Opium: British Legacy…

“In the 19th century China was defeated in two wars against Britain that were caused by British sales of contraband opium produced from Indian-grown poppies.” (The Economist, 2018, p.41).

The Opium Wars were two armed conflicts in China in the mid-19th century between the forces of Western countries and of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911/12.

  • The first Opium War (1839–42), also known as the First China War, was fought between China and Britain.
  • The second Opium War (1856–60), also known as the Arrow War or the Anglo-French War in China, was fought by Britain and France against China.

In each case the foreign powers were victorious and gained commercial privileges and legal and territorial concessions in China. The conflicts marked the start of the era of unequal treaties and other inroads on Qing sovereignty that helped weaken and ultimately topple the dynasty in favour of republican China in the early 20th century.

“Between 1839 and 1842 British forces fought a war on behalf of drug traffickers. Their victory opened up the lucrative China trade to British merchants. This was all done with the full blessing of the British government.” (NAM, 2019).

The roots of the Opium War lay in a trade dispute between the British and the Qing Dynasty. By the start of the 19th century, the trade in Chinese goods such as tea, silks and porcelain was extremely lucrative for British merchants.

However, the Chinese would not buy British products in return. They would only sell their goods in exchange for silver, and as a result large amounts of silver were leaving Britain.

In order to stop this, the East India Company and other British merchants began to smuggle Indian opium into China illegally, for which they demanded payment in silver. This was then used to buy tea and other goods. By 1839, opium sales to China paid for the entire tea trade.

The Chinese were not amused as by 1840 there were millions of opium addicts.

When the Chinese demanded that opium stocks be handed over for destruction, the British were outraged and used this to start the conflict. While British officials tried to play down the illicit origins of the conflict, opponents gave it a name that made the link quite clear: the Opium War.

There were a number of naval engagements and the British captured some forts. The Chinese Admiral, Kuan Ti, asked for a truce and Faced with overwhelming British strength, signed an agreement on 18 January 1841 by which Hong Kong became a British territory.

The First Opium War ended on 17 August 1842, with the Treaty of Nanking which committed the Chinese to free trade, including the trade in opium.

Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, and the Treaty Ports of Guangzhou, Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai and Ningpo were opened to all traders. The Chinese also paid reparations.

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). For the victors, the Opium War paved the way for the opening up of the Chinese market.

The Opium Wars still shape Chinese attitudes towards the West.


NAM (National Army Museum). (2019) The Opium War. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/opium-war-1839-1842. [Accessed: 11 February, 2019].

The Economist. (2018) Synthetic Drugs: Too Many Cooks. The Economist. 15 December 2018, p.41-42.


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