(BRITISH IMPERIALISM and ASIA, to 1900 – continued)

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BRITISH IMPERIALISM and ASIA, to 1900 (6 of 9)

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First Opium War, to 1842

China had long been aware of opium as a medicine. Its addictive qualities had also been known, and in 1723 its sale and consumption within China had been made illegal. Nevertheless, a rapid increase in population in China was accompanied by a leap in demand by for opium. The British attitude toward opium was little different from their attitude toward the other drugs sold in London's many apothecary shops. British merchants violated China's ban on the importation of opium and bribed Chinese officials. From India in the 1790s the East India Company was sending to China around 4000 chests of opium each year, aboard third-party ships – alongside the cotton that it was selling to the Chinese. The use of opium as a narcotic had increased with the drug's availability and drop in price.

The British were buying tea from the Chinese in an amount greater in monetary value than the cotton and opium they were selling to the Chinese. There was merchandise other than opium that the Chinese might have bought from the British, for example safety matches, clocks, mirrors, spectacles and good cooking pots, but their Manchu rulers didn't want their Chinese subjects to think that foreign technology was superior. The Manchu monarchy insisted that in exchange for tea, China be paid in silver. The monarchy had power over major trading and international trade. The British were losing silver. Rather than reduce their consumption of tea to save their silver they saw remedy in an increase in the sale of opium. Between 1822 and 1830, the British shipped perhaps four times as much opium per year as they had around the year 1800.

The British wanted their tea, and the Manchu emperor, Daoguang (r 1821-50), wanted an end to opium importation. He campaigned against it with little success. His letter to Britain's Queen Victoria (whose rule began in 1837) was never delivered. In March 1839, after a decade of tepid resistance to opium importations, China's authorities demanded that British merchants hand over their stocks of opium and promise never again to trade in opium in China, on penalty of death. Britain's Superintendent of Trade, Charles Elliot, on the scene in China, complied. He ordered British subjects to hand over their stocks of opium to China's authorities, and 21,000 chests of opium in China were surrendered and destroyed.

Britain's government came under pressure from companies involved in the opium trade, and the party in power (the Whigs – soon to be called the Liberal Party) did not want to be accused of failing to protect Britain's commercial interests. Britain's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Palmerston, had previously acknowledged the right of China to end the importation of opium, but under pressure he now considered that British subjects in China had been imprisoned and mistreated. He considered that Charles Elliot had responded by authorizing the sending of an expeditionary force to China.

Sea battle, First Opium War

January 1841, The Nemesis destroying China's war junks. Click to enlarge enlarge

For the British, superior firepower worked. British warships along China's coasts – including the Nemesis (see image to the right), a steam-powered ship of iron – had firepower superior to China's vessels or shore defenses. This included the important factor of weaponry's range. Despite heroic efforts against the British, China was forced to acknowledge the superiority of Western weaponry. China was obliged to acknowledge defeat and to concede to British demands.

With the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, signed aboard the warship Cornwallis, China agreed to trade with Britain. It agreed to "fair and regular" tariffs and to open to foreign traders the ports of Guangzhou in the south and, moving north, the ports at Xiamen (Amoy) Fuzhou, Ningpo and Shanghai. And China's monarchy agreed to grant to the British whatever trading concession China granted to other powers. China agreed to pay Britain an indemnity of 20,000,000 silver dollars and to cede the island of Xianggang (Hong Kong) to Britain.


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