Opium Wars

1814 to 1816
China — versus — Britain

First Opium War — 1840-1842      Second Opium War — 1856-1860     


The Opium Wars, during which Britain forced China to open its ports to international trade, including the selling of Opium, is possibly the most ignominious series of wars ever engaged in by the British Empire. The British were at the time, near the height of their power, prosperous, highly civilized, and 'socially conscientious' enough to have enacted democratic reforms within their own realm, such as outlawing slavery and restricting child labor. The importation of Opium was in fact, illegal within Britain itself, and yet they submitted to the idea of fighting a one-sided war with China for the purpose of forcing the Opium trade upon a government that was only trying to prevent illegal foreign trafficking of a baneful substance. Some history of the historical relationship between Britain and China is necessary to understand how these highly inglorious wars came about.

For many years leading up to the Opium Wars, Britain had been frustrated in its dealings with China and had striven unsuccessfully for decades to negotiate more favorable trading terms with them. The Chinese government, based on their interactions with the European trading companies for nearly 200 years, had an exceedingly low opinion of westerners and would not consent to make treaties with their ambassadors, much less open their ports to their wares, or encourage trade in any way. Britain had already tried every conceivable diplomatic effort to increase trading opportunities, but all exertions were fruitless. The Chinese government simply wanted nothing to do with foreigners or their products.

Opium was the most important trading product with China precisely because it was illegal and carried on largely by smugglers. There simply wasn't much demand, legal or otherwise, for bolts of linen or steam engines, or any of the more savory items that Britain might have had to offer, and there wouldn't be, as long as the Chinese government discouraged such trade. The Opium Wars were therefore, entirely opportunistic on the part of Britain. It had attempted every peaceful means at its disposal to no avail. The incident which sparked the First Opium War was the only possible pretext it had for war because it was the only occasion on which the Chinese government had done anything that could possibly be construed, however flimsily, as a violation of British sovereignty. The second Opium War was likewise sparked by a trivial incident. In both cases, Britain had resolved upon war because it failed to achieve what it desired diplomatically. While the practice of using a flimsy excuse to commence hostilities was by no means an unusual practice, and the war itself was conducted in a measured fashion without causing a great deal of physical damage to China, it would probably have been less disgraceful to attack China openly and without excuse than to try to pass off the suppression of opium traffic as a casus belli.

First Opium War : 1840-1842

The Incident that sparked the first Opium War occurred when the Chinese government placed an embargo on all British ships and demanded that British subjects within their realm turn over all their opium to the Chinese government. The British commander in charge of the region at the time was Charles Elliot. He agreed to these terms and ordered the opium surrendered. The Chinese confiscated and destroyed over 20,000 chests of opium. This occurred in 1839. A year later, after much debate and consideration, Britain declared war on China and demanded reparations for the destruction of British private property. Elliot opposed the war, and argued that the Opium trade was a disgrace, but when the British government determined on war, he was put in charge of the invading fleet.

The actual fighting commenced on June 22, 1841, when the British fleet took the island of Chu-san. They then sailed to up the nearby river and tried to open negotiations. On the 30th of August, a meeting took place between a Chinese minister and Elliot, but no terms could be agreed upon. Another meeting was arranged, but still no terms could be agreed to so Elliot moved up the river with his fleet and took two more forts. At this point Elliot was able to negotiate a treaty with the minister, who could see first hand the futility of further resistance, but the Emperor was furious and refused to sign it. The war was resumed and in February 1842 the forts protecting Canton were attacked. Negotiations continued, but the emperor would still not agree to any terms. In May additional forces arrived and a siege of Canton was commenced. More treaties were negotiated, but the emperor always refused the terms negotiated by his ministers. Eventually the British refused any further negotiations until they were assured of the emperors backing. Meanwhile they continued to fight various Chinese armies raised against them, in several extremely lop-sided battles due to their vastly superior technology. In one case 15,000 Chinese were defeated by 500 British. In August the British sailed up the river and laid siege to Nanking. At this point, a minister with papers from the emperor guaranteeing his authority to treat accepted the terms laid down by the British. These included the payment of a large indemnity, the opening of five ports within China, and the cession of the Island of Hong Kong to the British.

Short Biography
Lin Tse-hsu Chinese statesman in who negotiated with the British during the first opium war.
Charles Eliot British commander who opposed the illegal opium trade, yet led British forces to victory in the First Opium War.

Story Links
Book Links
First War Between Great Britain and China in  The Story of China  by  R. Van Bergen
Tai Pings and Trade War  in  China's Story  by  William E. Griffis
How Europe Entered China  in  Historical Tales: Japanese and Chinese  by  Charles Morris

Second Opium War : 1856-1860

The second opium was in some ways a repeat of the first, but with some important differences. Again, the British had specific treaty demands that they desired to negotiate, which the Chinese government would not agree to without coercion. Again, they resolve to go to war, and identified a flimsy casus belli, this time an incident in which the Chinese government boarded a small boat flying a British flag, and arrested twelve of its crew.

There were some major differences however. This time, instead of attacking China unilaterally, and taking the risk that China would make an alliance with another western power, Britain formed a coalition with France and they attacked China together. Another important change, was the fact that, having dealt more closely with the Chinese government over the last few years, the British ambassadors did not believe that the government would deal openly and truthfully with them unless they were taught a severe lesson. The Second Opium War, from the beginning, was more ambitious than the first, and there was a conscious intention of the need to destroy and discredit the Chinese "doctrine of Universal Sovereignty". The Mandarin government believed that China was at the center of the Universe, and could dictate terms to other "barbarian" states, and the western governments found it impossible to negotiate with them on equal terms. There was an enormous cultural gulf between the two cultures—the westerners perceived the Chinese leaders as dishonest, corrupt and treacherous. The Chinese perceived the westerners as rude, grasping barbarians. The British were determined that the Chinese would deal with them on their own terms, and believed that these reforms were needed for the good of the Chinese themselves.

The idea of making a strong show of force was present from the beginning of the Second Opium War. The British began by taking Canton, and then proceeded to take the Taku Forts which guarded the harbor nearest the capital of Peking. The Europeans marched on Peking, but instead of sacking the city, destroyed the Emperors summer palace, in order to punish the government for kidnapping several of the English ambassadors, and other acts of bad faith. At the time, the idea of destroying the royal palace in order to punish the emperor, instead of marching on Peking and displacing thousands of innocent people was considered "enlightened", and humane. (Ironically, this is now one of the most universally condemned acts of the war, derided as "cultural vandalism.") In any case, the explicit intention to humiliate and debase the Chinese government, rather than kill many of its civilians, was accomplished. More ports were opened to the foreigners. Restitution for the war was demanded. Many privileges were granted to westerners, and the Opium trade was finally legalized.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Taku Forts (Second ) Chinese victory
Fought June 25, 1859, when an attempt was made by the British to carry the forts at the mouth of the Peiho River. Eleven light-draught gunboats crossed the bar, and tried to silence the batteries, but without success, and at 5 p.m. an attempt was made to carry the defenses by a land attack. A force of 600 marines and blue-jackets, under Captain Vansittart, was landed, but after severe fighting was driven back to the boats, with a loss of 68 killed, and nearly 300 wounded. Six of the gunboats were sunk or disabled, and their crews also suffered heavily.
Battle of Taku Forts (Tongking War ) British victory
On August 21, 1860, a second and successful assault was made on the forts by a force of 11,000 British and 7,000 French troops, under Sir Hope Grant. After a brief bombardment, the small north fort, garrisoned by 500 Chinese, was stormed by 2,500 British, and 400 French, 400 of the garrison falling, while the British lost 21 killed and 184 wounded. In the course of the day the remaining forts surrendered without further fighting.

Short Biography
Harry Smith Parks British diplomat in China and Japan, active during the Second Opium war.

Story Links
Book Links
How a Poor Boy Made a Name  in  The Story of China  by  R. Van Bergen
Arrow and the Flowery Flag  in  China's Story  by  William E. Griffis
Burning of the Summer Palace  in  Historical Tales: Japanese and Chinese  by  Charles Morris

Image Links

Taku Forts
 in The Story of China