At the turn of the 19th century Britain was kind of broke. Kicking Napoleon out of Europe had been expensive. So they hatched a plan they would be ones to open up trade with the very rich at time China. The problem was China had been pretty much self-supporting for since anyone could remember and the only thing Britain had that the Chinese even wanted was silver and they didn’t even have a lot of that to speak of. To make matters worse china wasn’t very keen on having a bunch of foreign traders running around so they made a rule that foreigners could only trade in the port of Canton and only through a group of merchants called the Cohong who did want any monopoly does and raised prices at the British’s expense.
Needless to say things weren’t going great for Britain’s whole trade with China plan. But they did get some inspiration. China had been trading tea with the Brits for some time and by the 19th century they were hooked the average household in the UK was spending 10% of all their income on tea alone. What the British needed to find was something as additive to the Chinese as tea had been to them. And oh did they ever, the British had pretty much conquered India and discovered an interesting flower called the poppy. They found that the sap of the flower contained morphine and codeine both of which of course produce a highly additive high and could be made into the drug opium. So they would take these poppies and make opium to sell to the Chinese like a modern drug cartel after all what could go wrong.
Well in China Opium was super illegal and when pounds of opium started flooding in they made it even more illegal. In the end they even made it the death penalty for selling or even having opium but by then it was too late. So they destroyed 20,000 chests of opium off some British boats to send a message. Needless to say the opium traders were pretty mad and they demanded the British government pay them back for the loss but again Britain was already in debt so they told the Chinese that they needed to pay them back for the opium. There was also the awful matter of some drunken sailors killing a Chinese merchant in Canton and basically getting away with it. So now the Chinese were sick of this hold trading thing and kicked all foreign traders out of Canton and to Hong Kong. So the Brits did what the Brits did best and sent a naval force to show those Chinese what for but they were basically destroyed by the Chinese navy in 1839.
And so sparked the first Opium War. Largely the war centered on the British navy invading the Pearl River. The Chinese had superior numbers but were unfortunately outclassed by British technology. While the Chinese had swords and very few out dated muskets and cannon the Brits brought their technological best including their new iron hulled ship the HMS Nemesis. Needless to say things went pretty badly for the Chinese. In the end over 18,000 Chinese troops were killed or wounded compared to around 800 for the Brits. The war resulted in the 1842 treaty of Nanking with China giving up Hong Kong to the UK, pretty much full open trade with foreign businesses, and repaying the merchants 33 million dollars in today’s money for the destroyed opium. This would kick off over a 100 years of them being beaten by foreign powers and ultimately lead to Maoist China.
It seems in modern times though the tables have turned a large part of western heroin originates from Chinese trafficking cartels. Even worse than the 19,000 casualties of the war is that the opium war made the drug trade a global industry a problem with no real signs of slowing down. In the end after 2 more wars the British succeed in bringing china to heel but I don’t think anyone one now would say it was really worth it in the end.
Feature History – Opium Wars:
Its History on The Opium War – Lost in Compensation