The Opium Wars

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Podcast Transcript

In the 19th century, the British and the Chinese went to war on two separate occasions—the reasons why they went to war are both simple and complicated. 

The more complicated reason has to do with the trade policies of the British Empire and centuries-old entrenched attitudes on the part of the Qing dynasty. 

The simple reason had to do with pushing drugs as a matter of national policy. 

Learn more about the Opium Wars, why Britain and China went to war, and how it affected the future of China on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


I normally give a bit of background to explain most episodes that deal with a historical event. For this episode, it is especially necessary because the causes of the conflict between Britain and China were rather complicated. 

Understanding the Opium Wars, and there were two of them, requires understanding how China got to such a point, how Britain got to that point, and the history of opium. 

First, let’s start with China. 

The 18th and 19th centuries were the tail end of the Qing Dynasty. If you remember back to my episode on Chinese Dynasties, it began in 1636, and after 300 years, it was experiencing a terminal decline. 

It suffered from corruption, an inefficient bureaucracy, and internal rebellions such as the White Lotus Rebellion, which took place from 1794 to 1804. However, the Qing Dynasty also had to deal with something that other Chinese dynasties never did—pressure from European naval powers. 

The Chinese continued to practice cultural traditions that have been the norm for centuries. Perhaps the biggest meta tradition, and the one that dominated how China viewed itself in relation to the rest of the world, was that of the Middle Kingdom. 

The Chinese often called themselves the Middle Kingdom. The idea behind the Middle Kingdom is that China was the center of the civilized world. As such, they felt themselves to be self-reliant and didn’t really need anything that the outside world had to offer. 

This had enormous implications for Chinese trade policy. Basically, China wasn’t interested in what the Europeans were offering. The only thing that the Europeans were able to trade, and the only thing the Chinese wanted, was silver. 

They only allowed Europeans to trade from certain trading ports, teaching Europeans the Chinese language was forbidden, and Europeans weren’t allowed to leave the ports and enter greater China.

For the British, this caused a huge problem. The British East India Company was a huge trading enterprise. In addition to finding markets for British-produced goods, they also brought goods from Asia to Britain. 

The British people had an insatiable demand for Chinese luxury products, including porcelain, silk, and, most importantly, tea. If you remember back to my episode on tea, at the time, China had an almost monopoly on tea, and the British had developed into a tea drinking culture more than any other country in Europe.

The problem was that the Chinese only wanted silver, and the British didn’t produce any silver. They had to get their silver from places like Mexico, which was very inefficient. 

What the British needed was some product that they could trade with the Chinese to help reduce their enormous trade deficit.

They found that product in opium.

Here, I should explain a bit about what opium is.  Opium is a milky latex that comes from the seeds of a particular species of poppy plant known as Papaver somniferum, otherwise known as opium poppy. Opium is a narcotic drug that has been traditionally used as a pain reliever. 

The primary opium poppy growing region at the time extended from modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northern India. 

Opium has been known since ancient times. The Sumerians were growing opium poppy as early as 5400 years ago. 

Other Mesopotamian cultures, the Greeks, and the Egyptians all used poppy. They used poppy milk to sleep, to relieve pain, and even to calm crying children. 

However, there were limits to the amount of opium that could be produced and consumed, and the strength and potency was limited, so addiction was seldom a problem, even though opium is highly addictive.

The Chinese had a long history with opium that was brought over the Silk Road, and it was used in traditional Chinese medicine. 

I should also note that opium is the basis for morphine, which was the basis for other highly addictive drugs such as heroin, but that is for another episode. 


In 1764, after the Battle of Buxar, the British captured a large poppy-growing region in Eastern India. Not only was it large, but the opium produced in this region was much more potent than the type traditionally used. 

Rather than eliminating poppy production and destroying the poppy crop, they decided to continue production to trade with China. 

In 1793, the British established a formal monopoly on opium production in India and began to use this monopoly to raise money. 

The British had been trading opium with China for decades but in relatively small amounts.

In 1730, they shipped 15,000 kilograms to China. By 1775, it had increased to 75,000 kilograms. 

In response, the Qing Emperors had banned opium importation in 1729 and again in 1799. The bans, however, did next to nothing. 

Opium production and importation only increased. Local officials were bribed, and the opium kept flowing in.  By 1804, Britain’s trade deficit with China had turned into a supply, largely due to opium. 

Throughout the 19th century, the problem of opium addiction got worse and worse in eastern China. It wasn’t just the British. In 1809, American traders got in on the action, importing low-quality opium from Turkey.

By 1830, the problem had become an epidemic. Some estimates place the number of young men in eastern China who have become opium addicts as high as 90%. 

It wasn’t just something done by the lower class. Smoking opium, which had become the preferred method of consumption, was finding its way into the bureaucratic and aristocratic classes. 

Opium addiction had devastating effects on the Chinese economy as enormous amounts of time, money, and effort went into the purchase and consumption of opium. 

The Emperor put bans on opium in 1814 and 1831, but these measures were as effective as the previous ones. 

By 1838, the amount of opium imported into China was over 1.5 million kilograms annually. 

In 1839, things were coming to a head. The Emperor charged Governor General Lin Zexu with the task of ending the opium trade. He wrote an appeal directly to Queen Victoria, but she never got the letter. However, it was published in the London Times. 

Here, I should note that the British opium trade was highly controversial in Britain itself. It wasn’t as if most people in the country didn’t recognize the moral and ethical problems with dealing drugs. 

With no end in sight, Lin Zexu seized over one million kilograms of illegal opium and destroyed it in the town of Humen along the Pearl River.

This was worth a LOT of money, and needless to say, the British were furious. 

With the destruction of so much of their product, British opium traders appealed to Charles Elliot, the Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China, to make them whole.

When they realized they weren’t going to be compensated, they appealed to the former Chief Superintendent of Trade, William Jardine. Jardine believed the only solution was war. 

He began to lobby parliament in London, and in March 1840, the House of Commons voted 271 to 262 to send a fleet to China to enforce British demands.

The first British ships arrived in June 1840. 

Without going into the details of every battle, suffice it to say that it was a lopsided conflict. The Chinese navy was no match for the British navy, which was the most powerful in the world at that time.

After the war went very badly for the Chinese, the end result was the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. 

The Treaty of Nanking was a major humiliation for the Chinese. It was a complete reworking of the trade system with China. It ceded Hong Kong to the British, opened up more trade ports, gave British citizens immunity to Chinese law, and forced the Chinese government to pay reparations for the cost of the war. 

Moreover, this wasn’t the only treaty that China was forced to sign during this period. They also were pressured into signing the Treaty of Huangpu with the French and the Wangxia Treaty with the United States. Both of which were similarly lopsided

This was not the end of things between Britain and China. 

While the opium trade was still technically illegal, it didn’t stop after the Treaty of Nanking. In fact, it increased.

In the years following, the British found themselves with more colonies in the region that needed money, and their trade deficit with China had returned due to the sheer amount of tea they were importing. 

The British began pressuring China to renegotiate the Treaty of Nanking to give the British even better terms. 

The Qing Emperor continued to try to stop the importation of opium and its consumption. He once again appointed a commissioner to stop the opium trade.

Once again, mirroring what happened in 1839, everything came to a head on October 8, 1856, with the Arrow Incident.

The incident involved the seizure of the Chinese-owned ship Arrow by Chinese officials in Canton, which is today Guangzhou. The ship, flying a British flag, was suspected of engaging in illegal activities, and its crew, which included Chinese and Indian sailors, was detained. The British, viewing this as a violation of their extraterritorial rights, demanded the release of the crew and an apology. When the Chinese refused, tensions escalated, leading to armed conflict.

The British began bombarding Chinese positions along the Pearl River, which resulted in Chinese reprisals on European and European buildings. This included the execution of a French missionary, which brought France into the conflict.

Just as during the first Opium War, things did not go well for China. The British and French took multiple cities along the Pearl River, including Guangzhou and Guangdong.

In 1858, it resulted in the Chinese signing the Treaties of Tianjin with Britain, France, Russia, and the United States. The treaty allowed foreign embassies in Beijing, opened up more Chinese ports for trade, allowed foreign navigation of the Yangtze River, allowed foreign travel within China, and forced China to pay more reparations. 

Russia then signed a separate treaty later that year, the Treaty of Aigun, where China ceded most of outer Manchuria to Russia. 

These were more humiliating treaties for China, and it wasn’t even the end of the war. 

Advistors to the emperor urged him to resist honoring the treaties which only resulted in the British taking forts near Tianjin, and eventually marching into Beijing in 1860, sacking the city, and burning the Imperial Summer Palace. 

The sack of Beijing saw the destruction of the Yongle Encyclopedia, which was written in 1408 during the Ming Dynasty. At the time, it was the single largest encyclopedia in the world, and only 3.5% of the encyclopedia survived the sacking.

The end of the Second Opium War was marked by the Treaty of Peiking, which was similar to the other treaties China was forced to sign. It further opened up China to the West and gave more land concessions to the British, including the Kowloon Peninsula across from Hong Kong. 

The Opium Wars have largely been forgotten in the West. Many people in Britain, France, and Russia, the countries that took part in the conflict, have never even heard of it. 

However, it has never been forgotten in China. The Opium Wars was the start of what was called the Century of Humiliation—a period of domination by foreign countries that lasted through the Second World War. 

The lopsided treaties signed by the Qing government were responsible for further domestic unrest, including the Boxer Rebellion, which will be the subject of a future episode. 

Rectifying and reversing the Century of humiliation has been central to Chinese foreign policy ever since the mid-19th century. There are still over 600,000 square kilometers or 231,660 square miles of land that was handed over to Russia during this period, which has never been returned. An area approximately the size of Ukraine.

As for opium use in China, production eventually shifted to domestic growers and away from imported opium. In 1907, the British agreed to cease imports. Once opium production had become largely domestic, it was possible to halt production later in the 20th century.   It would not be an exaggeration to say that the modern international narcotics trade has its origin in the 19th-century trade in opium.

In the end, the British created tens of millions of drug addicts and permanently altered the course of China simply to address a trade deficit, which came about largely from the British demand for tea.