Story of China - R. Van Bergen

First War Between Great Britain and China

Lord Napier had no easy task before him. The British government had ordered him "to report by letter to the governor;" to be careful not to hurt the Chinese in their feelings, and to try to open new ports for trade.

(lee), the governor or viceroy, did not, and could not, understand that it was possible for any nation on earth to think itself the equal of China; nor could he understand how any king or emperor dared to call himself the equal of the Son of Heaven. All intercourse with the "outside barbarians" had been conducted upon this understanding. Lord Napier, on the other hand, would not humble the King of England, whom he represented, and he determined to follow out his orders, just as the Chinese governor was fully prepared to execute the orders from Peking.

Lord Napier upon his arrival at Canton sent a letter to the governor, which the governor would not receive. Lü thought it outrageous that a barbarian should dare to send a letter to one who represented the Emperor. He was more angry still when he heard that the letter was inscribed Ta Ying Kwoh (tah ying kwoh), the "Great English Nation." Hence, from the very first, Lord Napier could not  carry out his orders, and he finally withdrew to Macao, where he died.

The most profitable trade at Canton, at this time, was in opium. As early as the year 1800 the government at Peking had forbidden its use and importation. But the profits from its sale were so large that the people resorted to smuggling, that is, bringing it into the country unknown to the officers, and so opium continued to be imported in large quantities. It is certain that many Chinese officers whose duty it was to prevent opium from coming into the country profited by this smuggling.

This evil was seriously considered by the government. Some officers favored making laws under which the drug could be brought into China, but making it so expensive that the people would not be able to buy it; other officers thought that it should not be brought into the country at all.

Smoking Opium


Captain Elliot, the British superintendent of trade, who succeeded Lord Napier, was personally opposed to the trade in opium, and hoped that it might be regulated by law. But the British merchants were unwilling to give up the profitable trade in the drug, and Captain Elliot's attitude brought down upon him the abuse of certain English newspapers. The government at Peking now took a firm stand.

In February, 1837, Captain Elliot wrote to Admiral Capel, in India, asking him to send a man-of-war to China. The sloop-of-war Raleigh  arrived, and was sent to Foo-chow to secure the release of the crew of the opium brig Fairy, who had been detained there for some months. This was done. In the fall of the same year the Admiral received orders to proceed to China.

The opium was carried to China by British merchants, and sold to the receiving-ships at Lin-tin, where the Chinese officers could not come, and from there sold to the smugglers. The governor received orders from Peking to stop this, and he so informed Captain Elliot. The superintendent sent word to this effect to London, but received no satisfactory reply.

The government at Peking had now firmly decided to suppress the opium trade, and the governor of Canton received orders which he dared not disobey. In order to frighten the foreigners at Canton, he ordered a Chinese merchant convicted of opium selling to be executed in front of the factories. A large crowd collected, and the foreigners who tried to drive these people away were themselves attacked.

Captain Elliot arrived the same evening, and urged the British merchants to cease the opium trade. He wrote to the British at Canton, saying that "this course of traffic was rapidly staining the British character with deep disgrace." The government at Peking had determined that the opium trade should cease, and sent Lin Tseh-su (lin tsay-soo) to Canton to execute the law. He arrived on the 10th of March, 1839.

On the 18th of that month the new governor notified the foreigners to give up every pound of opium in the store-ships, and to give bonds that they would bring no more to China, on penalty of death. The foreigners met at the Chamber of Commerce, and replied that they would send a final answer in four days, and added "that the foreigners at Canton have almost agreed that they will have nothing further to do with the opium trade."

At ten o'clock some Chinese merchants came and said that if the opium was not given up at once they would all be beheaded. The foreigners delivered 1,037 chests, to be given to the governor. In the afternoon Lin sent for Mr. Dent, a leading British merchant, to meet him at the city gates. Dent replied that he would come, if the governor would give him a safe-warrant, that is, a paper declaring that he would be permitted to return. The next morning another order came for Dent. The foreigners held a meeting at Dent's house, and it was resolved that he should not go without a safe-warrant. The Chinese officers, however, came to Dent's house, and he told them that if they wanted to take him by force he could not resist, but he would not go without a safe-warrant.

It is certain that the governor intended to hold Dent as a hostage for the delivery of the opium, and the stopping of the trade in that drug. Captain Elliot sent a note to Lin asking him if he meant to make war. He also ordered all British ships, opium as well as others; to go to Hongkong, and to prepare to resist any attack by the Chinese.

Lin at once ordered a fleet of armed boats upon the river to prevent the foreigners from leaving Canton, and ordered all their native servants to leave them. This was done, and when evening came, only the foreigners, numbering about two hundred and seventy-five in all, were left in the factory. Guards were placed around it, and all was excitement.

On the 25th most of the foreign merchants signed a paper promising never to deal in opium again. Captain Elliot then requested that their servants be permitted to return. The governor replied that this could not be done until the opium was given up. No native was allowed to bring food or water; no letters could be sent or received. The foreigners were prisoners in their own houses.

Lin then sent a letter to Captain Elliot, urging him to give up the opium, and on the 27th of March the British superintendent ordered all English merchants to deliver to the governor all the opium they had, and making his government responsible for their losses. This was done, and 20,283 chests of opium were given up to the Chinese, who then allowed some of the native servants to return, and sent in a supply of sheep, pigs, chickens, and other provisions.

The opium was destroyed by orders from Peking. Trenches were dug, and the opium, mixed with lime and salt water, was drawn off into a creek. One of the Chinese, who was caught stealing a small quantity, was beheaded on the spot. The year 1839 passed, and angry feelings continued on both sides. Fresh cargoes of opium, which had left India before these events were known, continued to arrive, and the merchants sold them to those of other nations, so that they were carried by vessels not under the British flag. More trouble occurred as the result of a fight between some British sailors and the Chinese, in which one of the latter was killed. Captain Elliot and the British merchants had withdrawn to Hongkong. Lin saw that they were too strong to be driven away, and he ordered the people not to sell them any provisions. Several small fights now occurred, but there was, as yet, no war.

When war was declared by England in 1840, the British government declared that it was "to obtain reparation for insults and injuries offered to the British superintendent and subjects; to obtain payment for the losses which the merchants had suffered under threats of violence, and to get security that persons and property trading with China should in future be protected from insult and injury, and trade maintained upon a proper footing."

The war which followed is known as the Opium War. It was said at the time that the Chinese believed that the English fought only because they wanted to sell opium. But that was not so. The time had come when the Chinese must be taught that their Tien-tsz' was not the ruler of the whole earth, and that there was another civilization besides that of Confucius.

The Chinese, who had felt that war would follow these troubles, had begun to construct and repair forts. The English forces under Sir Gordon Bremer arrived off Macao, June 22, 1841. Whenever the Chinese were behind entrenchments they fought well, but they could not face a hand-to-hand battle. After taking the Island of Chu-san (choosahn), the English fleet sailed for the Pei-ho River, where it anchored, August 11th. Ki-shen (kee-shen), the governor of Pe-chih-li, received a letter from Admiral Elliot, and asked for ten days delay, that it might be placed before the Emperor. This was granted, and the fleet sailed to Liao-tung to secure provisions. They returned to the Pei-ho on the 27th, and on the 30th a meeting took place between Ki-shen and Admiral Elliot. After several meetings it was arranged that Ki-shen should meet Admiral Elliot again at Canton. The fleet sailed for Chu-san on the 15th of September.

The ships arrived off Macao on November 29th, and Admiral Elliot at once sent a steamer to the forts with a message for Ki-shen. The steamer was fired upon, but Ki-shen apologized. It was found that no terms could be agreed upon, and Admiral Elliot moved up the river and took two forts. Ki-shen then proposed a truce, and after several meetings terms of peace were agreed upon. They included the cession of the island and harbor of Hongkong to the British, the payment of six million dollars, direct intercourse with Peking upon equal footing, and the resumption of trade at Canton.

The Emperor at Peking was very angry when this treaty was sent to him, and would not sign it. On the 27th of January he issued orders to resume the war. On the 26th of February the forts protecting Canton were attacked and taken by the English, and on March 3rd the fleet was off Canton. On the 10th a truce was agreed to, and trade was resumed. But in May the Chinese intended treachery. Admiral Elliot discovered this, and on the 21st notified all foreigners to go aboard ship. When the Chinese attacked the factory, they found only two Americans, named Morse and Coolidge, and a boat's crew of the American ship Morrison. They were taken prisoners.

On the 24th the land and naval forces under Sir Hugh Gough and Sir Fleming Senhouse arrived from Hongkong and began to besiege the city. The factories were taken, and Mr. Morse and the other American prisoners set free, after an unpleasant experience of sixty hours. Before the attack upon the city could be made, the Chinese agreed to pay $6,000,000, and withdrew their troops sixty miles from the city. Two days after the truce was signed, a force of nearly fifteen thousand Chinese, who called themselves "patriot soldiers," advanced upon 500 British. Sir Hugh Gough ordered an attack, and soon the army of 15,000 was flying before the handful of foreigners. A party of Sepoys, or Indian troops, 90 strong, was attacked by a large force of Chinese. The Sepoys fought for three hours before they were relieved; they lost only one man and fourteen wounded.

After retaking the Island of Chu-san, the British force moved up the Yang tsz', and the Emperor issued orders to kill all the barbarians. Chinese troops were raised everywhere, but were defeated wherever the British met them.

On the 11th of August Nanking was invested. The Chinese officers had made several attempts to make peace, to which Sir Henry Pottinger, who represented the British government, replied that he would meet them if they could show credentials; that is, papers from the Emperor showing that they had power to sign a treaty. On the night of the 14th four high mandarins, among whom was Ki-ying (kee-ying), sent a letter to Sir Henry asking for a meeting in the morning. The Chinese and British met on the 15th, and the treaty of peace was discussed.

Chinese Mandarin


On the 29th the treaty was signed. The Chinese government was to pay twenty-one millions of dollars by the end of 1845; the ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai were to be thrown open to British trade and residence; the Island of Hongkong was to be ceded to the British; all British prisoners were to be released; all Chinese in the service of the British were to be pardoned; correspondence between the two nations was hereafter to be conducted on terms of perfect equality. On the 15th of September the Emperor's ratification was received, and the war was ended.