An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The First Opium War (1839-1842)

Mar 20, 2020 © Ulrich Theobald

The First Anglo-Chinese or First Opium War (1839-1842, Di yi ci yapian zhanzheng 第一次鴉片戰爭) was a military conflict between the Qing empire 清 (1644-1911) and Great Britain. The war is called so because the main reason of the conflict was the attempt of the Qing administration to rebalance criticial changes in the international trade pattern which involved the trade and smuggling of opium. The British government resorted to military means to resolve the consequences of some unskilled decisions from both the British, and the Chinese side.

Traditionally, the First Opium War is seen as the first clash in a series of conflicts resulting in the conclusion of so-called "unequal treaties" (bu pingdeng tiaoyue 不平等條約) enforced by Western powers upon China, in this case the Treaty of Nanjing (Nanjing tiaoyue 南京條約). Yet from the European perspective, there were some aspects of inequality too, mainly by China's insistence on the imperial tribute system and the strict and humiliating hierarchy of communication it involved. China did not know diplomatic equality before the First Opium War.

Lin Zexu's fight against opium trade

In December 1838, the imperial court appointed Lin Zexu 林則徐 (1785-1850) Imperial Commissioner (qinchai dachen 欽差大臣) to investigate the problem of maritime trade in Canton (Guangzhou 廣州, Guangdong) and the opium problem. As former governor-general of the twin-province of Hu-Guang 湖廣 (Hubei and Hunan, Feb 1837-Dec 1838), Lin had carried out a successful campaign of suppressing the trade and consumption of opium. The made him seemingly an ideal person to launch a similar project in the south. This project was to be combined with the pacification of the recalcitrant foreigners - "piratical traders" (Wakeman 1978: 196) - and their claims for open trade.

Having arrived in Canton, Lin Zexu co-optated the local gentry to heal the province of Guangdong of the opium infestation. This measure disturbed the social balance in the districts of the province and gave judicial and military power, actually a prerogative of the state, into the hands of the local elite. Their growing power and autonomy in south China went hand in hand with increasing social unrest, and prepared the ground for growing regional independence.

Yet Lin Zexu's greatest error was his underrating of the resistance of the British community in Canton. He decided to make use of the responsibility system of the ancient Canton System according to which the Cohong Guild was responsible for the behaviour of the foreign traders. On 18 March 1839, Lin gave the Hong merchants three days to persuade the private English traders to hand over to the Chinese authorities any opium contraband in their possession and so sign bonds promising never to deal with opium again.

No one on the Chinese side perhaps expected that the British community did indeed produce 1,056 chests of the poison. At the same time, Lin had the President of the British Chamber of Commerce, Lancelot Dent (Ch. Diandi 顛地, 1799-1853), arrested, as well as two of the Cohong merchants which were held responsible for the behaviour of the British traders.

When Captain Charles Elliot (Ch. Chali Yilü 查理•義律, 1801-1875), plenipotentiary as Superintendent of the China Trade, arrived from Macao on 23 March, he found that the Chinese besieged the Canton Factories, where foreign commodities were stored, and held 350 British subjects hostages. Elliot thereupon ordered all merchants to surrender their opium (amounting to 20,283 chests), pledging that the British government would stand good for the cost (which was $9 million; Wakeman 1978: 188), a matter to which Parliament had never given consent.

The seized opium was throughout June destroyed in public at Humen 虎門 (Bocca Tigris) at the Bogue (the Pearl River Delta) by putting the chests into sea water ponds filled with lime. The unusable mixture was then led into the sea. The whole episode is known as the "destruction at Humen" (Humen xiaohui 虎門銷毀) or "destruction of opium at Humen" (Humen xiao yan 虎門銷菸).

British resettling to Hong Kong

Because no foreign merchant had signed the requested bond (ceasing opium trade) for fear to have to acknowledge Chinese jurisdiction, they left Canton and settled down in Macao on 4 July. Their eventual return to Canton was abruptly questioned with the Lin Weixi murder case (Lin Weixi an 林維喜案). British seamen had a quarrel with local Chinese in Kowloon (Jiulong 九龍) and brought to death one of them. While in Western law, individual responsibility is decisive, Chinese law operates with the concept of retribution for a crime, if necessary in a collective way (see collective punishment). There had been several similar cases in the past in which foreign captains either handed over the culprit (or a substitute person) or refused to cooperate with the Chinese authorities. In the Lin Weixi case, the British captain refused to hand over any person.

Lin Zexu thereupon put a blockade on Macao which caused the Portuguese governor, Adrião Acácio da Silveira Pinto (gov. 1837-1843), to expel the British. Elliot and the British community left Macao and settled down on the island of Hong Kong (Xianggang 香港) on 24 August 1839. A week later, on 4 September, the famished British ships fired on the local naval garrison of Kowloon to enforce the delivery of food to the exiled British.

While Elliot awaited instructions from London, some British merchants, forced by US competition, decided to prefer commercial profit over jurisdictional extraterritoriality and signed Lin Zexu's bonds of promise not to deal in opium any more. Lin himself wrote a famous letter to Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) urging her to stop the immoral trade with opium. The letter, titled Yu Yingguo guowang shu 諭英國國王書, never reached the Queen, but its text is preserved.

The First Battle of Chuenpi

The Chinese attempted to solve the Lin Weixi case by selecting a British seaman at random. This task was on 3 November 1839 entrusted to Admiral (shuishi tidu 水師提督) Guan Tianpei 關天培 (1781-1841). Having assembled his flotilla of 29 imperial junks, Guan was stopped by Captain Elliot's frigate HMS Volage who tried to enforce an embargo of the Bogue against British merchants wishing to return to Canton. Perhaps misinterpreting movements of Chinese and British merchant ships, the HMS Volage began a barrage, destroying four Chinese ships and dispersing the imperial fleet. This was the First Battle of Chuenpi (Ch. Chuanbi 穿鼻).

The way to war and the Convention of Chuenpi

Provoked by this "stubborness of the barbarian trader-pirates", Lin Zexu took up the gauntlet and reinforced the batteries along the Bogue. He totally underestimated the strength of the modern British army and overestimated that of the Chinese. He had no idea of the preciseness of Western artillery and flintlock muskets (not to speak of the early percussion-lock guns), of shallow-draught iron steamers like HMS Nemesis nor of the vast supply of troops and funds the British possessed. In contrast to this, the Chinese armies were undermanned, undisciplined, badly equipped and without training. Militia bands even resorted to Daoist magic. Lin's attempt of purchasing Western guns and adopting Western tactics were of not use. A deep misconception was Lin's assumption that "pirates" like the British were unable to fight on land.

In late October 1839, Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston (without asking Parliament) had been convinced to intervene on behalf of the British community and promised to send an expeditionary force. The aims of this intervention were also drafted during that time: satisfaction for the factory siege, reparations for the opium and the military expedition, judicial security for British merchants (extraterritoriality), an equitable commerce treaty (and the end of the Canton System), the opening of four new ports, and the occupation of Hong Kong. The opium question was of minor importance in national debates in Great Britain, while Lin's provocation of having arrested and menaced British subjects, including women and children, aroused anger and outrage at home. Last but not least, Captain Elliot's promise that Great Britain would stand good for the lost merchandize placed the ball into the British government's court.

In April 1840, Parliament discussed the China question and the issues of trade, diplomacy, and jurisdiction. One problem had been that the Superintendant was not given full legal powers to discuss with the Chinese side. Elliot's position as institutional "successor" of the representatives of the East India Company was vague, not just to the British, but also to the Chinese.

China's rights to decide over imports or the legality of opium trade were not a matter of dispute, but rather her treatment of British subjects. In the first half of the year, a strategy was drafted. Captain Charles Elliot and his cousin Admiral George Elliot (1784-1863) would blockade China's major ports (including Canton), capture the island of Chusan (Zhoushan 舟山) in the Hangzhou Bay 杭州灣, and advance to the estuary of Baihe River 白河 (today's Haihe 海河) near Tianjin 天津. Lord Palmerston wrote a note to the Chinese Emperor protesting against the treatment of British subjects by Lin Zexu.

On 21 June 1840, the British fleet of 16 war ships and 4 armed steamers left the Bogue and on 5 July approached Chusan Island. The city was bombarded before the fleet proceeded northwards. Shocked by the daunting enterprise of approaching the capital, the Qing court decided to enter talks when the ships reached the Dagu Forts (Dagu paotai 大沽炮台) close to Tianjin. It was also decided to dismiss Lin Zexu who had failed to settle the local problems in the province of Guangdong so that the rebellious "barbarians" were on their way to Beijing. Lin was exiled to Ili. He was replaced by the Mongol Bannerman Kišan (Qishan 琦善, 1786-1854).

Kišan had understood that the British were different and much stronger than the "barbarians" from the 18th century, and had therefore to be dealt with by appeasement primarily. He convinced the Elliots to return to the south where negotiations were to be concluded.

While negotiations were held in December 1840, the war faction at the Chinese court attacked Kišan for his appeasement and requested the continuation of war. Negotiations, too, were more complicated than Kišan had expected. The British insisted on the ceding of Hong Kong, and occupied the batteries of the Bogue to coerce Kišan to conclude the Convention of Chuenpi (Chuanbi caoyue 穿鼻草約) on 20 January 1841. It included an indemnity of 6 million silver dollars, the cession of Hong Kong, direct official intercourse on an equal basis, and the ending of the Canton System. A day later, Lin Zexu was pardoned and made governor-general of Liang-Guang 兩廣 (Guangdong and Guangxi, Jan-Oct 1840).

The second phase of the war

But neither Palmerston nor the Daoguang Emperor 道光帝 (r. 1820-1850) accepted the conditions of the Convention of Chuenpi. The Emperor ordered reinforcement of the province under the command of his cousin, Prince I Šan (Yishan 奕山 1790-1878). Kišan was arrested. In Lord Palmerston's eyes, Elliot had not achieved enough, and was replaced by Henry Pottinger (Ch. Bodianzha 砵甸乍, 1789-1856). In order to avoid similar modesties as Elliot, Pottinger was given concrete details of what to demand from the Chinese, namely compensation for opium (6,189,616 silver dollars), outstanding debt of the cohong (3 million dollars), reparations for the campaign (c. 2.5 million dollars), the opening of at least four new ports, cession of Hong Kong and more islands where goods could be landed free of duty, British consular representation in each treaty port, the abolition of the Canton System, and legalization of opium.

Before the arrival of Pottinger, Elliot fought his way to Canton and forced the negotiators – a triumvirate consisting of I Šan, Longwen 隆文 (d. 1841), and Yang Fang 楊芳 (1770-1846) – to resume trade. Yet on 21 May 1841, the Chinese attacked just outside Canton, but were repelled. British troops landed and announced to shell the city. The negotiators had to give in, withdrew their troops from Canton, and promised to pay a ransom of 6 million silver dollars and indemnities of 300,000 for British merchants. The conditions were laid down in the Treaty of Canton (Guangzhou tiaoyue 廣州條約) on 27 May 1841.

Popular anger at the foreign occupants culminated in riots in the village of Sanyuanli (known as Sanyuanli kang Ying shijian 三元里抗英事件) in late May 1841, but the Chinese authorities did all they could to appease them for fear of further demonstrations of British superiority. In the years to come, south China was haunted by xenophobic movements and increasing militarisation of the countryside - phenomena that can be traced back to this incident.

Pottinger arrived on 10 August 1841 and took over command of the fleet, first sailing northwards to Amoy (Xiamen 廈門), Fujian, which the flotilla reached and occupied on 26 August. Farther north, it took the British fleet three days to conquer the reinforced city of Chusan Island, which fell on 1 October. Ningbo, Zhejiang, was occupied without resistance on 13 October, after the surrender of the garrison of Zhenhai 鎮海. Pottinger's strategy was to ship the Yangtze upwards to divide China into two parts. This expedition was planned for the following spring, yet the rest of the British over winter gave the Chinese time to prepare for a counter-attack. It was planned and carried out by imperial nephew Prince I Ging (Yijing 奕經, 1793-1853), but the reconquest of Ningbo – in which also Tibetan troops from Jinchuan 金川 (today part of Sichuan) participated – was thoroughly ill-planned and failed utterly.

The British Yangtze campaign began on 7 May 1842. The Manchu Bannermen of Zhapu 乍浦 fought stubbornly (and killed their children and wives rather than surrender), but without success; Shanghai was abandoned, and the Manchu garrison of Chinkiang (Zhenjiang 鎮江), Jiangsu, was captured. The British had by then control over the southern terminal of the Grand Canal, the artery of the Chinese economy. The Chinese troops of all types were consternated by the successes of the "barbarians" and started in many places witch-hunts against collaborators.

The Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing)

The Daoguang Emperor decided that confrontation had not been the right way to deal with the British. On 7 April, Prince Ki Yeng (Qiying 耆英, 1787-1858) was appointed Imperial Commissioner to start negotiations – even if the war-monger party at the court called for continued fight and the Emperor was not really convinced that a peace treaty was a good solution. On July 26, after the fall of Zhenjiang and understanding that the British were not striving for political control over China, the Emperor gave Ki Yeng and Ilibu (Yilibu 伊里布, 1772-1843) full powers. In order to convince Pottinger of their rights, the two and governor-general of Liang-Jiang 兩江 (Jiangnan=Jiangsu and Jiangxi), Niu Jian 牛鑑 (1785-1858) wore higher insignia than their ranks actually allowed.

On 29 August 1842, on board of HMS Cornwallis, the two parties signed the Treaty of Nanjing (Nanjing tiaoyue 南京條約), the first of the unequal treaties (bu pingdeng tiaoyue 不平等條約), called so because the Chinese were forced by military power to sign them. This is remarkable because one of the British demands was to be treated as equals by the Chinese state, and not as low-standing "barbarians" in a tribute system. It had actually been China who had dealt with others on "unequal terms".

Provisions of the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing)
Art. 1. Subjects of China and Great Britain shall enjoy full security and protection for their persons and property within the dominions of the other.
Art. 2. British Subjects, with their families and establishments, shall be allowed to reside without molestation or restraint at the cities and towns of Canton, Amoy, Foochow-fu (Fuzhou 福州, Fujian), Ningpo (Ningbo), and Shanghai. The Queen will appoint Superintendents or Consular Officers, to reside at each of the above-named cities or towns, to be the medium of communication between the Chinese authorities and the merchants.
Art. 3. China cedes to Great Britain the island of Hongkong, to be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannic Majesty.
Art. 4. China agrees to pay the sum of six millions of (silver) dollars as the value of opium which was delivered up at Canton in 1839, as a ransom for the lives of British subjects, who had been imprisoned and threatened with death by the Chinese high officers.
Art. 5. China agrees to abolish the Hong Merchants (or Cohong) at all ports, and to permit British merchants to carry on their mercantile transactions with whatever persons they please.
Pay to the British Government the sum of three million dollars, on account of debts due to British subjects by some of the Cohong, who have become insolvent.
Art. 6. China agrees to pay the sum of twelve millions of dollars on account of the expenses incurred [during the expedition], deducting any sums which may have been received before as ransom for cities and towns in China.
Art. 7. The total amount of twenty-one millions of dollars shall be paid as follows: Six millions immediately, six millions in 1843 (in two instalments), five millions in 1844 (in two instalments), and four millions in 1845 (in two instalments); and it is further stipulated, that interest at the rate of 5 per cent per annum shall be paid on any portions of the above sums that are not punctually discharged at the periods fixed.
Art. 8. Release of British subjects in confinement at the moment.
Art. 9. Amnesty and indemnity for Chinese persons having had dealings and intercourse with, or having entered British service.
Art. 10. China agrees to establish at all the ports a fair and regular tariff of export and import customs and other dues, which tariff shall be publicly notified and promulgated for general information, to be hereafter fixed, and such merchandise may be conveyed by Chinese merchants, to any province or city in the interior of China on paying a further amount as transit duties which shall not exceed [t.b.d.] per cent.
Art. 11. The British Chief High Officer shall correspond with the Chinese high officers in the Capital and the provinces under the term "Communication" [huizhao 照會]. The subordinate British officers and Chinese high officers in the provinces under the terms "Statement" [shenchen 申陳] on the part of the former, and on the part of the latter "Declaration" [zhaxing 劄行], and the subordinates of both countries on a footing of perfect equality. Merchants and others not holding official situations and therefore not included in the above, on both sides, to use the term "Representation" [bingming 禀明] in all papers addressed to, or intended for the notice of the respective governments.
Art. 12. British forces will retire from Nanking (Nanjing) and Chinhai (Zhenhai) and the Grand Canal, and will no longer molest or stop the trade of China, but the islands of Koolangsoo (Gulangyu 鼓浪嶼 near Xiamen) and Chusan will continue to be held until the money payments, and the arrangements for opening the ports be completed.
Art. 13. Ratification.

The impact of the First Opium War

There had been several reasons why British merchants were not satisfied with the status quo in 1838. The first was the Canton System which restricted trade to the port of Canton and demanded mediation and control by the Cohong guild, at least until xxx. The huge market of China was closed, both for import and export. These restrictions narrowed earnings from import and made "necessary" the covering of expenditure (purchase of huge quantities of tea) by selling opium (a cheap product of the colony in India). An open China market would perhaps not have led to such a conclusion.

The second critical issue was China's non-acceptance of equal diplomatic relations. Representatives of British merchant communities (Superintendents of the China Trade) had not the right to communicate directly with the Chinese government, but only by petition to local governors as mediators. For a power which had won a war over Napoleon, this seemed to be quite an unacceptable humiliation (Gelber 2006: 6).

Third, the safety of British subjects (person and property) in a foreign country was a principle not adaptable to traditional Chinese law. The highjacking of traders not involved in opium smuggle had been an unacceptable offense by Lin Zexu.

The main reasons of the First Opium War were thus trade, diplomacy, and jurisdiction, and not the issue of opium. The Treaty of Nanjing does not include any provision about opium trade.

Nonetheless, the name of the war is justified by several facts. First, British tea trade could only be financed by the use of Indian-produced opium. The drug served as a means to channel the wealthes of China to Great Britain and back into the Indian colony (Tan 1974). The trade triangle between Calcutta, Canton, and London served as a booster of fortune. Second, the Chinese side, lacking interest in the mechanics of foreign trade and foreign countries, were unable to see that the state system of China with its paradigms of economy, jurisdiction, and administration was thoroughly incompatible with that of Western countries. Chinese actors, be it Lin Zexu or the court in Beijing, ignored British motives, and saw the opium smuggle as the sole problem of foreign trade. This image of opium as the core problem was perpetuated with each "unequal treaty" that followed. Third, in Western countries, the rise of socialism and its view of oppressed peoples also contributed to the saga of opium as the issue of the war (well seen in Marx' dubbing of religion as "opium of the people").

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