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  • Zac Francis

Britain's Opium Wars with China

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

Before the war on drugs there was the war for drugs.

The Opium Wars are the historical titles given to two conflicts between China, Britain, and France, illustrating the 19th century clash between the inward-looking, self-sustaining East and the expansionist, trade-reliant West.

It was a time in history when the technological advances resulting from the industrial revolution helped Britain and the West become the dominant global force, taking over from China, a far larger and wealthier nation at the time.

The Opium Wars and the Humiliation of China

Although they were called the Opium Wars, as time progressed the trade of opium became a secondary cause, overtaken by the British and French desire to expand their territory and global influence.

The results of the Opium Wars would have profound long-term impacts, particularly with regards to China, who would experience what they call ‘the century of humiliation’ between 1839 and 1949.

Here is a guide detailing the Opium Wars and their historical impact.

Causes of the Opium Wars

Consisting of the largest population in the world, China’s power and wealth dwarfed that of the European powers. The Chinese economy was almost entirely self-reliant and their limited trade with Europe made their position even stronger.

China and its population had little need for British manufactured goods. However, Britain was not so self-sufficient, and there was a high demand for Chinese imports such as silk and tea. Because of this, Britain often had to pay for Chinese imports with silver and gold. This trade imbalance significantly impacted the British economy and thus the island nation needed a solution.

Opium was that solution. During the 18th Century, opium addiction swept through China. This resulted in the Emperor prohibiting the sale and smoking of opium in 1729 and outlawing opium importation and cultivation in 1796. However, despite these rulings, the opium trade continued to grow, and the British East India Trading Company were the leading suppliers.

Although not carrying the opium itself, The East India Company supplied opium to licensed private traders who could legally take goods to China. These traders sold the opium to smugglers along the Chinese coast who paid in gold and silver and as a result, the trade imbalance began to erode. Opium imports went from 200 chests annually in 1729 to 40,000 chests annually in 1838. This exponential increase in opium trade caused another imbalance, but this time in favour of Britain.

Opium addiction was becoming an epidemic, impacting the Chinese economy and its society, and causing corruption at the highest level. In attempt to solve this problem, The Qing Dynasty established further opium restrictions, resulting in increased tensions between Britain and China.

The Treaty of Nanjing during the Opium Wars

The First Opium War

In 1839, The Chinese government seized and destroyed an estimated 20,000 chests of opium located in Canton, belonging to British merchants. Tensions between the two nations increased further when intoxicated British sailors killed a Chinese villager. The British government then refused to hand over the men responsible.

In 1840, the British Government sent a fleet of ships to China. The fleet made its way to Hong Kong before travelling to Canton, where the British attacked and occupied the city. For the next 15 months, the British launched successful campaigns against the Qing Dynasty, forcing them to concede defeat.

Following this defeat, China signed the Treaty of Nanjing that granted extraterritoriality to Britain, increased the number of trading ports available from 1 to 5 and granted indemnity. Additionally, Hong Kong was established as a British Colony. This treaty was the first of the unequal treaties – a term used by the Chinese

The Second Opium War

With Western Imperialism growing, the treaty failed to satisfy Britain, who wanted further advantage in areas including trade and diplomatic relations. Britain and the Western powers wanted to expand their markets to the east and required additional ports of call. To satisfy their global goals, Britain wanted to re-negotiate the Treaty of Nanjing, with demands including legalisation of opium.

In October 1856, the governor of Canton, Ye Mingchen, impounded a British-registered ship that he believed was associated with piracy and arrested the Chinese crew members. The British asked Ye Mingchen to immediately release all crew members, but he refused, only releasing nine. Furious, the British sailed up the pearl river and attacked Canton, clashing with Chinese forces.

The British formed an alliance with the French who also wanted to freely trade with China. Military operations began in 1857, and the Western forces experienced continued success, finally reaching Tianjin in May 1858 and forcing the Chinese into negotiations.

The Second Opium War in China 1857


Britain and the West had proven they were the dominant power and China could not compete with their military might. Therefore, the Chinese agreed to the Treaty of Tianjin, to which Britain, France, United States and Russia were parties. The treaty opened more Chinese ports for foreign trade, established embassies within China and allowed foreigners to travel freely within the regions of China.

In June 1859, Diplomats travelled to Beijing to ratify the treaties, but the Chinese refused this attempt. Hostilities resumed resulting in the capture of Beijing by Western forces. With the ongoing Taiping rebellion, the Chinese no longer had the resources to continue the war and surrendered. The Beijing Convention was signed, resulting in the ratification of the Tianjin treaties.

Long term impacts

Historians often agree that the first Opium War signalled the beginning of the ‘Hundred years of Humiliation’ for China. This term is used to describe the colonial subjugation of China by Western powers.

During this period (1839-1949), China lost almost all major conflicts, signed uneven treaties that decimated their economy, paid vast amounts in reparations, and had almost every aspect of their society, culture and politics influenced by the Western powers. This period came to an end after World War 2.

For more information on this topic, check out our dedicated section on British History and Revisionism.

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