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The Opium Wars

Opium had long been used in China for medicinal purposes. In the seventeenth century the practice of smoking opium in combination with tobacco spread from southeast Asia. In the eighteenth century a way was found to smoke pure opium sap in a pipe. Soon people were smoking opium simply for its narcotic effects: it relieved both physical and emotional pain and made tedious or physically taxing work seem less onerous. But opium was addictive; withdrawal symptoms were severe
Following the British conquest of large parts of India, the British invested mas­sively in the manufacture and distribution of opium, seeing its sale as a way to solve the problem of their balance of payments with China. The East India Com­pany controlled the sale of opium in India and licensed private traders to ship it to China. Beginning with only 200 chests of opium in 1729, imports had passed 40,000 in 1838. The Chinese authorities were well aware of the evils caused by opium smoking so to fight the spread of addic­tion, in 1800 both importation and domestic production were banned. In 1813 smoking opium was outlawed. Open trading disappeared but the British and other traders managed to stay clear of the Chinese authorities by docking their boats off the coast and selling the drug to smugglers. Soon the outflow of silver caused by the opium trade gave additional urgency to the need to solve the opium problem. By the the early 1830s 9 million tads a year of silver were flowing out of China. In 1839, after proposals to legalize opium were rejected in favour of tougher anti­ smuggling measures, the experienced and high-minded official Un Zexu was dis­patched to Guangzhou to compel the foreign traders to stop bringing opium into China and the Chinese to stop smoking. He confiscated pipes, seized opium stores, and arrested some 1,600 Chinese. The foreigners proved harder to manage. Lin Zexu used threats and bribes to get the foreign merchants to turn over their stores of opium. He offered to trade the opium for tea at a ratio of one to five and threatened to execute the heads of the Co-hong. He wrote a letter to Queen Vic­toria with the following appeal: 'Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honourable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused.' He even barricaded the foreigners in their factories to pressure them to turn over their stocks. By this point the British had abolished the East India Company and a superin­tendent of trade had been appointed to represent British interests in Guangzhou. To end this impasse, the British superintendent, Charles Elliot, collected the opium from the merchants and turned it over to Lin, who destroyed it in the presence of the British. Lin ruled that only traders who put up bonds and promised not to deal in opium would thereafter be allowed to trade at Guangzhou. Lin also pressured the Portuguese to expel the British from Macao, as a consequence of which they moved to the barren island of Hong Kong. Mean­while, in England, commercial interests were pushing for war with China. William jardine, of the major opium trading firm of jardine, Matheson, and Com­pany, sailed to London to lobby for war. Once the decision went his way, he sup­plied assistance, leasing vessels to the British fleet and lending pilots and translators. A British expeditionary force left India in 1840 with sixteen warships and thirty-one other ships. In preparation for a military confrontation, Lin bought new cannons for the forts and laid great chains across the estuary leading into Guangzhou. This caused no problem for the British expeditionary force, since they simply bypassed Guangzhou and made for the major ports of Ningbo and Tianjin, which they shut down in short order. The Chinese could no longer refuse to negotiate. The agree­ment worked out in Guangzhou called for ceding Hong Kong, repaying the British the cost of their expedition (an indemnity of six million Mexican silver dollars), and allowing direct intercourse between officials of each country. Upon learning the terms of the settlement, the public in both countries was outraged. Lin Zexu had already been exiled for having allowed the war to start; now the official who negotiated the treaty was brought to the capital in chains. In England a new expeditionary force was ordered, this time with 10,000 men, more than twice the previous number, and in 184 I the British occupied several strate­gic coastal cities, including Shanghai. Dozens of Qing officers committed suicide when defeat was certain. Finally, when the British took up positions outside the walls of Nanjing, the Chinese were forced to sue for peace. The Treaty of Nanjing, concluded at gunpoint, raised the indemnity to twenty-one million ounces of sil­ver, abolished the Co-hong, opened five treaty ports (Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai), and fixed the tariff at 5 per cent. Through the provision of 'extraterritoriality', British subjects in China were answerable only to British law, even in disputes with Chinese. The 'most-favoured nation' clause provided that if another nation extracted a new privilege from China, that same privilege would be extended automatically to Britain. During the course of the nineteenth century China signed many more 'unequal' treaties with imperialist powers, but the basic terms had been set. China could not set its own tariffs and eventually even had to appoint European officers to collect them. When Chinese did not buy the Europeans' woollens, knives, and pianos in the hoped-for numbers, European merchants did not fault their own expectations but the obstructionism of Chinese officials; they demanded more treaty ports and fewer restrictions on trade. In 1860, an Anglo-French expedition occupied Beijing for a month to force the acceptance of new treaties, which brought the number of treaty ports to fourteen.