The Opium Wars

In Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age Stephen Platt, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, takes a long look at the events leading up to the Opium War that Britain fought with China from 1839 to 1842.

I found the book rather long, and it only seems to get moving in the last chapter when the war finally begins. However it is an easy read, and exceptionally well written and researched. It is therefore worth the effort, particularly as the book has relevance to current events, namely the trade war between the US and China, as well as the US’s current opiate epidemic.

In the late 18th century, Qing China was among the richest and most powerful empires in the world. However decline set in with a series of internal rebellions, increasing corruption, and (arguably) a rise in opium use by China’s ruling classes. The opium was grown in British India by, among others, the East India Company, and sold from British (and American) ships to Chinese traffickers who brought it into China, paid off customs officials, and distributed it domestically.

At that time China was the sole supplier of tea to the world, and demand was rising fast with Britain’s industrialisation. China was also a major exporter of silk, some of which travelled overland on the Silk Roads. The tea was mainly exported by sea, and trade was limited to Canton; Westerners were not allowed to trade from any of China’s other ports. This suited the East India Company, which had a monopoly on the trade to Britain, but was a bone of contention to the “free traders” such as Jardine and Matheson.

The British and Americans exported Indian opium to China in exchange for the silk and tea that China exported. Opium was illegal in China but the ban was only loosely enforced, at least until the late 1830s when the Chinese decided to enforce the ban, confiscating heroin from the Western traders and briefly holding them hostage in Canton.

Twenty years earlier, in July 1817, when Napoleon (Bonaparte) was living in exile on Saint Helena, his Irish physician Barry O’Meara (who had accompanied Napoleon in exile) told him that it didn’t matter if the British had the friendship of the Chinese because they had the Royal Navy. Platt quotes Napoleon’s response to his physician,

It would be the worst thing you have done for a number of years, to go to war with an immense empire like China…You would doubtless, at first succeed, but you would teach them their own strength. They would be compelled to adopt measures to defend themselves against you… they would build a fleet and in the course of time, defeat you.”

But twenty-two years later Britain did go to war with China. After intense lobbying from free traders, the British government agreed that the Chinese had to be punished for their treatment of the British traders and be taught to respect British superiority, to no longer have Canton as the only trade port, and to open further ports for trade. But behind it all perhaps the real motivation for the war was to force the Chinese to pay compensation for the opium that they had confiscated and destroyed, and to lift their domestic ban on opium, allowing the trade to once again flourish.

The young British politician William Gladstone—later to become four-time prime minister—said at the time, “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country in permanent disgrace, I do not know, and have not heard of.”

The war lasted for three years and ended with a British “victory” that was enshrined in the Treaty of Nanning, signed on 29th August 1842. Platt writes that it “was the first of what would come to be known as China’s “unequal treaties.” There would be many to join it over the course of the nineteenth century, for it marked a watershed in the Western discovery that one could get what one wanted from China through violence.”

He writes that the treaty “opened five of China’s port cities to British trade and residence, including Canton, Ningbo and, most importantly, Shanghai. The treaty gave Hong Kong to the British as a permanent colony.”

The Chinese regard the treaty as a major landmark in what they call their “century of humiliation” (1839-1945). However, Platt disagrees with their interpretation. He argues,

Only after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 did historians in China begin to call this war “The Opium War” in Chinese, and only in the 1920s would republican propagandists finally transform it into its current incarnation as the bedrock of Chinese nationalism—the war in which the British forced opium down China’s throat, the shattering start to China’s century of victimhood, the fuel of vengeance for building a new Chinese future in the face of Western imperialism, Year Zero of the modern age.” 

He adds,

“The Opium War was not part of some long-term British imperial plan for China but rather a sudden departure from decades, if not centuries, of generally peaceful and respectful precedent. Neither did it result from some inevitable clash of civilizations.”

The debate will continue for some time as to whether the war was about British pride, or about finding an outlet for opium, one of British India’s most profitable export, or about forcing China to open up to foreign trade. Whichever of those three alternatives you chose, however, none are particularly glorious.

The first question that comes to mind is whether Britain, the world’s leading military power at the time, had the moral right to force their terms of trade on China? That question may have relevance today in the current trade war between China and the USA.

The second question is whether the US’s current opiate epidemic can be compared to the opium epidemic that contributed to China’s decline.

I am not qualified to answer either question and I will leave the final word to the review of the book from the New York Times:

Stephen Platt has written an enthralling account of the run-up to war between Britain and China during a century in which wealth and power were shifting inexorably from East to West. But if this history holds a lesson today — as wealth and power shift equally inexorably back from West to East — it is surely the same one that Karl Marx identified just a decade after the Opium War, that men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.

Images from Pixabay under creative commons

Author: Jonathan

After 37 years as a commodity trader and analyst, Jonathan Kingsman is now the editor of commodityconversations.com. Jonathan is married with four grown up children and lives in Lausanne Switzerland. He is the Editor of The Sugar Trading Manual and author of The Sugar Casino, Commodity Conversations and Godstone, his first novel.

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