Opium Wars and tea Great Britain and China Teach English in China (profile)

Opium Wars

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Opium Wars

Opium is a narcotic derived from the resin of the opium polyp. It was in use in China since the 8th Century AD. Initially, opium was used for medicinal purposes and was an aphrodisiac.

Over time, the Chinese started to smoke opium as a recreational drug. They would later learn how to mix opium and tobacco to make a more advanced drug. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, opium was one of the most sought-after products in China. It became a major export along with tea, silk, and porcelain.



Regular trade took place between China and Europe. It had been going on for a long time. Most noteworthy, it began when the Portuguese arrived in China in the 16th Century. As the European economic power expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, the demand for Chinese goods rose. Even more, they had become highly fashionable in cities across Europe. Thus, trade in these products was highly lucrative.


In Britain, tea recorded the highest demand. The British had an unquenchable thirst for tea. The Chinese traded tea, opium, silk, and porcelain for silver with the Europeans. However, European merchants could not access the Chinese market directly. They were only restricted outside the city of Canton (Guangzhou). Trade only took place through middlemen (Cohong monopoly). These middlemen charged high prices on products due to high taxes.

European goods

Conversely, the Chinese had limited interest in European goods. They only accepted silver in exchange for their products. As a result, Britain suffered a deficit in their balance of trade. In an effort to make more money, the British began to smuggle opium from India into China in the 1820s. The effects of opium misuse began to become visible on the Chinese population. A large portion became addicted to the drug and most of them consumed it in large amounts, compromising their health. As the larger population became dependent on opium, it created a high demand for opium in China. From these returns, Britain was able to import more tea from China.

The effects of Opium misuse

However, the emperor of China noticed the negative effects of opium on his citizens. In 1839, the Chinese government confiscated and destroyed 20, 000 chests of opium. This was approximately 1,400 tonnes of the product. This was a great loss for Britain. Therefore, Britain embarked on a diplomatic mission to China. They sent a spokesperson to negotiate with the emperor of China. Consequently, they discussed how the government would compensate Britain for the loss. Unfortunately, diplomacy bore no fruits.

First Opium War (1839-1842)

In retaliation, the British decided to fight back. They set a blockage on the mouth of Pearl River, leading to Canton. Further, they demanded compensation of their opium. Similarly, they demanded the disbandment of the Cohong monopoly. In addition to that, they wanted Hong Kong ceded to Great Britain. Coupled with these demands, the British had superior weapons.

The first opium war lasted about 3 years and over 500 Chinese soldiers died. In contrast, only 38 British soldiers suffered minor injuries.

Second Opium War (1856-1860)

The end of the first opium war began a series of treaties. The first was the Nanking Treaty to indemnify Britain for the Opium. China paid Britain 20,000,000 Sterling Pounds as compensation. These treaties humiliated the Chinese. Hence, China rapidly became unstable. Due to this instability, China had to fight off several uprisings. The British still wanted more from China. First of all, they wanted the legalization of opium in China. Additionally, they wanted China to open the entire empire to British merchants. This saw the rapid growth of Western Imperialism.

In 1856

The British captured the Chinese crew of the Arrow. The Arrow was a ship that belonged to British pirates. The Chinese had sold it to the British. Negotiations began. They discussed how the British would set free the Chinese captives. They finally released all prisoners except three. China attempted to fight in retaliation. However, they were overpowered. Consequently, the British invaded China. While at it, they seized the forts in the Pearl River. The French also joined arms with the British to fight China.

In 1857

The British seized and captured Canton (Guangzhou). From then on, they signed the Treaty of Tianjin. In the treaty, they agreed on:

  • The opening of more ports
  • Allow foreigners to access mainland China
  • British, Russia, France and the USA to establish legations in China

In 1858

The emperor denied the western countries to set up legations in Beijing, China’s capital. Hostility resumed. The western forces launched the Battle of Taku Forts. Unfortunately, they failed the first time. They started the war again and eventually won. Hence, they forced their way into Beijing City. They burnt down the Emperors Summer Palace. Today, the Summer Palace stands as a monumental tourist attraction in Beijing.

Fortunately, the emperor had fled to safety. The western forces did not kill him. Therefore, in the emperor’s absence, his brother ratified the treaty. Finally, the western forces could establish legations in Beijing.

Ratification of this treaty brought an end to the Second Opium War.


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