First Opium War

An opium den in China.  [Public Domain]

An opium den in China. [Public Domain]

Opium was first introduced to China in the 17th century, in the form of madak, a blend of opium with tobacco smoked with bamboo pipes. Countless smoking dens popped up along the Southern coastal cities and were viewed as corrupting the Chinese both morally and physically. In 1729, Qing Emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝爱新觉罗胤祯) banned the smoking of madak. British merchants complied.

During this period, China’s interest in Western goods was very limited whilst European demand for Chinese silk and tea was insatiable. They loved the texture and beauty of silk and they found drinking tea prevented them from getting sick — instead of drinking water straight out of lakes and rivers, tea called for boiling the water first which assisted in killing bacteria and germs; however, this was not common knowledge at the time and the European contributed the health effect of drinking disinfected water to tea. The large trade deficit drained Europe of its silvers, as this was the only form of currency acceptable to the Chinese.

By 1780, the added pressure from the British East India Company’s rapidly deteriorating financial health made Britain re-evaluate and subsequently resume opium trading, despite any Chinese legislation. The British grew opium in its tropical countries, namely India, and sold it to the Chinese . By 1800, the British East India Company dominated this supremely lucrative opium market in China.

Commissioner Lin Zexu destroying opium outside of Humen Town (虎门销烟).  [chinesegeography.skyrock.com]

Commissioner Lin Zexu destroying opium outside of Humen Town (虎门销烟). [chinesegeography.skyrock.com]

In the 1830s, over 20,000 chests, each containing about 75 kilograms of opium, arrived annually in Canton, the only port open to foreign trade. Chinese consumption skyrocketed except this time, instead of madak, they smoked pure opium. The drastic increase in narcotic addicts, plus the rapid outflow of silver, caused grave concern for the Qing Imperial Court.

In 1838, Emperor Daoguang (道光帝爱新觉罗绵宁, 1820-1850) appointed special commissioner Lin Zexu (林则徐) to ban the illegal import of opium. After a letter sent to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom pleading for a stop to the opium trade was ignored, Lin confiscated and destroyed over 20,000 chests of opium and ordered a blockade of European ships to prevent more opium from coming into Canton. 

The British retaliated with military force which resulted in a devastating defeat for the Chinese and the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. In addition to pay a large indemnity and hand Hong Kong to Britain, four additional ports — Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai — were forced open to foreign trade. The treaty furthermore exempted all foreigners from Chinese law, meaning their degree of freedom was so significant they were essentially above the law.