9 Essential Facts – The Dramatic British Opium Wars Which Changed The Course Of History

View of the European factories in Canton.
View of the European factories in Canton.

Many people have heard something about the British Opium Wars (1839-1860) in passing. Perhaps in a college history class, but the details are vague. Or maybe through television and movies. Regardless, this fascinating period of history deserves some recognition. Pique your curiosity and check out nine of the most interesting facts regarding this long-lasting conflict between Great Britain and China.

Drug Addicts Were The Root Of The First Opium War

Before the arrival of opium in China, there was nothing the Chinese market wanted from the British. The country was highly self-sustaining and had no need for any European products. However, the British heavily desired Chinese goods such as porcelain, silk, and tea, to take back to Europe.

So, the British East India Company sold opium grown on their plantations in India to foreign traders for silver. Those foreign traders then sold the drug to the Chinese, either directly or through intermediaries. The number of opium addicts in China began to grow substantially, and the government officials decided that something had to be done about it.

The British May Have Been The First To Use “Gunboat Diplomacy”

Gunboat diplomacy occurs when one country desires diplomatic action from another country, and bullies it into action through a dramatic show of military and naval power. The British used this tactic because Chinese government officials confiscated more than a thousand tons of the drug (with no payment offered). They openly burned the opium on a beach, shut down all trade and demanded foreign merchants to stay off the streets.

The British attacked forts, created havoc on coastal towns and blockaded rivers.

The First Opium War Began “The Century Of Humiliation”

Some now say that this first opium-fueled series of battles was the beginning of what would be known as the “Century of Humiliation.” This is the approximately 100 years that China experienced invasion, imperialism and government intervention at the hands of not only European powers but also the Japanese. The term is generally used by Chinese nationalists.

The War Only Ended With An Unequal Treaty

An artist's rendering of the Second Opium War.
An artist’s rendering of the Second Opium War.

The only thing to end the First Opium War was an unequal treaty. Unequal treaties are all those signed between the Chinese and the Japanese or Europeans during the 1800s and 1900s, after which the Chinese were defeated or at risk of a huge loss.

The Nanking Treaty was the first, and it ended the First Opium War. The results of the treaty included the abolition of Chinese trade monopolies, the opening of new trade ports (where European merchants could trade with anyone at all) and created trade taxes.

Also, the Chinese had to pay the British government approximately 21 million silver dollars for the opium lost in the war, debts Chinese merchants owed to British merchants and war costs. The debts accrued an interest of 5 percent.

The Second Opium War Was Not Just About Opium

Chinese "coolie" workers.
Chinese “coolie” workers.

The Second Opium War came at a time when trade was expanding to other unfortunate products, such as slavery. The British wanted to broaden the trade of “coolies,” or unskilled laborers from South China.

Today, the term is a derogatory slur. These Chinese workers were transported to British colonies in the Caribbean and Central America to work on plantations, as well as to other British colonies around the world. It was widely believed that these workers were incredibly mistreated and suffered high mortality rates in addition to horrid working conditions and abuse.

The British Received Assistance From Other Countries

A portrait of Sir John Bowring, the fourth British governor of Hong Kong.
A portrait of Sir John Bowring, the fourth British governor of Hong Kong.

In the Second Opium War, British forces received back-up from the French. The Chinese had executed a French missionary around the time, for trespassing in an area of the country that was not open to foreigners. This prompted France’s participation.

The United States and Russia also sent envoys to assist, though both country’s participation was highly limited compared to French involvement. Also, the United States did not receive anything from the final treaties, while the Russians obtained a diplomatic presence in the country.

A Botched Assassination

During the war, there was an assassination attempt on behalf of the Chinese. They hoped to kill John Bowring, the British Hong Kong governor at the time, including his entire family.

However, the baker who put arsenic into the bread accidentally added too much. This caused those poisoned to vomit up all of the arsenic, so they did not have enough in their systems to die. An alert was circulated, so no other British citizens residing in China at the time were poisoned.

Not All Brits Were In Favor Of The Wars

As one would expect, not all British citizens were in favor of the Opium Wars.

During this time, Victorian Great Britain was experiencing a religious transformation. In fact, several high-level politicians spoke out publicly against the conflicts.

One of the most outspoken was Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. He routinely referred to the ethical consequences of the wars and referenced them as a disgrace to the country. However, later prime ministers greatly approved the Opium Wars and the results they brought about.

The Opium Wars’ Aftermath

The Second Opium War ended in 1860, with the Chinese emperor’s brother signing a treaty when the emperor himself fled. Great Britain, France, and Russia were all allowed to establish diplomatic presences in Beijing.

The Chinese owed both Great Britain and France 8 million taels (a Far East currency).

Great Britain now owned Kowloon.

The opium trade was fully legalized.

Christians received full legal rights, as well as rights to evangelize and own Chinese land.

In addition, British ships could now carry “coolies” to the United States.

Holly Godbey

Holly Godbey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE