opium war

Britain Vs. China: The Opium Wars Explained

The Opium Wars were two wars fought when European powers invaded China to expand trade in the 19th century. The wars were triggered when the Chinese government banned and confiscated large amounts of opium. This seemingly common-sense decision was a major blow the British, who exported opium to balance out a large trade imbalance with China. Thought you may not have heard of them, the Opium Wars have had profound and long-lasting global consequences that continue to shape international politics today. If you’re wondering how an addictive drug led to Western expansion into China, the fall of a Chinese dynasty, and the control of Hong Kong by the UK, then this is the article for you.

First Opium War

The Opium Wars between Britain and China (1839- 1842): Attack on First Bar Battery, 19th century print with digital color

The first of the two opium wars was fought primarily between the British Empire and China. By the end of the 18th century, Britain had been importing large amounts of tea and silks from China. However, due to a trade policies severely limiting trade with European powers, China was rarely buying any British products in return. These policies led to a significant British trade deficit with China, meaning British imports were much higher than their exports, making Britain heavily reliant on Chinese silver.

To counter the trade imbalance, British merchants and the East India Company began to smuggle large amounts of opium into China in the early 19th century. Opium is a powerful and addictive drug that was banned in China in the late 1700s, although the people of China continued to use the drug for its (falsely) perceived medicinal benefits, in addition to recreational use. In 1810, the Daoguang Emperor declared opium a “poison”, and warned against the increasing consumption of the drug as a result of British smuggling. By the 1820s and 30s, the use of opium recreationally had skyrocketed in China, and was beginning to cause widespread social and political instability among all Chinese social groups.

The Chinese government responded with a harsh crackdown on the opium trade, destroying large amounts of British opium. Amid rising tensions between the British and the Chinese, a group of British sailors murdered a Chinese villager. China responded to the British refusal to hand over their sailors by banning the sale of food to British ships, which led to a small skirmish near Kowloon.

A larger battle at Chenpui followed when the British Navy tried to block other British ships from trading in China, as China had announced the imposition of the death penalty for opium trader. In 1839, the British Navy fired warning shots at another British ship, the Royal Saxon, whose crew was attempting to bypass the blockade. As Chinese ships sailed out to investigate, they were viewed as hostile and attacked by the British.

Opium War between Britain and China 1839- 1842 British forces attack Chinese Forts on Chenpui Island

The battle of Chenpui was the final straw for the British government, which decided to invade China and reshape their trade policies with the UK. In 1840, the British began to invade Chinese ports and cities. The overwhelming strength of the Royal Navy led to the blockade and occupation of several Chinese rivers, severely impacting their ability to retaliate or trade with other countries.

In 1842, the Chinese surrendered and the two sides negotiated the Treaty of Nanking, which allowed China to trade in five Chinese ports, required China to pay reparations for the lost opium supplies and subsequent war expenses, and ceded the control of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. The treaty was widely viewed as unfair and humiliating for the Chinese, who called it the first of the “Unequal Treaties”.

Second Opium War

Hong Kong was a rough British settlement in the early 1840s, the Chuenpi Convention between Britain and China ceded Hong Kong to Britain

The second war was mainly fought between the UK and France on one side, and China on the other, though both Russia and the US intervened and benefitted in some form as well. British trade in China improved after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, but the UK saw further potential for market expansion and demanded the renegotiation of the treaty more favorably. Meanwhile, China, angered by the unjust terms of the treaty, attacked British subjects repeatedly, leading to the Expedition to Canton in 1847, which saw British forces occupy more Chinese territory.

In 1856, China seized a British ship, The Arrow, suspecting its crew of piracy. Chinese officials arrested crew members and reportedly lowered the British flag, a move considered a great insult and breach of sovereignty by the British government. The Chinese Qing Dynasty was already in a perilous position, fighting to suppress the Taiping rebellion, and the UK saw The Arrow’s seizure as the perfect pretext to launch war and further its expansionist aims. For this reason, some academics refer to the second opium war as “The Arrow War”.

The British proceeded to attack China in the first battle of Canton, bombarding the city and capturing a strategic fort. French forces joined the British in Hong Kong and launched a second attack on Canton in 1857, easily overpowering Chinese forces and capturing the city. Following China’s initial defeat, the UK, France, USA, and Russia signed the Treaty of Tientsin. However, the Chinese governments refused to ratify the treaty.

Accordingly, the British and French renewed their attacks on China, but were beaten back, mainly as a result of the British preoccupation with the Indian Rebellion 1857. Once the rebels were defeated, the British and French attacked China once again, this time entering Beijing and forcing China to finally ratify the treaty of Tientsin during the Peking Convention in 1860.


Opium War between Britain and China 1839- 1842: Battle at Zhapu

China’s defeat in the opium wars legalized the opium trade and gave each Western signatory increased trading rights, diplomatic recognition, and war reparations. They also led to the expansion of British and Russian territory. The wars are widely regarded as the initial driving force behind the fall of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China for approximately 268 years, giving way to the Republic of China in 1912. The treaties paved the way for the opening of China to the outside world, having previously been heavily selective in its partnerships and recognition of other countries as equals. In Britain, the opium trade was controversial, and the wars were unpopular with many members of parliament and members of the public, but successive governments supported the wars for their vast material and political benefits. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, with the caveat that China allows the island a level of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle. In China, the century following the wars is known as the century of humiliation, and the terms of resulting treaties are seen as cruel impositions by foreign imperialist powers.


More in History