The British Fleet in China and the Treaty of Nanking

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

The destruction of opium by the Manchu authorities in the early 1800s resulted in British opium traders pushing their government to take stern action. The public sentiment at home forced the British legislature to condemn the action and send a punitive fleet to Canton. This was the opening move in the Opium Wars.

British ships approaching Canton.
The British fleet arrived at Canton in a show of force. (Image: Edward H. Cree/Public domain)

The British Fleet’s Arrival at China

The British fleet commander, Admiral George Elliot, arrived in Canton bearing a list of demands: first, full replacement of, or compensation for, the destroyed opium; second, full satisfaction for the indignities suffered by British during the incident; third, assurances of the future safety of British subjects in China; fourth, a permanent grant of one or more Chinese coastal islands to Great Britain; fifth, the abolition of China’s trade monopoly in Canton; and finally, repayment of all debts incurred by British merchants as a result of Commissioner Lin’s actions.

Admiral Elliot was instructed to extend the blockade to all the principal ports of coastal China, to impress the Chinese with Britain’s might. Seeing for themselves the might of the British warships, with their superior design, their fast speeds, and their powerful artillery shells, the Manchus blinked first.

Having been at peace for a hundred years, China’s coastal defenses were badly neglected. Many of the largest cannon were rusted out, and the ships of the imperial navy consisted mostly of wooden war junks. Recognizing the futility of combat, the Manchus stalled for time.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The First ‘Manager of Barbarians’

As the British extended the blockade of China’s coast in the fall of 1840, Lin Zexu was replaced by an official ‘manager of barbarians’ named Qishan, who switched to softer tactics. Seeking to ingratiate himself with Admiral Elliot, he met the commander near the mouth of the Yangzi River.

Qishan convinced Elliot that an imperial envoy was en route to Canton to thoroughly investigate British grievances. Taking Qishan at his word, Admiral Elliot halted his fleet’s advance and reversed its course, returning to Canton. But Qishan had been bluffing, stalling for time. No Manchu envoy was en route.

The credulous Admiral George Elliot was removed from command. He was replaced by his younger, more impetuous cousin, Captain Charles Elliot. Shortly after assuming command, Captain Elliot ratcheted up Britain’s demands to include permanent possession of a small island at the mouth of the Pearl River, called Xianggang, or ‘fragrant harbor’, now known as Hong Kong.

The Quanbi Convention

When Qishan balked at Captain Elliot’s terms and conditions, Elliot, in a show of force, destroyed a fortress at Quanbi, southwest of Canton. Qishan was forced to draft a concessionary document agreeing to most of Captain Elliot’s demands. Known as the Quanbi Convention, its main provisions were first, the permanent cession of Hong Kong Island to Great Britain; second, a cash indemnity of $6 million in silver to be paid to the British; third, equal standing to be given to British and Chinese officials in all business dealings; and fourth, the reopening of Canton to foreign trade.

The storming of the fortress of Quanbi.
The destruction of Quanbi forced Qishan to agree to British terms. (Image: Frederick J. White/ Dickinson/ Public domain)

Having drafted this document under duress, Qishan proposed to submit it to the emperor for approval. But the Manchu emperor was enraged by the terms of the proposed treaty, and he refused to sign it. Indeed, he recalled Qishan to stand trial for treason. Qishan was sentenced to death, later commuted to permanent exile.

In any event, the emperor’s repudiation of the Quanbi Convention in January 1841 ushered in a new stage in the Opium War. Captain Elliot was ordered to relinquish his command to a more senior British officer, the very hawkish Sir Henry Pottinger.

British Victory and the Treaty of Nanking

But before Pottinger could reach China to take command, Elliot undertook a fresh military offensive on his own initiative. In February of 1841, Elliot captured a series of strategic Chinese fortresses at the mouth of the Pearl River near Canton. He then laid siege to Canton itself, trapping thousands of Chinese fighters in the process. Eventually, Elliott agreed to release the trapped soldiers in exchange for $6 million in ransom.

With the arrival of Sir Henry Pottinger in the summer of 1841, the British fleet sailed north, occupying the port city of Amoy, as well as a series of strategic islands and fortresses near the mouth of the Yangzi River. In June of 1842, Shanghai fell to the British fleet. Britain now commanded all maritime access to the southeast coast of China.

The Manchu emperor decided to cut his losses. He instructed Qishan’s successor to negotiate a settlement. When the resulting Treaty of Nanking was signed aboard Pottinger’s flagship on August 29, 1842, it represented a humiliating reversal of fortune for the once proud and mighty Manchu dynasty.

Under the treaty’s terms, China consented to pay an indemnity of $21 million in silver to Britain, and agreed to open five coastal cities to British commerce and residency: Canton, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai. In addition, the longstanding imperial Chinese trade monopoly was abolished; and Hong Kong island was permanently ceded to Great Britain.

Learn more about the origins of the First Opium War.

Growing Anger Against the British

Under a supplemental treaty signed a year later, in 1843, a uniform system of low import duties on British goods was introduced. British citizens were granted extraterritorial privileges while residing in Chinese ports. This meant that the British were exempted from prosecution under Chinese law. And finally, Great Britain was granted “Most-Favored Nation” status.

The new ‘barbarian handler’, Viceroy Qiying, adopted a policy of appeasement to deal with the British military. These failed to produce any change: Western political and military encroachments increased steadily.

Qiying was ousted within a year by a group of xenophobic imperial war-hawks. They called on all Chinese in the treaty ports to stand up to the perfidious “foreign devils.” Stirred into action by such patriotic rhetoric, crowds of angry Chinese launched a series of vitriolic attacks against foreigners in Canton and other coastal cities.

Common Questions about the British Fleet in China and the Treaty of Nanking

Q: What were the demands that the British fleet was to enforce in China?

The list of demands being made by the British fleet were: compensation for the destroyed opium; satisfaction for the indignities suffered by the British; assurances of the safety of British subjects; a permanent grant of one or more Chinese islands to Great Britain; the abolition of China’s trade monopoly in Canton; and repayment of all debts incurred by British merchants as a result of the destruction of opium.

Q: What were the provisions of the Quanbi Convention?

The main provisions of the Quanbi Convention were: the permanent cession of Hong Kong Island to Britain; a cash indemnity of $6 million in silver to be paid to the British; equal standing to be given to British and Chinese officials in all business dealings; and the reopening of Canton to foreign trade.

Q: What provisions were made by the Treaty of Nanking?

Under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, China consented to pay an indemnity of $21 million in silver to Britain, and agreed to open five coastal cities to British commerce and residency. Also, the Chinese trade monopoly was abolished; and Hong Kong island was permanently ceded to Great Britain.

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