British Drug Pushers in China – The First Opium War

By Jay Holmes

China became involved in direct trade with Europe when the Portuguese established a trade center in Macau, China in 1557. Then, in 1565, Spain established a permanent colonial presence in the Philippine Islands and used it as a base for trading with the rest of Asia. France, the Netherlands, and Britain emphasized establishing colonies in the New World, but they soon followed the Portuguese example and began to trade directly with China.

Wealthy Europeans were hungry for Asian spices, silk, tea, and ceramic products, and a trade imbalance quickly developed. In spite of the fact that the trade balance was clearly favorable to China, the Ming dynasty was distrustful of trade. The Emperor and the preponderance of his advisers generally took a xenophobic view of the world beyond China. In particular, they worried that foreigners would bring in ideas that would not support the authority of the Emperor, and that the foreigners would learn too much about the Chinese military and their fortress works.

In 1644, the Qing dynasty gained control of most of China. The Qing were of Manchurian ethnicity and, for the most part, they utilized a Confucian influenced political philosophy. The Qing were even less friendly to the merchant class, in general, and foreign merchants, in particular.

Qing dynasty opium smokers

In 1669, the Qing attempted to cut off support for Ming Dynasty loyalists by ordering the evacuation of China’s coastal regions. The move was bold, but ill-conceived. After a few years, the evacuation order was rescinded, but much damage was already done. As a result of the upheaval, many of China’s most skilled merchants, tradesmen, and educated citizens left China.

After Great Britain’s victory in the 1757 Battle of Plassey in India, Great Britain strove to achieve a monopoly in opium production in India. Within twenty years, Great Britain had developed an iron-clad hold on Indian opium production. China soon became a market for the opium produced in India, and later Turkey.

The British East India Company (“BEIC”) used a standard-sized chest for transporting opium to China. Each chest held 140 pounds of refined opium. Thanks to detailed tax records, we know that by 1773, the BEIC shipped over seventy-five tons of refined opium to China. In 2011, the street value of seventy-five tons of opium would be in the neighborhood of $140 billion (based on nationwide urban distribution across the United States and Canada). While it is nearly impossible to make an accurate economic comparison for opium sales between our current economies and the economy of 18th century China, we do know that the sale of opium to Chinese smugglers generated enough revenue to erase the trade imbalance that was moving so much European gold and silver to Asia.

The opium trade was illegal in China. European traders avoided risk by trading their opium shipments to Chinese smugglers off the coast of China. The Chinese smugglers avoided risks by paying kickbacks to corrupt officials in China. The effects of opium on Chinese society were highly destructive. Not unlike modern drug trade, the opium the BEIC produced in India and sold into China caused tremendous damage to the health and productivity of Chinese workers and a decay of the central government’s authority.

The First Opium War began in 1839, when the Chinese government enforced a crack down on opium trade that included execution for Chinese drug dealers. The Chinese military boarded British merchant ships in international waters and destroyed their opium cargo.

In June 1840, a British force from India arrived in China with superior warships, including a heavy steamship with heavy guns. Chinese ships were helpless against the British warships, and the British moved with impunity up and down the Chinese coast, raiding coastal areas at will. From Chinese spies in the employ of the British traders, the British learned that taxes collected in the Yangtze River region were transported to armored barges on the Yangtze River. The British inflicted a major economic blow on the Qing dynasty by sinking and capturing the tax barges.

In 1842, the bankrupted Qing government sued for peace and signed the Treaty of Nanking with the British. The British received access to four trade ports and was given Hong Kong. China agreed to pay indemnity to the traders for the destroyed opium and paid an additional indemnity to the British government. British subjects were granted extra-territorial status in China. Basically, Chinese authorities could not touch British subjects in China. In 1844, China signed similar agreements with the United States and France.

The Treaty of Nanking is seen by Chinese historians as the start of “the century of humiliation.” That century of humiliation ended with the defeat of the Japanese by US and allied forces in 1945.

William Gladstone

The First Opium War was hotly debated in Parliament. One famous British parliamentarian, William Gladstone, who was a new member of the House of Commons, spoke eloquently against the war on moral grounds. Before the ink ever dried on the treaty, the Chinese Imperial Court was already devising strategies for evading the treaty terms. The conflict was bound to reignite.

On Sunday, we will take a look at the Second Opium War. Any questions?

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16 comments on “British Drug Pushers in China – The First Opium War

  1. K.B. Owen says:

    Another interesting post, Holmes! I’d forgotten this segment of 19th century British imperialism (my area of specialty is the later part of the century, and one gets tunnel vision at times).

    Thanks so much.

  2. Texanne says:

    Excellent post. Not exactly news to me, but I was only a small child at the time.

    You would think, wouldn’t you, that the folks who write surrender treaties would learn not to make them so harsh. That guy whose neck you’re standing on while you write your vindictive bit of lawyer-speak is naturally going to walk out of that courthouse (or whatever scenery was used for the humiliation) and set right to work on his own revenge.

    Judging by our imbalance of payments, and the way we got to this point, I’d say China won in the long run. Of course, they don’t have enough women, but that is self-inflicted damage.

    • J H says:

      Hi Texanne.

      I agree. On many occasions European countries and the USA and Canada have been generous in dealing with defeated nations and it has usually been to our advantage in the long run. The treatment of Japan, Germany and Italy after World War 2 stands out as a prime example.

  3. Dave says:

    $140 Billion is a lot of cash. Too bad it wouldn’t touch our trade deficit.

    • J H says:

      Hi Dave, Some folks were hopeful that the tobacco industry might accomplish the same thing that the opium traders did but the Chinese are very vigilant about defending the interests of it’s modern capitalist elites and the tobacco companies are not getting much out of exports to China.

      US Tobacco exports to China had grown rapidly in the 90s but they have leveled out. The 2010 US tobacco export to China was worth a paltry $142,000,000. (142M in US dollars). Our trade deficit with China in 2010 totaled a nauseating $273,000,000,000 (273B US dollars). We are tracking slightly better for 2011.

      After receiving sizable illegal campaign contributions the Clinton administration granted China “most favored nation” status. After G W Bush was inaugurated he agreed to a continuance of China’s most favored nation status. The current administration has thus far continued the same policy toward China. In exchange for that status China has encouraged and even financed copyright infringement of several US and European products and maintains tariffs against US products.

      Walmart and other US merchants are profiting from China’s most favored nation status but US workers and tax payers are taking a beating from the effects of it.

      I am a bit busy lately but I am tempted to write an article about how poorly South Korea, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines treat us on trade issues . At the same time the Philippines is now wanting assurances from the US that we will defend them against Chinese claims to Philippine territorial waters and the US continues to guaranty the safety of South Korea.

      Our continued tolerance of one way “free trade” strikes me as insane. China can only do this to us because our political leaders allow them to.

  4. Manon Eileen says:

    Gosh, I love this topic! I study global criminology and am going to research drug culture so I love this 🙂

    Thanks for the great post!

  5. J H says:

    Hi Manon, Thanks for visiting. I had written the article as a single article but my cruel editor/spellchecker/secretary/IT director/PR director (Piper Bayard) divided it into two articles. I promise that part two will be useful for you.

    I am glad that you are studying international criminology. I don’t foresee a shortage of international crime in the near future. You should have more than enough crime on which to ply your trade.

  6. […] British Drug Pushers in China – The First Opium War @ Piper Bayard – Very interesting! […]

  7. […] if we don’t know why they went to war in the past. Last week, he began the sordid tale of the First Opium War, in which England pushed opium produced in India onto China to balance its trade deficit with that […]

  8. I’ve heard about the British East Indies Company (and for some reason, there are various companies like that popping all over Asia). However, drug war wasn’t successful then, it isn’t successful now.

    • J H says:

      “However, drug war wasn’t successful then, it isn’t successful now.”

      Hi Marilag, the “drug war” ended in failure for the Chinese government but it was wildly successful for the Chinese drug dealers and the western traders that delivered the opium to them. The Chinese government lacked an adequate military with which to oppose the French/British invasion.

      As for any current drug wars Saudi Arabia has managed to minimize drug traffic within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia but they use what most westerners consider to be very harsh methods. The Saudis have pointed out that from their point of view it is more merciful to save the millions of potential addicts then to save the lives of a few drug pushers. Although I do not support a death penalty in the United States I have to allow that under Saudi policy a much smaller percentage of the population suffers from drug related problems as compared to people in western nations.

      As far as the US drug war I am not convinced that we have ever actually conducted one. Any nation that leaves such a large border open such as the US border with Mexico or Canada can not claim that it is at war against illegal drugs. Neither Canada nor the US can honestly claim to be at war with drugs. From my point of view the “drug war” has been more of a political propaganda campaign than an actual “war”.

      I am not convinced that we should or should not fight a “drug war”. The question is a complicated one with very expensive answers and it is worth careful consideration. What I am sure of is that we should not pretend to fight a drug war without making clear well explained policies. We have never developed a “drug war” strategy. We here in the USA simply react to whatever the current drug crisis is with half measures while millions of addicts and the millions of people that they routinely victimize continue to suffer and die.

      In my lifetime I have never heard a clear drug policy presented by the US government, or for that matter by any western government. Based on a half century of observation I can state the following points with 99% certainty.

      1) Being a drug addict is usually a miserable experience and may result in a painful death.

      2) Being near a drug addict is usually a miserable experience and may result in a painful death.

      3) Western nations have made very little effort to detect and punish money laundering by major banks and by casinos.

      4) The cash that has left Europe and North America has enriched corrupt governments, corrupt banks and ruthless violent gangs such as various “mafias” including Al Qaeda, the Mexican drug lords, the American Mafia etc. That same departure of cash has had major negative economic effects on drug importing nations such as the USA.

      5) Deciding to fight or not fight a drug war would require some harsh choices. Modern western nations generally avoid harsh choices and instead pretend to be surprised by the consequences of failing to make real choices.

      I believe that the first step in any “drug war” would be to reduce corruption in law enforcement (including prosecutors), in our courts, and in our city,state and national governments.

      The lack of a respectable government in Mexico explains how so much cocaine, meth. and heroine arrives at our border(in addition to home manufactured meth.), it does not explain how it crosses the border and gets distributed so openly across the USA.

      • I’m all for legalizing drugs. That way we can tax them. Then we can control it like smoking here in California. Because, the more you resist, the more you’re tempted. 🙂

  9. […] really enjoy a two-part series by Piper Bayard’s partner Holmes on the Opium Wars of China: First Opium War, Second Opium […]

  10. […] The standardised 140-pound opium box and tea chests foreshadowed the American shipping container.  The ISO standardised the SeaLand shipping container.  In the late 20th century, containerisation destroyed labour in uncooperative docks and accelerated the globalisation of trade. […]

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