Trade Conflicts Lead to the First Opium War

Destroying Chinese war junks, by E. Duncan (1843)

Commonly referred to as the First Anglo-Chinese War, the First Opium War took place between 1839 and 1842. The British Empire faced off against the Qing Dynasty of China in a battle for the right to trade opium in the region. Conflict finally ended with the establishment of the Treaty of Nanking, an agreement which gave Britain control over a number of ports in China, including Hong Kong.

Early British Trade with China

During the early days of international Chinese trade, facets of the exchange were dramatically controlled by the Qing Dynasty. The imperial government limited maritime trade, which was particularly dominated by the British Empire. Due to its location of settlements in India, many British merchants could also stop by the ports of China for goods. However, the Qing Dynasty, in an effort to remain isolated on the world stage, only allowed British trade from the province of Canton. This also allowed for monopolies to develop on both sides.

Silver and the Qing Dynasty

British trade with India was primarily based around the exchange of high-value goods made by native factories operated under the East India Company for consumer products of low-value. With the limitations set about by the Qing Dynasty, this method could not be implemented in China. Instead, the British were forced to trade silver to the Chinese in order to get valuable merchandise such as tea. This greatly impacted the profit level of the merchants in a negative way. Especially due to the fact that the British were forced to secure silver deposits from Europe and Mexico.

Drug Use By the Chinese

In 1781, the British began to import opium from India and the neighboring regions to China. At first, the Qing government did not concern itself with the increasing drug use by its population, notably due to its medicinal qualities. However, by the early 1800s, sales and usage increased five times over. The Qing Dynasty soon made note of the problem, particularly when high society members of the government and population began to become addicted.

Opium Leads to New Threats

Using this addiction, the British were able to leverage their position of dealer to reclaim much of the silver they had previously sold to the country. Through this process, many officials of the Qing government became corrupt. In 1818, the threat of piracy over opium also became apparent. A United States merchant vessel was captured and all the crew members except for one were killed over the drug. In response, the Emperor assigned a new governor to Canton, who banned the sale of the drug and forced the British to hand over its stock. By this time, it is assumed that roughly two million Chinese were addicted.

Start of the First Opium War

Despite the ban on the trade, British ships continued to smuggle opium into Canton and the surrounding provinces. Chinese forces were mobilized to prevent the import. Merchants began to take up arms and eventually forced the Royal Navy itself into an untenable position of fighting on the side of free trade. Soon, war developed over the import of opium, starting the First Opium War.