How Did the Opium War Break Out in China?

From the lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

As unlikely as it may seem, the Opium War was triggered by tea! The British, addicted to Chinese tea, wanted the Chinese to get addicted to something that they could trade in exchange for tea. Opium looked like a good option, and it did not require much marketing.

An illustration of the attack on First Bar Battery during the Opium War between Britain and China.
The Opium War was majorly the result of internal Chinese inefficiencies and external British forces to sell opium. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The Opium War was China’s resistance to accepting the forceful British trade of opium. Britain decided to pick opium as it was already common in many countries, including Britain itself, India, and China.

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Opium in the World of that Time

The power of opium was so well-known that Karl Marx later likened religion to the ‘opiate of the masses’. It was initially used as a medicine for pain and fever. This highly addictive drug was chewed in India and drunk as laudanum in England. Higher doses could create visions and dreams, hence, making it attractive to the Romantic poets.

In 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his most famous poem, and perhaps the most famous drug-induced work of art, ‘Kubla Khan’, under the effect of opium and its hallucinations. Coleridge had visions of the Orient after using opium. Columbus also had similar visions in 1492. Coleridge did not know he was predicting the future when he wrote: ‘Kubla heard from far / Ancestral voices prophesying war!’

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Opium in China

The Chinese knew opium since the 8th century, while Europe learned about it in the 19th. It was smoked in China, not chewed or drunk in smaller doses. Perhaps, the Dutch first traded tobacco mixed with opium in Taiwan, where they had a trading post in the 1660s. Eventually, the Chinese eliminated the tobacco and smoked opium alone in long pipes.

An illustration of the Battle at Zhapu during the Opium War between Britain and China.
Opium kept being traded despite the Chinese government’s reluctance and a ban on it. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The Chinese emperor declared the opium trade illegal in 1729, in 1796, in 1799, and then again in 1800. However, neither the users nor the traders respected the rules. The British East India Company decided to increase opium trade to balance the company and banish failure.

At the same time, renowned people like Adam Smith demanded free trade, with no taxes, barriers, and monopolies.

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Despite a Ban, Opium Trade Continued in China

As people like Adam Smith tried for free trade, the EIC lost its monopoly on trade in India in 1813. It took 20 years for the monopoly to be removed from China as well. The EIC grew opium in Bengal, in India, and shipped it to China to sell to private dealers. Companies like Jardine, Matheson & Co., and even American merchants made a significant profit out of this business.

The Industrial Revolution had its effects as well: ships were being customized for the opium trade. The Chinese market was very welcoming as half of the men, and a quarter of women were users of opium. Eventually, the balance of trade with China was reversed, and the silver that had come in for tea went out for opium in the 1830s.

Around the same time, over 30,000 chests of opium were brought in, each containing around 150 pounds of the drug. It was getting out of control, and China did not like it.

The Spring Purification Circle

China had numerous problems and inner conflicts, calling for reform. The government had lots of inefficiencies and corrupt officials. A group of Confucian scholars took the first step for renewal, calling themselves the Spring Purification Circle. Opium began to symbolize everything that went wrong in China.

The European 'factories' at Guangzhou (Canton) China ca 1840, Engraving based on a drawing made during the First Opium War by John Ouchterlony.
The Opium War was ignited after emperor Daoguang appointed Commissioner Lin Zexu as the person in charge of Canton. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Gradually, emperor Daoguang took action in 1839. He put Commissioner Lin Zexu, a follower of the Spring Purification Circle, in charge of Canton, where the Chinese traded with foreigners. Next, he announced that the dealers would be executed. Further, some political steps were taken.

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The Political Clash of China and Britain

Lin wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, asking her to stop the hypocrisy and the trade of opium, which he wrongly thought was illegal in England. He then demanded that the British merchants in China turn over their opium stores to him, or lose their fortune.

Captain Charles Elliot, the British superintendent of trade in Canton, was also against the trade of opium. He promised the merchants compensation and asked them to give the 1,700 tons of opium that they had to Lin. The opium was trampled underfoot and then thrown into the sea to cleanse China of its pollution.

Despite the efforts, the tension rose between the British and the Chinese, and Lin cut off the supplies of food and water for the British. Elliot refused to accept this by sending British ships in with an ultimatum to Lin. Lin’s refusal of the ultimatum made the British ships fire on Chinese war junks. The Opium War had broken out.

Common Questions about How the Opium War Broke Out

Q: What was the Opium War about?

The Opium War broke out between China and Britain when the British tried to make the trade of opium legal in China, against their will. China did not want the drug to be traded and wanted to stop the trade at any cost.

Q: What steps did China take to stop trading opium?

China was very much against the import of opium and decided to execute dealers after a few times of announcing opium trade illegal. Since it did not suffice, they decided to defeat Britain in the Opium War to cut the source of the drug.

Q: Why Britain decided to export opium to China?

Opium was a product commonly used at the time of the Opium War. Indians chewed it, the British drank it, and the Chinese smoked it since the 8th century. As Britain wanted to profit, but China did not want the British goods, they decided to force China to legalize the import of opium.

Q: How common was opium in China at the time of the Opium War?

At the time of the Opium War, about 50 percent of men and 25 percent of women smoked opium. Not all of them were fatally addicted, but it was still a drug widely used.

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