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First Opium War, 1839-42

Opium-eating, to an enormous extent, was long practised in the East. The drug was resorted to on account of the pleasurable sensations which result from it. The mental faculties were said to be enlarged ; a state of mind was felt which was described as perfect happiness; the ordinary capacities of enjoyment are refined and amplified. Dreams and hallucinations of a wondrous but agreeable kind present themselves to the thinker - but there was no intoxication like that produced by alcohol. To his friends the Opium-eater may seem a grave, silent, and abstracted person, or his flow of conversation and expression of his ideas to others may be more remarkable and more vivid than theirs. At length he sleeps, still dreaming; sleeps long, and when awoke, still feels drowsy.

The trade in opium did not, as many suppose, originate with the Bast India Company, but existed long before the British traded with China. Opium is known to have been carried to China by the Portuguese so early as the middle of the 18th century, and there is reason to believe that it was known, produced, and used in China at least two centuries before that time. It was not until 1773 that the East India Company made their first venture, and it was not until 1794 that the Chinese offered any objections to the trade, which afterwards, as a consequence of these objections, degenerated into smuggling.

Towards the end of the Ming dynasty the legitimate practice of taking opium medicinally was destined soon to change into that of smoking it. The new phase was intimately associated with the introduction of tobacco-smoking from the Philippine Islands. Tobacco reached China about 1620 AD, or just about the time that King James I published in England his Counterblast to Tobacco, and the last of the Ming Emperors prohibited the smoking of tobacco. But the habit nevertheless spread rapidly, and various substances came to be mixed with the tobacco, such as opium. These were for some years used as flavoring ingredients, but in time they became the chief materials smoked. It may thus truly be said that tobacco was a lesser evil than the early Chinese reformers supposed, while opium-smoking proved a far greater danger than they feared.

During the eighteenth century, the market in Europe and America for tea, a new drink in the West, expanded greatly. Additionally, there was a continuing demand for Chinese silk and porcelain. But China, still in its preindustrial stage, wanted little that the West had to offer, causing the Westerners, mostly British, to incur an unfavorable balance of trade. Western traders, including those from the United States, had long sought a variety of Chinese products (including furniture, silk and tea), but found there were few products that China wanted from the West. American trade with China began as early as 1784, relying on North American exports such as furs, sandalwood, and ginseng, but American interest in Chinese products soon outstripped the Chinese appetite for these American exports.

To remedy the situation, the foreigners developed a third-party trade, exchanging their merchandise in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and semi-processed goods, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. By the early nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium from India had become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy.

The British had already discovered a great market in southern China for smuggled opium, and American traders soon also turned to opium to supplement their exports to China. Beyond the health problems related to opium addiction, the increasing opium trade with the Western powers meant that for the first time, China imported more goods than it exported. Settling this financial problem eventually led to the First Opium War between Great Britain and China, from 1839 to 1842.

While the Court at Peking was endeavoring to suppress the foreign trade in opium, from 1796 to 1840, it did not or could not put a stop to the home cultivation of the drug, since a Chinese Censor in 1830 represented to the throne, that the poppy was grown over one-half of the province of Chekeang, and in 1836 another (Cho Tsun) stated that the annual production of opium in Yunnan could not be less than several thousand piculs.

Comparatively little was heard of any remonstrance on the part of the Chinese Government to the importation of opium until about the year 1834. Up to this period commerce with China was conducted by the East India Company, but their charter expiring in that year, Lord Napier was sent by the British Government to superintend the trade. On his death Capt. Elliott became Superintendent, and a discussion arose whether the opium trade, which during years past had been carried on in an illegal manner, should be legalised or suppressed. Elliott was ordered by the Viceroy of Canton to send away the opium vessels, and their return was prohibited. Still the drug was smuggled into the country.

The fulminations of the Chinese Government against the importation and the use of opium were certainly both numerous and energetic. As the Chinese Emperors, a thousand years before the Christian era, condemned drunkenness and declared the most severe punishment to deter from that vice, so in almost exactly similar language the Chinese Emperors of the present century have condemned opium, and declared the most severe punishment to those indulging in the drug. And the high moral standing, apparently taken by a Chinese Emperor, in his declarations against the drug, has won the sympathy of a very large class of Englishmen. " I will not," said the Emperor of China, " make a revenue from the vices of my people;" death, banishment, forfeiture of property, the wooden collar, the bastinado, punishments often extended to sons and brothers, were the means by which it was sought to stop the sale and use of opium. When a man was detected in smoking, he was put to the torture until he gave up the name of the person who sold him the drug, and this agent was similarly dealt with until he told where he procured it. All this, and the peculiar circumstances of the Chinese people, their poverty, and the listless and objectless manner in which the Government was carried on, the sanguinary penal code, and the probability that opium saved the Chinese people from being a drunken nation, all this was forgotten in admiration of the high moral standard assumed in the words, " I will not derive a revenue from the vices of my people."

In 1839 the Qing government, after a decade of unsuccessful anti-opium campaigns, adopted drastic prohibitory laws against the opium trade. The emperor dispatched a commissioner, Lin Zexu (1785- 1850), to Guangzhou to suppress illicit opium traffic. Lin seized illegal stocks of opium owned by Chinese dealers and then detained the entire foreign community and confiscated and destroyed some 20,000 chests of illicit British opium. His first step was to demand the surrender of all opium; his next was to place the chests containing the drug, 20,291 in number, valued at 2,000,000 sterling, in trenches filled with lime, in which the sea water was admitted, and the whole utterly ruined.

The British retaliated with a punitive expedition, thus initiating the first Anglo-Chinese war, better known as the Opium War (1839-42). Unprepared for war and grossly underestimating the capabilities of the enemy, the Chinese were disastrously defeated, and their image of their own imperial power was tarnished beyond repair.

The Treaty of Nanjing (1842), signed on board a British warship by two Manchu imperial commissioners and the British plenipotentiary, was the first of a series of agreements with the Western trading nations later called by the Chinese the "unequal treaties." Under the Treaty of Nanjing, China ceded the island of Hong Kong (Xianggang in pinyin) to the British; abolished the licensed monopoly system of trade; opened 5 ports to British residence and foreign trade; limited the tariff on trade to 5 percent ad valorem; granted British nationals extraterritoriality (exemption from Chinese laws); and paid a large indemnity. In addition, Britain was to have most-favored-nation treatment, that is, it would receive whatever trading concessions the Chinese granted other powers then or later. The Treaty of Nanjing set the scope and character of an unequal relationship for the ensuing century of what the Chinese would call "national humiliations." The treaty was followed by other incursions, wars, and treaties that granted new concessions and added new privileges for the foreigners.

Not to be outdone, U.S. negotiators sought to conclude a similar treaty with the Chinese, to guarantee the United States many of the favorable terms awarded the British. The Chinese readily agreed in an effort to keep all foreigners on the same footing. U.S. President John Tyler chose Massachusetts Congressman Caleb Cushing as his representative in treaty negotiations with the Chinese. Cushing and his counterparts reached the terms of the treaty quickly and signed it at Wangxia, a suburb of the Portuguese port city of Macau, in 1844. The Treaty of Wangxia replicated many of the key terms of the Treaty of Nanjing. Most importantly, it established five treaty ports as open for Chinese-Western trade (Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai). These treaty ports became key crossroads for Western and Chinese culture, as they were the first locations where foreigners and foreign trading operations could own land in China.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:07 ZULU