THE INEVITABILITY OF THE OPIUM WAR
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION...................................... 1
CHAPTER 2: EARLY SINO-BRITISH TRADE.......................... 2
CHAPTER 3: OPIUM'S POPULARITY INCREASES...................... 4
CHAPTER 4: ECONOMIC CONCERNS................................. 6
CHAPTER 5: SUPERINTENDENTS OF TRADE.......................... 8
CHAPTER 6: COMMISSIONER LIN.................................. 10
CHAPTER 7: CONFRONTATION..................................... 11
CHAPTER 8: CONCLUSION........................................ 14
Quite contrary to my last paper on the Sino-Japanese war, the problem I encountered while researching the Opium War was not a shortage of material but an overabundance of it. There was such a plethora of books and articles written on the Opium War that it was somewhat overwhelming. The majority of the material, although expressed in varying degrees of detail, contained approximately the same information. As the research material became redundant I began to look for major themes rather than some new undiscovered facts.
In line with that I, have tried to express in this writing what I feel are the major currents of the time which led China and Britain inexorably to war over the opium trade.
China's long history of ignorance concerning the West and it's institutions led them blindly into confrontation with the British Empire. While trying to employ various plans to control both the import of the opium by foreigners and the use of opium by the Chinese they provoked the ire of the British Crown. Their predicament was further worsened by the blunders of both Chinese officials and of the Emperor in dealing with the foreigners.
On the British side their greed expressed by their inability to give up a trade as prosperous as that of the opium trade, a trade that had for once balanced their deficit in the China trade, was dragging them headlong into a war over the illegal shipping of opium. After the initial days of the British trade with China, during which the British shipped virtually nothing but gold and silver to China in return for her exports, the start of the opium trade was such a welcome relief to the lopsided trade situation that, in spite of it's immoral nature, it was embraced and literally promoted by the British Government.
It was this combination of China's ignorance in dealing with the outside world and the British greed which made the Opium War a virtual inevitability.
EARLY SINO-BRITISH TRADE
In the late 18th century the Canton trade was extremely one sided. China, in it's traditional attitude as expressed by the Emperor, was a self-sufficient, great and expansive country that needed nothing from the outside world. Although China was in for a rude awakening with the start of the Opium War; at this time in history they believed they were the center of the universe and the greatest nation in the world. As such they imported virtually nothing and only allowed foreign trade to exist as a favor to the other less fortunate countries. The result to the British was that about 90% and sometimes as high as 98%[i] of the fees payed to China for the tea, silk and other goods the British bought were payed for with gold or silver. The remaining 10% were bartered goods which the Chinese didn't need but were more or less considered trinkets (In reality, the standard of living in China had been declining for several decades and the low standard did not allow the Chinese to buy luxury items to the extent the British could).[ii]
The British took over as the leader in the opium trade from the Portuguese in 1773 when they started growing, processing and shipping it from India. In an ingenious twisting of the law, the British ships were able to carry the opium to China where it was imported against Chinese law, and at the same time legally and officially claim no responsibility for their actions. This was accomplished by shipping in East India Company owned ships which operated under the company's license. In the company's license their was a clause which required the ships to carry the East India Company's opium. At the same time there were public sailing orders on the ships which prohibited the carrying of opium. In this way the East India Company was able to carry the opium and not officially implicate the British Government.
OPIUM'S POPULARITY INCREASES
Although opium had been in China since the 8th century, advances in the way it was smoked in 1760 led to it's popularity with the wealthy. Before long Chinese from all walks of life were indulging in it. Accordingly the demand, and the price, began to rise. As the demand grew it began to be cultivated in some areas in China and the importation of it also began to increase. This steadily increasing use caused Emperor Chia-ch'ing to outlaw it's cultivation and importation in 1796. In spite of the prohibition, it's popularity, along with the amount of imports, increased steadily thereafter.
During the early 1800's the primary users were the young and the rich, but as it's availability increased other members of society, government officials, soldiers, monks, literati, women and merchants all picked up the habit. Opium smoking was a highly addictive practice which would cause the smoker to suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms if the habit was not maintained. Those who started generally didn't quit. In order to keep oneself supplied with opium an average laborer would spend half of his earnings on the drug.
In spite of the Chinese attempt to curb the use and importation of the drug through prohibition it met with little success. The long time corruption of the Chinese Government was still rampant and many officials received kickbacks from the smugglers. The undermanned and poorly trained Chinese Navy and Customs service was also ineffectual in stopping the flow of opium into the country.
As it's popularity increased there was talk of legalizing it and promoting local cultivation in order to both profit by taxing it's trade and to drive out the foreign dealers, but the idea was not used in favor of a broad sweeping plan to eradicate opium smuggling in 1836 implemented by Canton's Governor General Teng. Teng, who was assisted by an efficient provincial judge named Wang Ch'ing-lien, managed to eliminate a large part of the illicit trade by the end of 1837[iii], by which time the price had fallen significantly. The Chinese dealers were also aggressively prosecuted and the addicts were given a period of time to break the habit. Those who were unable to quit were executed; executions took place daily. Some government officials believed the problem to be so severe and widespread that within ten years so much of the Army would be addicted to opium that there would be no more soldiers left to fight. In 1838-39 it was estimated that between 10% and 20% of the central government officials and 20% to 30% of the local officials smoked opium. The total number of users in China was guessed to be between 2 and 10 million. Or 1 out of every 100 people.[iv]
As the trade balance began to shift from what was a favorable position for the Chinese to a balance in the British favor; the Chinese government more actively addressed the opium problem, and to prolong the economic boost, the British Government promoted the trade. Chinese officials saw the outflow of silver for opium as the primary cause of the economic crisis[v] but it was also due to a rapidly increasing class of impoverished people and was aggravated by increased spending on opium which prompted a general stagnation in other sectors of the Chinese economy. Indeed, the amount of silver dollars leaving the country in exchange for opium was staggering. Between 1829 and 1840 over 7 million silver dollars had entered China but more than 56 million dollars had been sucked out.[vi] To compensate for this huge drain of silver the government was forced to increase the annual minting of coins in an effort to stimulate the economy.
By 1837 Britain was importing more into China in opium than they were exporting from China in tea and silk. This shift in the trade balance inspired Parliament to not only refuse to frown upon the opium traffic but to cherish it, extend it and promote it.[vii] Then there was an event that was to have a great impact on Sino-British relations. Trade with China up to this time had all been conducted by the East India Company, who as we know was attempting to detach itself from the British Government. Although they were trying to distance themselves from the official branch of the government they were at the same time frequently using their status as British flag ships to further their position with the Chinese officials. In 1834 Parliament declared the China trade open to all British merchants thus ending the East India Company monopoly (the private merchant sector had been demanding this action for many years). What this in effect did was to bring the British Government into closer contact with the Chinese Government as there was now a British official appointed superintendent of trade which required that the government become involved in any confrontations between British subjects and the Chinese. In the past, the East India Company was a sort of cut out between China and the Crown which somewhat distanced relations between the two. The Chinese, unfortunately, did not understand the implications of this new turn of events.
SUPERINTENDENTS OF TRADE
After the opening of the China trade to private merchants in 1834 the first Superintendent of Trade, John Napier, was sent to China to enhance the relationship with the Chinese and insure the proper treatment of British traders. Unfortunately Napier's egotism and limited understanding of the situation caused his ultimate failure. Upon arriving he ignored the established procedures in trying to petition the Government and was asked, quite forcibly, to leave. He left shortly thereafter and died of illness.
Upon the failure of the Napier Mission another Superintendent of Trade, John Francis Davis, was sent to take his place. His policy of laissez faire was not appreciated by the British merchants and he was replaced by Sir George B. Robinson. Robinson too was not a particularly aggressive superintendent, and although his term was longer than Davis', he too was pressured to leave by the traders.
The next Superintendent of Trade was Captain Charles Elliot. He did not believe in the hands off policies of his two predecessors nor was he foolhardy and arrogant as Napier had been. Through a policy of occasional humility and naval strength he temporarily achieved a favorable relationship which placed him in a much better position than Napier had attained.
Commissioner Lin was a Chinese official from the old school. He was known to be of such an incorruptible nature he had gained the nickname Lin the blue sky. Shortly after Governor Teng had successfully ridden Canton of a large part of the opium traffic Commissioner Lin also made great progress in the elimination of opium and it's use in his own regions of Hupeh and Hunan. He petitioned the government with a six point program for eliminating users and dealers and regularly conferred with the Emperor on the opium problem.
In 1839 Lin was appointed imperial commissioner and went to Canton in January of that year. Once there, he set out on a far reaching strategy to eliminate the opium problem. He intended to be fair but strong with the foreigners who he knew were backed by the powerful might of the British Navy. His program was very successful. Within the first several months he had confiscated large quantities of smoking devices, incarcerated dealers and had rooted out and punished many government officers who were in cohorts with the smugglers.
As part of his ongoing battle he wrote two letters to Queen Victoria urging her to control her country's merchants who were involved in the illegal and immoral practice of growing poppies and smuggling the opium derived from it to China. Neither of the letters were ever allowed to reach the Queen.
On March 18 1839 Commissioner Lin issued and edict requiring all the foreign traders to surrender all their opium in three days. He also demanded they sign a bond stating that they would not engage in opium trafficking in the future and if they did, they would be subject to execution and the confiscation of their opium. He offered a reward of five catties of tea for each chest of opium turned in.
Of course the foreigners ignored his demands and his March 21 deadline until he threatened to decapitate two hong merchants, at which time they surrendered over a thousand chests of opium as a token gesture. This was not satisfactory to Lin who promptly paraded the two hong merchants in chains and imprisoned their sons. He then demanded that Dent, one of the major traders, surrender himself but Dent refused to surrender. On March 23 Elliot came from Macao and on the 24th the factory and compound on which the traders and Elliot were staying was surrounded by Chinese soldiers and the employees of the compound, cooks and such, were withdrawn. Lin let it be known that when the first quarter of the opium was surrendered the servants would be returned, when the second quarter of the opium was given up the boats to Macao would resume operation, when the third quarter was relinquished the troops surrounding the factory would depart and when the last quarter of the opium was surrendered normal trade would be resumed.
While Lin saw himself as simply upholding the law in his quest to eliminate the opium, Elliot saw Lin's act as an attack against the British merchants. At the same time he saw no way out of his present predicament, short of war, and cunningly contrived to give all the opium to Lin in a twofold strategy. Surrendering the opium would make Lin responsible for the cost of it's compensation (the opium trade had been suffering since Lin had arrived) and it would relieve the present tense situation. Elliot officially requested and gathered all the opium from the traders and presented it all to Commissioner Lin; a total of 21,306 chests.
Elliot's act of officially requesting all the trader's opium be turned in to him, an officer of the British Crown, served to change the ownership of the drug from that of the merchants to that of the British Government. This indeed was part of Elliot's plan. As Lin now destroyed the opium, content with his victory, Elliot and the entire foreign community left for Macao where Elliot began to petition London to take prompt action against China and demand reparation for the merchants. Elliot had promised the merchants they would be reimbursed.
The situation deteriorated further when a group of British sailors killed a Chinese man in Kowloon. Lin demanded the murderers be turned over for execution but Elliot tried them himself and sent them back to Britain for punishment. Lin pressured the Portuguese to expel all the British from Macao and on August 26 1839 all the British left for Hong Kong, at that time a barren island. Although Elliot had persistently refused to sign the bond, other traders were anxious to get on with business and two of them, the Captains of the Thomas Coutts and the Royal Saxon signed the bond against Elliot's orders. When one of the ships approached the Chinese positions in hopes of trading with the Chinese, Captain H. Smith of the H.M.S. Volage fired a shot across it's bow. The Chinese war junks, in an effort to protect their potential trading partner, attacked the British war ships. The engagement did not last long, of the 29 Chinese junks 4 were sunk, and several more were severely damaged. War had broken out.
The Opium War was an inevitable conclusion of the collision of the British policy to protect their economic interests and the Chinese policy to eradicate the use and smuggling of opium. Even had history dealt a different set of characters to fill the various parts the results would have been the same. It was inevitable that China eventually try to put a stop to an illicit trade that was destroying their populace and their army, corrupting their officials and stagnating their economy by draining the nation's silver. And a 19th century Britain would certainly not give up a lucrative trade which had for the first time in history balanced their heretofore one sided trade relations with China and a huge annual income without first going to war.
That the war occurred as soon as it did can be attributed to the immoral willingness to go to war over the opium trade by Superintendent of Trade Elliot and the hard-line tactics employed against them by Commissioner Lin in a valiant effort to stop the terrible assault on his nation's integrity.
Immanuel C. Y. Hsu. The Rise of Modern China. New York. Oxford University Press, Inc. 1990.
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Chronology of the World. New York. Harper Collins Publishers. 1991.
Kim, Key-Hiuk. The Last Phase of the East Asian World Order. Berkeley and Los Angeles. University of California Press. 1980.
Hucker, Charles O. China's Imperial Past. Stanford. Stanford University Press. 1975.
Chang, Hsin-Pao. Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. Inc. 1964
Beeching, Jack. The Chinese Opium Wars. New York and London. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1975.
Collis, Maurice. Foreign Mud (The Opium Imbroglio at Canton in the 1830's & The Anglo-Chinese War). New York. W.W. Norton & Company. Inc. 1946.
Fay, Peter Ward. The Opium War 1840-1842. Chapel Hill. The University of North Carolina Press. 1975.
[i]..Immanuel C. Y. Hsu. The Rise of Modern China. New York. Oxford University Press, Inc. 1990. (pg 168)
[ii].. Hucker, Charles O. China's Imperial Past. Stanford. Stanford University Press. 1975. (pg 302).
[iii]..Immanuel C. Y. Hsu. The Rise of Modern China. New York. Oxford University Press, Inc. 1990. (pg 178)
[iv].. Immanuel C. Y. Hsu. The Rise of Modern China. New York. Oxford University Press, Inc. 1990. (pg 172)
[v].. Chang, Hsin-pao. Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. Inc. 1964. (pg 86)
[vi]..Beeching, Jack. The Chinese Opium Wars. New York and London. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1975. (pg 43).
[vii]..Immanuel C. Y. Hsu. The Rise of Modern China. New York. Oxford University Press, Inc. 1990. (pg 173)