Two wars, the First Opium War (1839–42) and the Second Opium War (1856–60), waged by Britain against China to enforce the opening of Chinese ports to trade in opium. Opium from British India paid for Britain's imports from China, such as porcelain, silk, and, above all, tea.
The First Opium War resulted in the cession of Hong Kong to Britain and the opening of five treaty ports. Other European states were also subsequently given concessions. The Second Opium War followed, with Britain and France in alliance against China, when there was further Chinese resistance to the opium trade. China was forced to give the European states greater trading privileges, at the expense of its people.
Opium trade In the 19th century, conflicts and corruption in the government of China had weakened the power of the emperor, and the Chinese were unable to protect themselves from the activities of European and US traders. Foreign trading companies were keen to access the vast riches that China offered, and pressured their governments to force the Chinese into opening up the country. For centuries China's rulers had restricted foreign traders to dealing with the Hong, the recognized Chinese merchants at Guangzhou (known to the West as Canton).
The directors of the British East India Company made huge profits by illegally importing opium from British India into China; corrupt Chinese officials were bribed with money to ignore the trade. The opium paid for Britain's imports from China, particularly tea, and the trade was seen by the British government as a vital part of the British economy, benefiting economic activity and providing taxes for government finances. The effects on the Chinese people of importing a highly addictive and damaging drug into China were ignored. The directors of the East India Company had close ties with members of the British government, ensuring a sympathetic hearing when problems arose. The extension of British influence through the activities of the British East India Company was also encouraged as a reflection of the power and prestige of the British Empire.
First Opium War In 1839 the Chinese government stopped the importation of opium by the East India Company, which it said was having a debilitating and damaging effect upon the population. The imperial commissioner Lin Zexu (Lin Tse-hsu) was despatched to Guangzhou (Canton) to enforce the ban. When British and US ships defied the ban on opium, Chinese officials publicly destroyed 20,000 cases of the drug.
Faced with the collapse of its operations in the Far East, and the threat of bankruptcy without the opium trade, the British East India Company persuaded the British government, then led by Lord Palmerston, to declare war on China. A British expeditionary force sailed to China in 1840 determined to force wider trading concessions and to obtain compensation for the destroyed opium. The superior firepower of the British Royal Navy broke Chinese resistance, and the First Opium War ended in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanjing (or Nanking).
The treaty provided for the opening of five ports – Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai – to British trade, and Hong Kong was ceded to Britain. It also exacted the payment of a large indemnity, and the granting of special privileges to Christian missionaries. Other European states were also given concessions. The opium trade was not mentioned.
Impact of the First Opium War The Treaty of Nanjing was the first of a number of unequal treaties which established foreign concessions in the so-called treaty ports. European traders in the ports were not subject to Chinese laws or taxes.
Economically, China's defeat in the First Opium War highlighted the weakness of its government and deepened its domestic troubles. China was forced to accept the sale of opium by the British East India Company, and the damaging effects of the drug increased. The policy of limiting the access of European traders had also collapsed. European traders now had effective control of a number of Chinese ports that were no longer under the full control of the Chinese government. The increase in Christian missionaries entering China after the Treaty of Nanjing threatened the traditional culture and religion of the country. China was at risk of becoming a country unable to control its own affairs or future.
Second Opium War Chinese resistance to the opium trade continued, and in 1856 the Arrow, a British-registered ship staffed by a Chinese crew, was seized by the Chinese authorities. The event was used by the British as an excuse to embark on the Second Opium War. France allied with Britain, citing the execution of a French missionary as reason for war. The two powers won victories against the Chinese imperial army, whose forces were also having to put down two major internal uprisings at the time: the Taiping Rebellion and the Nien Rebellion.
The Treaty of Tianjin (or Tientsin) was signed in 1858. Its terms included the opening of further ports, the payment of compensation for lost trade, and permission for foreigners and missionaries to trade or promote Christianity in the interior. China was forced to give the European states greater trading privileges, at the expense of its people. The Second Opium War had a second phase which culminated in the Anglo-French occupation of Beijing and the burning of the Summer Palace. The war ended in 1860, and Britain was granted control of the Kowloon peninsula.