary Force number less than 20,000, and the Qing dynasty forces numbers ten times that. At the end of the military engagements, the British lost only 500 to battle, many more to dysentery and malaria than to combat. The Chinese lost 20,000 men and the war. Sengee Richen was a famous Mongol Cavalryman who fought with the Qing dynastic troops to keep British ships and British Trade out of China. His forces were eviscerated by British cannons and machines.
In July 1839, the British naval forces opened fire on Chinese junks. In “Six Months with the Chinese Expedition” (1841), Lord Jocelyn described the British greeting:
“The ships opened their broadsides upon the town, and the crashing of timber, falling houses, and groans of men resounded from the shore…We landed on a deserted beach, a few dead bodies, bows and arrows, broken spears and guns remaining the sole occupants of the fields.”
It must be pointed out here that the French also joined in the war against Chinese independence here with the British, not wanting to be left out of the instantly lucrative opium trade.
Keep in mind here that when the British began a shooting war with China in 1839 and fought it for three years because they saw their precious and lucrative opium trade abated. Here, the Chinese were simply trying to prevent their fellow countrymen, their neighborhoods, from being poisoned. It is believed that there were probably 10 million addicts in the China.
The British Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, initiated the Opium Wars in the name of free trade. Elements from British garrisons around the world, the 18th Royal Irish, the 26th Cameronians, and the 26th Bengal Volunteers participated in this one sided gallimaufry. Rear Admiral Sir George Elliott, ad General Hugh Gough took Hong Kong. They took Shanghai, and took control of traffic in estuaries into the Canton area. They also seized Xiamen, Fuzhou, and Ningbo.
The British Imperial military forces received concessions in the forms of open ports, access to the interior and heavy indemnities. Take that in for a moment. A foreign power wants to sell addictive drugs inside your country. You try and destroy the trade. The Foreigners then take control of your ports with gunboats and Marines. Then they charge you for the lost profit in the drug supplies you destroyed.
The shame here is that the high minded British aristocracy refused to admit that the Opium trade was made in the worst interests of China and on the backs of sick people. The Second Opium War was a further application of British military power in return for trade. It is a black mark on British history and a teachable lesson that we repeat the past only because we refuse to remember it.
In the East-West dialogue, historians wrote:
By the late 1830’s, there was no doubt that opium was leading to the destruction of China. By 1836, opium shipments were more than 30,000 chests, enough to supply 12.5 million smokers. The Chinese imperial army lost a battle against local rebels because the army was addicted to opium. The financial drain on China was disrupting the entire economy. From 1829 to 1840, Chinese exports had brought in 7 million silver dollars, but imports, mainly opium had drained 56 million. The loss of silver was disrupting the internal economy leading to increased unrest.