The Opium Wars - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
Go to content

The Opium Wars

The First Opium War
Attitudes towards China changed during the early years of the c19th
For much of the c18th China was regarded by the British as an orderly and ancient civilisation whose artefacts, particularly porcelain were valued by the rich. China tea was becoming the nation's most popular drink. Yet within eighty years, by the 1840s government in China had changed and along with that attitudes towards China changed. It was being claimed in the 1840s that the Chinese people were clamouring for British goods that were being denied them by their rulers. What had happened to  produce such a drastic change in attitude?

To begin with there had been change in rulers in China with the Manchus not wanting associations with European powers and being suspicious of their motives. The British had embraced free trade and wanted access to all possible markets in order to provide markets for all that was being produced in Britain and in her empire. Where there was resistance to receiving British goods, the government did all it could to open up countries to British trade. Whilst the East India Company provided tea for the British market in its ships from China, the Company sought to use the monopoly in the harvesting and trade in opium that it had from 1773, to export to China. This coincided with a period of decline for the Manchu dynasty that made it all the more reluctant to accept closer connections with European powers.
In 1793 and 1816 there had been two British missions sent to China in order to establish diplomatic links but neither of them made any progress. It was perhaps inevitable given the weakness of the Chinese state and the British search for new markets for their goods that there would be a clash with China eventually and this came in 1839.
The War of 1839-1842
Canton was the main port open to trade with China and it was here that the first collision came when the Chinese government decided it wanted to reduce the opium trade which was having a detrimental impact on Chinese society. The Chinese commissioner in Canton, Lin Tse-hsu, was told to implement a series of measures to limit the traded which came to the attention of the British government. 20,000 cases of illegal British opium was seized and then the British communities in Canton and Macau were expelled.
The Opium Trade was essential to the Indian and the British economies
Although the HEIC had lost its monopoly, the profits from the opium trade still accounted for 40% of the total value of Indian exports and the money made was often more than the sum total of the interest payable on loans received by the HEIC from London. The HEIC and the British government was not willing to allow this situation to go unchallenged. Consequently the Foreign Secretary, Palmerston, authorised the sending of an expedition consisting of a fleet of gunboats and 4,000 troops to the mouth of the Canton River. In the war that followed, (1839-1842) the British used all the modern technology available to them such as steam gunboats, war rockets and muskets. At the start of the conflict Hong Kong was seized and annexed to be used as a naval base, and then gunboats were used on the Yangste River to shell Shanghai and Chungking before being taken by landing forces. Whilst the British killed many Chinese with their superior firing power, the British lost men to sunstroke, malaria, dysentery and cholera. The result of the Yangste campaign was that the Chinese government signed the Treaty of Nanking which confirmed British possession of Honk Kong and the use of Canton as a trading base besides the opening up of Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai and Ningpo as trading bases.
The Capture of the 'Arrow' and the Second War
This war exposed China's military weakness and established Britain as the dominant power in the Far East. Using the newly acquired port of Hong Kong Britain sought to make the coastline and rivers of China safe for trade by eliminating piracy. This was popular work for the crews which could earn good money from the bounties won. Relations between the two governments though were not good and not helped by the actions of British warships.
Hong Kong at the time of the Opium Wars
These actions at sea helped to provoke another war with China in 1856 when Cantonese soldiers on 8 October 1856 boarded the British registered Arrow and hauled down its flag. The claims to British registration were doubtful as the registration had lapsed. The British captain of the Arrow reported the incident to the consul in Canton who demanded the release of crew members (some of whom were former pirates known to the Chinese). Parkes, the Canton consul appealed to Browning,  the Governor of Hong Kong who, seeing an opportunity to extend his area of control, agreed to become involved and ordered a British gunboat to board a Chinese vessel . As the crisis escalated a squadron of the Royal Navy was sent up the river to bombard Canton and blockade the city of Canton. The British cabinet was not whole heartedly in support of Browning's  actions but they decided to support him in the interests of trade and to punish the Chinese authorities. The support of the Cabinet for what Richard Cobden described as an illegal action prompted in January 1857 a heated debate in Parliament. In the House of Commons with Palmerston warning the Commons not' to abandon a British community to a set of barbarians.' It was not enough to prevent Cobden's motion of censure to win by 263 votes to 247. Palmerston, now the Prime MInister appealed to the country in a General Election which he lost to a Whig-Radical coalition.

The Third War and the Sacking of Peking
Meanwhile Lord Elgin had been sent by Palmerston to China as an envoy to negotiate with the Chinese government to end the impasse over the Arrow. Elgin was joined in Hong Kong by a French envoy sent by Napoleon III to get compensation for the execution of a French missionary. The two envoys eventually authorised an attack on Canton itself and with 2,000 soldiers newly arrived from Calcutta and a powerful French fleet, the city was bombarded and then entered. The victorious troops stripped the city bare with Elgin himself taking 52 boxes of silver and 68 boxes of gold ingots. The allies deposed the Commissioner and replaced him with his deputy. The Imperial government refused to accept the situation so an allied fleet of gunboats attacked and took five forts at the mouth of the Peihu river. This forced Chinese Commissioners  to agree to what became the Treaty of Tientsin signed in 1858 by which China would pay £5m in war reparations, the opening up of China to Christian missionaries, the freedom of Europeans to move anywhere in China and a permanent representative in Peking. The Imperial government was slow to ratify the treaty and this produced the Third Chinese war of 1860.
The Battle of Fatshan Creek, 1857, which preceded the attack on Canton
Frederick Bruce, Elgin's brother was sent to Peking with a fleet of sixteen warships but the fleet failed to breach the booms put across the mouth of the River Peiho. By the time the news reached London Palmerston was back in power and he was determined that British prestige must be repaired. A large British and Indian force of 13,000 troops was sent together with 6,500 French troops to the mouth of the Peiho. The force took the forts at the mouth of the river without too much difficulty and then  began their march on Peking.
The attack on Peking
Having arrived at the outskirts of  Peking, the Emperor sent envoys to let it be known that two new commissioners had been appointed to begin discussions. After  exhaustive discussions the Chinese commissioners agreed to all the allied demands but a party of British envoys was captured by a Tartar force. Elgin decided that it was time to use force rather than diplomacy against this Tartar army which was  attacked before Peking. The much larger Tartar army was defeated and forced to retreat but not before they had beheaded two prisoners.
The Summer Palace, Peking today
As well as the retreat of the Tartar army, the Emperor himself fled leaving Peking to the allied army. The Summer Palace which contained the pick of Chinese art treasures were looted despite an agreement of the Allies to preserve the treasures. Among those horrified  by the looting was Charles Gordan, later to gain fame in Khartoum. Wolseley who was General Hope Grant's military secretary, believed that the looting and the destruction of the Palace ordered by Elgin in October helped to hasten the signing (by the Emperor's brother Prince Kung)  of the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin. As well as ratifying the earlier  treaty, Kung and Elgin agreed the transfer of Kowloon to the British. The expedition had been enormously successful with few military casualties, huge  reparations, and the permanent annexation of Kowloon to add to Hong Kong. It was perhaps ironic that Elgin, the man who had saved the Parthenon friezes, destroyed one of the wonders f the world - the Summer Palace. The New Territories were later leased for a period of 99 years from 1 July 1898.
Back to content