Opium as a medicinal ingredient was documented in Chinese texts as early as the Tang dynasty, but the recreational usage of the narcotic opium was limited. As with India, opium (then limited by distance to a dried powder, often drunk with tea or water) was introduced to China and Southeast Asia by Arab merchants. The Ming dynasty banned tobacco as a decadent good in 1640, and opium was seen as a similarly minor issue. The first restrictions on opium were passed by the Qing in 1729 when Madak (a substance made from powdered opium blended with tobacco) was banned. At the time, Madak production used up most of the opium being imported into China, as pure opium was difficult to preserve. Consumption of Javanese opium rose in the 18th century, and after the Napoleonic Wars resulted in the British occupying Java, British merchants became the primary traders in opium. The British realized they could reduce their trade deficit with Chinese manufactories by counter-trading in narcotic opium, and as such efforts were made to produce more opium in the Indian colonies. Limited British sales of Indian opium began in 1781, with exports to China increasing as the East India Company solidified its control over India.
The British opium was produced in Bengal and the Ganges River Plain. Rather than develop the Indian opium industry themselves, the British were able to inherit an existing opium industry from the declining Mughal Empire, which had for centuries profited by selling unrefined opium inside the empire. However, unlike the Mughals, the British saw opium as a potentially valuable export. The East India Company itself neither produced nor shipped opium, but did set the horticultural laws allowing for opium cultivation and actively facilitated the transport of the drug. From Calcutta, the company’s Board of Customs, Salt, and Opium concerned itself with quality control by managing the way opium was packaged and shipped. No poppies could be cultivated without the company’s permission, and the company banned private businesses from refining opium. All opium in India was sold to the company at a fixed rate, and the company hosted a series of public opium auctions every year from November to March. The difference of the company-set price of raw opium and the sale price of refined opium at auction (minus expenses) was profit made by the East India Company. In addition to securing poppies cultivated on lands under its direct control, the company’s board issued licenses to the independent princely states of Malwa, where significant quantities of poppies were grown.
By the late 18th century, company and Malwan farmlands (which were traditionally dependent on cotton growing) had been hard hit by the introduction of factory-produced cotton cloth, which used cotton grown in Egypt or the American South. Opium was considered a lucrative replacement and was soon being auctioned in ever larger amounts in Calcutta. Private merchants who possessed a company charter (to comply with the British royal charter for Asiatic trade) bid on and acquired goods at the Calcutta auction before sailing to Southern China. British ships brought their cargoes to islands off the coast, especially Lintin Island, where Chinese traders with fast and well-armed small boats took the goods inland for distribution, paying for the opium with silver. The Qing administration initially tolerated opium importation because it created an indirect tax on Chinese subjects, for increasing the silver supply available to foreign merchants through the sale of opium encouraged Europeans to spend more money on Chinese goods. This policy allowed the British to double tea exports from China to England, thereby profiting the Qing monopoly on tea exports held by the imperial treasury and its agents in Canton.
However, opium usage continued to grow in China, adversely affecting societal stability. From Canton, the habit spread outwards to the North and West, affecting members from every class of Chinese society. This spread led to the Qing government issuing an edict against the drug in 1780, followed by an outright ban in 1796, and an order from the governor of Canton to stop the trade in 1799. To circumnavigate the increasingly stringent regulations in Canton, foreign merchants bought older ships and converted them into floating warehouses. These ships were anchored off of the Chinese coast at the mouth of the Pearl River in case the Chinese authorities moved against the opium trade, as the ships of the Chinese navy had difficulty operating in open water. Inbound opium ships would unload a portion of their cargo onto these floating warehouses, where the narcotic was eventually purchased by Chinese opium dealers. By implementing this system of smuggling, foreign merchants could avoid inspection by Chinese officials and prevent retaliation against the trade in legal goods, in which many smugglers also participated.
In the early 19th century American merchants joined the trade and began to introduce opium from Turkey into the Chinese market — this supply was of lesser quality but cheaper, and the resulting competition among British and American merchants drove down the price of opium, leading to an increase in the availability of the drug for Chinese consumers. The demand for opium rose rapidly and was so profitable in China that Chinese opium dealers (who, unlike European merchants, could legally travel to and sell goods in the Chinese interior) began to seek out more suppliers of the drug. The resulting shortage in supply drew more European merchants into the increasingly lucrative opium trade to meet the Chinese demand. In the words of one trading house agent, “[Opium] it is like gold. I can sell it anytime.” From 1804 to 1820, a period when the Qing treasury needed to finance the suppression of the White Lotus Rebellion and other conflicts, the flow of money gradually reversed, and Chinese merchants were soon exporting silver to pay for opium rather than Europeans paying for Chinese goods with the precious metal. European and American ships were able to arrive in Canton with their holds filled with opium, sell their cargo, use the proceeds to buy Chinese goods, and turn a profit in the form of silver bullion. This silver would then be used to acquire more Chinese goods. While opium remained the most profitable good to trade with China, foreign merchants began to export other cargoes, such as machine-spun cotton cloth, rattan, ginseng, fur, clocks, and steel tools. However, these goods never reached the same level of importance as narcotics, nor were they as lucrative
The Qing imperial court debated whether or how to end the opium trade, but their efforts to curtail opium abuse were complicated by local officials and the Cohong, who profited greatly from the bribes and taxes involved in the narcotics trade. Efforts by Qing officials to curb opium imports through regulations on consumption resulted in an increase in drug smuggling by European and Chinese traders, and corruption was rampant. In 1810, the Daoguang Emperor issued an edict concerning the opium crisis, declaring,
Opium has harmed. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law!
However, recently the purchasers, eaters, and consumers of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch’ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no responsibility with regard to opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the police and police- censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates. If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung [Guangdong] and Fukien [Fujian], the provinces from which opium comes, we order their viceroys, governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!
Changing trade policy
In addition to the start of the opium trade, economic and social innovations led to a change in the parameters of the wider Sino-European trade. The formulation of classical economics by Adam Smith and other economic theorists caused academic belief in mercantilism to decline in Britain. Fueled by the Industrial Revolution, Britain began to use its growing naval power to spread a broadly liberal economic model, encompassing open markets and relatively barrier-free international trade, a policy in line with the credo of Smithian economics. This stance on trade was intended to open foreign markets to the resources of Britain’s colonies, as well as provide the British public with greater access to consumer goods such as tea. In Great Britain, the adoption of the gold standard in 1821 resulted in the empire minting standardized silver shillings, further reducing the availability of silver for trade in Asia and spurring the British government to press for more trading rights in China.
In contrast to this new economic model, the Qing dynasty continued to employ a Confucian-Modernist, highly organized economic philosophy that called for strict government intervention in the industry for the sake of preserving societal stability. While the Qing government was not explicitly anti-trade, a lack of need for imports and increasingly heavy taxes on luxury goods limited pressure on the government to open further ports to international trade. China’s rigid merchant hierarchy also blocked efforts to open ports to foreign ships and businesses. Chinese merchants operating in inland China wanted to avoid market fluctuations caused by importing foreign goods that would compete with domestic production, while the Cohong families of Canton profited greatly by keeping their city the only entry point for foreign products.
At the turn of the 19th-century countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Russia, and the United States began to seek additional trading rights in China. Foremost among the concerns of the western nations was the end of the Canton System and the opening of China’s vast consumer markets to trade. Britain, in particular, was keenly increasing its exports to China, as the empire’s implementation of the gold standard forced it to purchase silver and gold from continental Europe and Mexico to further fuel its rapidly industrializing economy. Attempts by a British embassy (led by Macartney in 1793), a Dutch mission (under Jacob van Braam in 1794), Russia (headed by Yury Golovkin in 1805), and the British again (Earl William Amherst in 1816) to negotiate increased access to the Chinese market were all vetoed by successive Qing Emperors. Upon his meeting the Jiaqing Emperor in 1816, Amherst refused to perform the traditional kowtow, an act that the Qing saw as a severe breach of etiquette. Amherst and his party were expelled from China, a diplomatic rebuke that angered the British government.
As its merchants gained increasing influence in China, Great Britain bolstered its military strength in Southern China. Britain began sending warships to combat piracy on the Pearl River, and in 1808 established a permanent garrison of British troops in Macau to defend against French attacks.
Foreign merchants in Canton
As the opium-fueled China Trade increased in scope and value, the foreign presence in Canton and Macau grew in size and influence. The Thirteen Factories district of Canton continued to expand, and was labeled the “foreign quarter.” A small population of merchants began to stay in Canton year round (most merchants lived in Macau for the summer months, then moved to Canton in the winter), and a local chamber of commerce was formed. In the first two decades of the 19th century, the increasingly sophisticated (and profitable) trade between Europe and China allowed for a clique of European merchants to rise to positions of great importance in China. The most notable of these figures were William Jardine and James Matheson (who went on to found Jardine Matheson), British merchants who operated a consignment and shipping business in Canton and Macau. While the pair dealt with legal goods, they also profited greatly from selling opium. Jardine, in particular, was effective in navigating the political environment of Canton to allow for more narcotics to be smuggled into China. He was also contemptuous of the Chinese legal system and often used his economic influence to subvert Chinese authorities. This included him (with Matheson’s support) petitioning for the British government to attempt to gain trading rights and political recognition from Imperial China, by force if necessary. In addition to trade, some western missionaries arrived and began to proselytize Christianity to the Chinese. While some officials tolerated this (Macau-based Jesuits had been active in China since the early 17th century), some officials clashed with Chinese Christians, raising tensions between western merchants and Qing officials.
While the foreign community in Canton grew in influence, the local government began to suffer from civil discord inside China. The White Lotus Rebellion (1796–1804) drained the Qing dynasty’s treasury of silver, forcing the government to levy increasingly heavy taxes on merchants. These taxes did not abate after the rebellion was crushed, as the Chinese government began a massive project to repair state-owned properties on the Yellow River, referred to as the “Yellow River Conservancy”. The merchants of Canton were further expected to make contributions to fight banditry. These taxes weighed heavily on the profits made by the Cohong merchants; by the 1830s, the once-prosperous Cohong had seen their wealth greatly reduced. In addition, the declining value of China’s domestic currency resulted in many people in Canton using foreign silver coins (Spanish coins were the most valued, followed by American coins) as they contained higher amounts of silver; this allowed Canton to mint many Chinese coins from a few melted-down western coins, greatly increasing the city’s wealth, tax revenue, and tying much of the economy of the city to the foreign merchants.
A significant development came in 1834 when reformers (some of whom were financially backed by Jardine) in Britain, advocating for free trade, succeeded in ending the monopoly of the British East India Company under the Charter Act of the previous year. This shift in trade policy ended the need for merchants to comply with the royal charter for trade in the far east; with this centuries-old restriction lifted, the British China trade was opened to private entrepreneurs, many of whom joined the highly profitable opium trade.
On the eve of the Qing government’s crackdown on opium, a Chinese official described the changes in society caused by the drug;
At the beginning, opium smoking was confined to the fops of wealthy families who took up the habit as a form of conspicuous consumption, even they knew that they should not indulge in it to the greatest extreme. Later, people of all social strata—from government officials and members of the gentry to craftsmen, merchants, entertainers, and servants, and even women, Buddhist monks and nuns, and Taoist priests—took up the habit and openly bought and equipped themselves with smoking instruments. Even in the center of our dynasty—the nation’s capital and its surrounding areas—some of the inhabitants have also been contaminated by this dreadful poison.
Opium Trade: Napier Affair
In late 1834, to accommodate the revocation of the East India Company’s monopoly, the British sent Lord William John Napier to Macau along with John Francis Davis and Sir George Best Robinson, 2nd Baronet as British superintendents of trade in China. Napier was instructed to obey Chinese regulations, communicate directly with Chinese authorities, superintend trade pertaining to the contraband trade of opium, and to survey China’s coastline. Upon his arrival in China, Napier tried to circumvent the restrictive system that forbade direct contact with Chinese officials by sending a letter directly to the Viceroy of Canton. The Viceroy refused to accept it, and on 2 September of that year, an edict was issued that temporarily closed British trade. In response, Napier ordered two Royal Navy vessels to bombard Chinese forts on the Pearl River in a show of force. This command was followed through, but war was avoided due to Napier falling ill with typhus and ordering a retreat. The brief gunnery duel drew condemnation by the Chinese government, as well as criticism from the British government and foreign merchants. Other nationalities, such as the Americans, prospered through their continued peaceful trade with China, but the British were told to leave Canton for either Whampoa or Macau. Lord Napier was forced to return to Macau, where he died of typhus a few days later. After Lord Napier’s death, Captain Charles Elliot received the King’s Commission as Superintendent of Trade in 1836 to continue Napier’s work of conciliating the Chinese
Opium Trade: Escalation of tensions
Crackdown on opium
By 1838, the British were selling roughly 1,400 tons of opium per year to China. Legalization of the opium trade was the subject of ongoing debate within the Chinese administration, but a proposal to legalize the narcotic was repeatedly rejected, and in 1838 the government began to actively sentence Chinese drug traffickers to death. It has been estimated that by the start of the Qing crackdown on opium, 27% of the male Chinese population was addicted to opium.
In 1839, the Daoguang Emperor appointed scholar-official Lin Zexu to the post of Special Imperial Commissioner with the task of eradicating the opium trade. Lin wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria questioning the moral reasoning of the British government. Citing what he understood to be a strict prohibition of the trade within Great Britain, Lin questioned how Britain could declare itself moral while its merchants profited from the legal sale in China of a drug that was banned in Britain. He wrote: “Your Majesty has not before been thus officially notified, and you may plead ignorance of the severity of our laws, but I now give my assurance that we mean to cut this harmful drug forever.” The letter never reached the Queen, with one source suggesting that it was lost in transit. Lin pledged that nothing would divert him from his mission, “If the traffic in opium were not stopped a few decades from now we shall not only be without soldiers to resist the enemy but also in want of silver to provide an army.” Lin banned the sale of opium and demanded that all supplies of the drug be surrendered to the Chinese authorities. He also closed the Pearl River Channel, trapping British traders in Canton. As well as seizing opium stockpiles in warehouses and the thirteen factories, Chinese troops boarded British ships in the Pearl River and the South China Sea before destroying the opium on board.
The British Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot, protested the decision to forcibly seize the opium stockpiles. He ordered all ships carrying opium to flee and prepare for battle. Lin responded by besieging the foreign dealers in the foreign quarter of Canton and kept them from communicating with their ships in port. To defuse the situation, Elliot convinced the British traders to cooperate with Chinese authorities and hand over their opium stockpiles with the promise of eventual compensation for their losses by the British government. While this amounted to a tacit acknowledgment that the British government did not disapprove of the trade, it also placed a huge liability on the exchequer. This promise, and the inability of the British government to pay it without causing a political storm was an important casus belli for the subsequent British offensive. During April and May 1839, British and American dealers surrendered 20,283 chests and 200 sacks of opium. The stockpile was publicly destroyed on the beach outside Canton
After the opium was surrendered, trade was restarted on the strict condition that no more opium be shipped into China. Looking for a way to effectively police foreign trade and purge corruption, Lin and his advisers decided to reform the existing bond system. Under this system, a foreign captain and the Cohong merchant who had purchased the goods off of his ship swore that the vessel carried no illegal goods. Upon examining the records of the port, Lin was infuriated to find that in the 20 years since opium had been declared illegal, not a single infraction had been reported. As a consequence, Lin demanded that all foreign merchants and Qing officials sign a new bond promising not to deal in opium under penalty of death. The British government opposed their signing of the bond, feeling that it violated the principle of free trade, but some merchants who did not trade in opium (such as Olyphant & Co.) were willing to sign against Elliot’s orders. Trade in regular goods continued unabated, and the scarcity of opium caused by the seizure of the foreign warehouses caused the black market to flourish. Some newly arrived merchant ships were able to learn of the ban on opium before they entered the Pearl River estuary, and so they unloaded their cargoes at Lintin Island. The opportunity caused by the sharp rise in the price of opium was seized upon by some of the Cohong trading houses and smugglers, who were able to evade commissioner Lin’s efforts and smuggled more opium into China. Superintendent Elliot was aware of the smugglers’ activities on Lintin and was under orders to stop them, but feared that any action by the Royal Navy could spark a war and withheld his ships
Skirmish at Kowloon
In early July 1839, a group of British merchant sailors in Kowloon became intoxicated after consuming rice liqueur. Two of the sailors became agitated with and beat to death Lin Weixi, a villager from nearby Tsim Sha Tsui. Superintendent Elliot ordered the arrest of the two men and paid compensation to Lin’s family and village. However, he refused a request to turn the sailors over to Chinese authorities, fearing they would be killed in accordance with the Chinese legal code. Commissioner Lin saw this as an obstruction of justice and ordered the sailors to be handed over. Elliot instead held a trial for the accused men aboard a warship at sea, with himself serving as the judge and merchant captains serving as jurors. He invited the Qing authorities to observe and comment on the proceedings, but the offer was declined. The naval court convicted 5 sailors of assault and rioting and sentenced them to fines along with hard labor in Britain (this verdict would later be overturned in British courts.)
Angered by the violation of China’s sovereignty, Lin recalled Chinese laborers from Macau and issued an edict preventing the sale of food to the British. War Junks were deployed to the mouth of the Pearl River, while signs were placed and rumors spread by the Qing that they had poisoned the freshwater springs traditionally used to restock foreign merchant ships. On 23 August a ship belonging to a prominent opium merchant was attacked by lascar pirates while traveling downriver from Canton to Macau. Rumors spread among the British that it had been Chinese soldiers who had attacked the ship, and Elliot ordered all British ships to leave the coast of China by 24 August.That same day Macau barred British ships from its harbor at the request of Lin. The commissioner traveled in person to the city, where he was welcomed by some of the inhabitants as a hero who had restored law and order. The flight from Macau ensured that by the end of August over 60 British ships and over 2000 people were idling off of the Chinese coast, fast running out of provisions. On 30 August HMS Volage arrived to defend the fleet from a potential Chinese attack, and Elliot warned Qing authorities in Kowloon that the embargo on food and water must be ended soon.
Early on 4 September Elliot dispatched an armed schooner and a cutter to Kowloon to buy provisions from Chinese peasants. The two ships approached three Chinese war junks in the harbor and requested permission to land men in order to procure supplies. The British were allowed through and basic necessities were provided to the British by Chinese sailors, but the Chinese commander inside Kowloon fort refused to allow the locals to trade with the British and confined the townspeople inside the settlement. The situation grew more intense as the day went on, and in the afternoon Elliot issued an ultimatum that, if the Chinese refused to allow the British to purchase supplies, they would be fired upon. A 3:00 pm deadline set by Elliot passed and the British ships opened fire on the Chinese vessels. The junks returned fire, and Chinese gunners on land began to fire at the British ships. Nightfall ended the battle, and the Chinese junks withdrew, ending what would be known as the Battle of Kowloon. Many British officers wanted to launch a land attack on Kowloon fort the next day, but Elliot decided against it, stating that such an action would cause “great injury and irritation” to the town’s inhabitants. After the skirmish, Elliot circulated a paper in Kowloon, reading;
The men of the English nation desire nothing but peace, but they cannot submit to be poisoned and starved. The Imperial cruiser they have no wish to molest or impede, but they must not prevent the people from selling. To deprive men of food is the act only of the unfriendly and hostile.
Having driven off the Chinese ships, the British fleet began to purchase provisions from the local villagers, often with the aid of bribed Chinese officials in Kowloon. Lai Enjue, the local commander at Kowloon, declared that a victory had been won against the British. He claimed that a two-masted British warship had been sunk and that 40-50 British had been killed. He also reported that the British had been unable to acquire supplies, and his reports severely understated the strength of the Royal Navy.