Opium War: Background, Causes and Consequences

The Opium War It is the name of the war between China and Great Britain that took place between 1839 and 1860. It was actually two different wars: the first began in 1839 and lasted until 1842 and the second began in 1856 and ended in 1860. In this France also participated in supporting the British.

The antecedents of this war have to be looked for in the commercial routes opened between China and the West centuries before. With the passing of time and with the isolationist tendencies of the Chinese emperors, the trade balance began to hurt Europeans a lot. These, to balance trade, began to sell opium in the Asian country.

Opium War

Attempts by the Chinese rulers to ban the importation of opium, which became a major public health problem, led the British to attack Hong Kong, which initiated the war. The final Chinese defeat caused the latter to accept trade agreements that were negative for their interests and to admit that opium continued to fill its streets.


  • 1 Background
    • 1.1 Beginnings of commerce
    • 1.2 Britain
    • 1.3 Opium
  • 2 Causes
    • 2.1 Destruction of the opium cache
    • 2.2 Second Opium War
    • 2.3 Control of the area
  • 3 Consequences
    • 3.1 Treaty of Nankin
    • 3.2 Treaty of Tianjin
    • 3.3 Beijing Convention
  • 4 References


Beginnings of commerce

Europe had always looked to the East as a place with great commercial possibilities. Do not forget that the discovery of America itself was the result of trying to find a route to reach Asia more easily.

In the 16th century an important trade exchange between China and Europe began. At first, Spaniards and Portuguese took advantage, and even established some colonies in India and the Philippines.

However, the Chinese emperors demonstrated a strong isolationist tendency. They did not want cultural and political influences to come to their country and they only left Canton as an area open to trade.

In addition, European products were loaded with strong obstacles and, in a short time, the imbalance between imports and exports was very large, always favorable to Asians. Given this, Spain decided to sell opium to try to alleviate this deficit.


Britain also tried to establish trade routes with China. There were several products that they were very interested in, such as tea or silk, but they were not able to place their own products in the Asian market.

In the end, they decided to follow the example of Spain and started selling the opium they got from their Indian colony.


The substance, which used to be smoked mixed with tobacco, was not unknown in China, since it was cultivated there since the fifteenth century. Before the increase of the consumption that was taking place, already in 1729 the emperor Yongzheng prohibited his commerce. This did not sit well with the British, since the profits generated were 400%.

Despite this prohibition, the drug continued to enter the country, although it was illegally smuggled by the British.


Destruction of the opium cache

The prohibition promulgated did not yield any results, since the consumption of opium continued to grow in the country. Historians speak of a large amount of product introduced by the British illegally, without the Chinese authorities could prevent it at customs.

For this reason, Emperor Daoguang decided to end the epidemic that caused the addiction to this substance. In this way, he gave orders to combat the entry of opium by all means, even if using force.

The person in charge of this task was Lin Hse Tsu, who in his first action sent his men to destroy a cache of twenty thousand boxes of opium. After this, he proceeded to send a message to Queen Victoria to ask him to stop trying to introduce the drug in the country and asking him to respect the commercial rules.

The British answer was blunt: in November of 1839 a complete fleet attacked Hong Kong, where was the Chinese Navy. That was the beginning of the First Opium War.

Second Opium War

The Chinese defeat in the First Opium War opened the doors to European trade almost without limits. In addition, the British stayed in Hong Kong in compensation.

The feeling of humiliation in China led to several skirmishes; however, the outbreak of the so-called Second Opium War had a rather weak excuse.

A dark incident with a ship registered in Hong Kong led the British to declare war again. The ship was approached by Chinese officials and 12 of its crew (also Chinese) were arrested for piracy and contraband.

The English affirmed that, when having the registration of Hong Kong, that capture broke the agreements signed after the first war. When that argument could not be maintained, they declared that the Chinese guards had insulted the British flag.

Anyway, they decided to attack several positions in the Asian country. Soon the French joined them, with the justification of responding to the murder of a missionary in the area.

Control of the area

At the bottom of the whole issue was the struggle for hegemony in the area. A British consul affirmed at the end of the 19th century the following:

"As long as China remains a nation of opium smokers there is no reason to fear that it could become a military power of any weight, since the habit of opium erodes the energies and vitality of the nation."

The war caused the European powers to settle throughout that part of Asia, establishing colonies and taking positions of power, both commercial and military.


Treaty of Nankin

After the First Opium War, which ended with the defeat of China, the contenders signed the Treaties of Nanking, which set out the conditions for peace.

The Asian country was forced to accept free trade, including opium. To make it even easier, he had to open 5 ports to the British commercial fleets. In addition, the agreement included the transfer of Hong Kong to Great Britain for 150 years.

Treaty of Tianjin

This new agreement was signed in 1858, after the first battles of the so-called Second Opium War. Again it was the Chinese who had to accept all claims, not only British, but also other Western powers that had participated.

Among these concessions was the opening of embassies of the United Kingdom, France, Russia and the United States in Beijing, a city in which foreigners were not allowed.

On the other hand, new ports were enabled for trade and Westerners were allowed to travel along the Yangtze River and through areas of inland China.

Beijing Convention

The final end of the Second Opium War brought with it a new treaty. While it was being negotiated, Westerners occupied Beijing and the Old Summer Palace burned down.

Among the consequences that brought the definitive defeat of China is the total legalization of opium and its trade. Besides, it went even deeper into the liberalization of trade, with conditions extremely favorable to the Western powers.

Finally, Christians saw their civil rights recognized, including the right to try to convert Chinese citizens.


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