British Imperialism
The First Clash with the West

 
Reversing the Trade Deficit
[During the nineteenth century] the growing demand in Europe and America for Chinese teas, porcelain, silks, and decorative goods had not been matched by any growth in Chinese demand for Western exports such as cotton and woolen goods, furs, clocks and other mechanical curiosities,  tin, and lead. The result was a serious balance-of-payments problem for the West. Westerners had to pay for Chinese goods mainly in silver, and this steady flow of silver into China — one of the causes of the general prosperity in Qianlong’s reign — became a source of alarm to the British government. ... By the late eighteenth century, however, the British had developed an alternative product to exchange in China for Chinese goods: opium. [SMC, 127]
 
 
The East India Company established a monopoly for the purchase of Indian opium and then sold licenses to trade in opium to selected Western merchants known as the “country traders,” preferring this indirect means of profit making to getting directly involved in the shipment of the narcotic. Having sold their opium in China, the country traders deposited the silver they received in payment with company agents in Canton in exchange for letters of credit; the company, in turn, used the silver to buy tea, porcelain, and other Chinese goods for sale in Britain. Thus a triangle of trade of goods from Britain to India, India to China, and China to Britain developed, at each step of which high profits could be made. [SMC, 128]
British Sales of Opium to China
[SMC, 128]
Year
1729
1750
1773
1790
1800
1810
1816
1823
1828
1832
Number of [130-160 lb. ] chests
200
600 (est.)
1,000
4,054
4,570
4,968
5,106
7,082
13,131
23,570
 
  • Were the British justified in pursuing the sale of opium as a solution to their trade deficit?
By 1825, [Emperor] Daoguang [r. 1821-1850] was aware from censors’ reports that so much Chinese silver was going to pay for Western opium that the national economy was being damaged. Although this phenomenon was still mainly restricted to the southeast coastal regions of China, its effects were being felt far inland. A scarcity of silver meant that its price rose in relation to copper; since peasants used copper currency in their everyday transactions but still had to pay their taxes to the state in silver, a rise in the value of silver meant that the peasants were in fact paying steadily higher taxes, and that unrest was sure to follow. The situation worsened in 1834 when the British Parliament ended the East India Company’s monopoly of trade with Asia. The action threw open the China trade to all comers, with a predictable rise in opium sales and in the numbers of foreign traders from elsewhere in Europe and from the United States. The crisis for China was exacerbated by a worldwide silver shortage that caused foreigners to use specie less frequently when buying Chinese goods. In the 1820s, about 2 million taels of silver were flowing out of China each year; by the early 1830s, the annual figure was 9 million taels. A string of 1,000 copper cash had been roughly equivalent to 1 tael of silver in Qianlong’s reign; in Shandong province, 1,500 copper cash was needed per tael in Jiaqing’s reign, and 2,700 in Daoguang’s. [SMC, 148-9]
 

 
In 1836 the emperor Daoguang asked his senior officials to advise him on the opium issue. The advice was split. Those who advocated legalization of the opium trade [e.g. DC, 95-7 (7.1)] pointed out that it would end the corruption and blackmailing of officials and bring in a steady revenue through tariffs. It would also allow domestically grown Chinese opium — believed to be of better quality than Indian opium and cheaper to market — gradually to squeeze out that of the foreigners. Many officials, however, considered this view pernicious [e.g. DC, 98-102 (7.2)]. They argued that foreigners were cruel and greedy, and that the Chinese did not need opium, domestic or foreign. They thought the prohibitions made by Emperor Jiaqing, far from being abandoned, should be pursued with even greater rigor.
 
 
In 1838, after evaluating the evidence, Emperor Daoguang made his decision. The opium trade must be stopped. To enforce this decree he chose a Fujian scholar-official of fifty-four named Lin Zexu, and ordered Lin to proceed to Canton as a specially appointed imperial commissioner to end the practice of the opium trade. ... To stamp out opium, Commissioner Lin (as the English came to call him) tried to mobilize all the traditional forces and values of the Confucian state. In public proclamations, he emphasized the health dangers of opium consumption and ordered all smokers to hand over their opium and pipes to his staff within two months. ... By mid-May 1839, over 1,600 Chinese had been arrested and about 35,000 pounds of opium and 43,000 opium pipes had been confiscated; in the following two months, Lin’s forces seized a further 15,000 pounds of the drug and another 27,500 pipes. [SMC, 149-50]
 
 
Furnace Keepers or Wholesale Dealers
Annexed Laws on Banning Opium, July 1839

Whoever shall hereafter open a “furnace,” and connive with and secretly buy opium of the outside barbarians, storing it up for sale, shall, if he be the principal, be decapitated immediately on conviction.
       The royal authority shall be respectfully produced and the law executed, ere a report is sent to the crown. The head of the offender shall then be stuck upon a pole, and exposed upon the seacoast as a warning to all. The accomplices, advisers, participators, receivers, givers (those who deliver the drug), and boatmen who knowingly receive opium on board their boats for transport, shall be sentenced to strangulation and thrown into dungeons to wait the royal warrant for their execution. The houses and boats of these parties shall be sequestered. [
DC, 103]
 

With the foreigners, Lin used a similar combination of reason, moral suasion, and coercion, and we know from numerous statements of his that he did not wish his policies to lead to armed conflict. ... In a carefully phrased letter to Queen Victoria, Lin tried to appeal to her moral sense of responsibility. “We have heard that in your honorable nation, too,” wrote Lin, “the people are not permitted to smoke the drug, and that offenders in this particular expose themselves to sure punishment. ...” Opium in fact was not prohibited in Britain and was taken — often in the form of laudanum — by several well-known figures, Samuel Taylor Coleridge among them. Many Englishmen regarded opium as less harmful than alcohol, and Lin’s moral exhortations fell on deaf ears.

Although they were begged to yield by the panic-stricken Hong merchants, the foreign traders first explained that they handled opium on consignment for others and so were not empowered to hand it over, and then offered to give up a token 1,000 chests. Lin, furious, ordered the arrest of Lancelot Dent, one of the leading British opium traders. When the foreign community refused to yield up Dent for trial, on March 24, 1839, Lin ordered the Hoppo to stop foreign trade completely. ... After six weeks, when the foreigners had agreed to give up over 20,000 chests of opium and Commissioner Lin had taken delivery, the blockade was lifted and all but sixteen foreigners were allowed to leave. ...
 
 
[Lin] was now faced with the remarkable challenge of destroying close to 3 million pounds of raw opium. His solution was to order the digging of three huge trenches, 7 feet deep and 150 feet long. Thereafter, five hundred laborers, supervised by sixty officials, broke up the large balls of raw opium and mixed them with water, salt, and lime until the opium dissolved. Then, as large crowds of Chinese and foreigners looked on, the murky mixture was flushed out into a neighboring creek, and so reached the sea. [SMC, 150-1]
 
 
After the seizure of British opium in Canton, Charles Elliot and the British community rejected Lin Zexu’s demand for a bond pledging that they would no longer engage in the opium trade. ... On October 18, 1839, [Lord] Palmerston informed Charles Elliot that a British expeditionary force would reach China in the spring of 1840. Since the structure of the British constitution provided Parliament with little control over foreign policy, the decision for war was made without parliamentary consultation. Indeed, until Palmerston’s departure from the government in 1841, he single-handedly shaped the China policy. ... The following dispatch from the pen of Lord Palmerston informs the Chinese government of Britain’s intention to use force to protect the interests of its subjects. [DC, 106]
 
Declaration of War
Lord Palmerston ~ February 20, 1840
... It appeared that the Laws of the Chinese Empire forbid the importation of Opium into China, and declare that all opium which may be brought into the Country is liable to confiscation.
       The Queen of England desires that Her Subjects who may go into Foreign Countries should obey the Laws of those Countries; and Her Majesty does not wish to protect them from the just consequences of any offenses which they may commit in foreign parts. But, on the other hand, Her Majesty cannot permit that Her Subjects residing abroad should be treated with violence, and be exposed to insult and injustice; and when wrong is done to them, Her Majesty will see that they obtain redress.
        Now, if a Government makes a Law which applies both to its own Subjects and to Foreigners, such Government ought to enforce that Law impartially or not at all. If it enforces that Law on Foreigners, it is bound to enforce it also upon its own Subjects; and it has no right to permit its own Subjects to violate the Law with impunity, and then to punish Foreigners for doing the very same thing.
       Neither is it just that such a Law should for a great length of time be allowed to sleep as a dead letter, and that both Natives and Foreigners should be taught to consider it as of no effect, and that then suddenly, and without sufficient warning, it should be put in force with the utmost rigor and severity.
       Now, although the Law of China declared that the importation of Opium should be forbidden, yet it is notorious that for many years past, that importation has been connived at and permitted by the Chinese Authorities at Canton; nay, more, that those Authorities, from the Governor downwards, have made an annual and considerable profit by taking money from Foreigners for the permission to import Opium: and of late the Chinese Authorities have gone so far in setting this Law at defiance, that Mandarin Boats were employed to bring opium to Canton from the Foreign Ships lying at Lintin.
       ...The British Government fervently hopes that the wisdom and spirit of Justice for which The Emperor is famed in all parts of the World, will lead the Chinese Government to see the equity of the foregoing demands [i.e. reparations for the opium that was destroyed and for the cost of sending a British fleet to China]; and it is the sincere wish of Her Majesty’s Government that a prompt and full compliance with those demands may lead to a speedy re-establishment of that friendly intercourse which has for so great a period of time subsisted between the British and Chinese Nations, to the manifest advantage of both. [
DC, 107-9]
 
 

Article 2.  Determined the opening of five Chinese cities — Canton, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo, and Shanghai — to residence by British subjects and their families “for the purpose of carrying on their mercantile pursuits, without molestation or restraint.” It also permitted the establishment of consulates in each of those cities.

Article 3. The Island of Hong Kong to be possessed in perpetuity” by Victoria and her successors, and ruled as they shall see fit.

Article 4.  Payment of Mex$6 million by the Qing as the value of the opium which was delivered up in Canton.

Article 5.  Abolition of the Canton Cohong monopoly system and permission at the five above-named ports for British merchants to carry on their mercantile transactions with whatever persons they please.The Qing government was also made to pay Mex$3 million in settlement of outstanding Cohong debts.

Article 6.  Payment to the British of a further Mex$12 million on account of the expenses incurred in the recent fighting, minus any sums already received as ransom for cities and towns in China since August 1, 1841. [cfSMC, 158]

 
Most-Favored Nation Clause
Supplementary Treaty of 1843
Article 8: Should the Emperor hereafter, from any cause whatever, be pleased to grant additional privileges or immunities to any of the subjects or citizens of such foreign countries, the same privileges or immunities will be extended to and enjoyed by British subjects.” [SMC, 161]