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Drugs and their Stories

China Still Sees Opium Wars with Great-Britain as a Humiliation

You must have heard of the opium wars. These two wars were fought in the 19th Century, between China, England, and later France. But did you know what they were about? (spoiler alert: drugs!) And did you know that we’re still seeing the effects of them in world politics? The explosive situation for example in Hong Kong is directly linked to the two wars a 150 years ago. The Chinese still regard the conflict as an affront to their national pride; the start of the Century of Humiliation.

Text Aron Friedman

Holland wasn’t the only European country to engage in flagrant drug trafficking with the approval of its own government. Great Brittain also does not have a clean reputation when it comes to government-approved drug smuggling. They even started two wars over it – one fighting side by side with their age-old enemy, France. Sometimes financial gains are more important than principals.


If you look at the world map of 1839, a few things are remarkable. For instance the way in which the British Empire was already taking shape. At that point, it already comprised Canada, Australia and India. In Asia, you can see a bunch of European colonies, like Indonesia (Dutch) and the Phillipines (Spanish). But the Europeans had practically no stronghold in the vast Chinese Empire. 

The world map in 1839

That’s because the Chinese emperors effectively shielded their empore off from the Western expansionism. Christian missionaries weren’t welcome and neither was the free market economy. The only trade allowed took place within the Cantonese system. In 1757, the Emperor had decreed that Canton (Guangzhou) was to be the only port in China where trade with foreigners was permitted. Moreover, the only ones allowed to partake were Chinese salesmen who were certified by the Emperor himself. 

Trade triangle
For almost a century, the Brits made eager use of the system, by maintaining a trade triangle between England, India and China. They’d ship cotton from India and silver from England to China, in exchange for Chinese tea and other luxury goods. The problem for the Brits was that the trade balance was in favor of China, since Chinese tea was much more popular with the Brits than Indian cotton was with the Chinese. The result was that all the British silver was flowing away into China. That was unacceptable for the Brits, so they started seeking out products that would be more popular in China.


Opium, harvested from poppy seeds, had been used as a medicine for thousands of years. But during the 18th Century, it became more and more in vogue as a recreative drug. Those who use it reach a dreamy state where worries, frustration and pain disappear. The problem is that you become physically addicted to opiates very easily, which makes them some of the most addictive substances in the world. The British government saw a growth market in China and started investing in large-scale poppy flower farming in India. The British East India Company was the only business to get permission, giving them the monopoly in the growth and export of opium. 

‘Stacking room’ with opium lumps in a British opium factory, Patna, India (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It worked. In a matter of a few decades, big parts of the Chinese population were  hooked to the Indian opium. Bit by bit, the British silver started pooring back into Britain. That did come at the cost of the health of the Chinese. What started for those of them using opium as a passtime, frequently ended in a heavy addiction. Those who tried to shake the habit, had to face withdrawal symptoms like pain, nausea and an alltogether miserable feeling. Often, the only  way out seemed to keep using opium. 


The Chinese government was at their end’s wit, because opium addiction was turning into a real epidemic. In 1800, they decided to ban the import of opium and the farming of poppy flowers in all of China. In 1813, they intensified the measures by also criminalizing the use of opium: one hundred floggings for anybody  who got caught. For the Brits, the ban on poppy farming was all the more favorable: from then on, the Chinese were even more dependable on the Indian poppy seeds. The British East India Company smuggled opium into the country from now on. At the peak of their opium trade, they had about a hundred illegal Chinese drug traffickers working under contract. 


Chinese opium users in the 19th Century (Photo: Lai Afong)

Drug Debate

When the Chinese emperor found out even many students and members of his very own military command had become opium addicts, enough was enough. He called together a meeting with his senior officials. Just like in the current drug debate in the Netherlands, there were two sides. On the one side were the pragmatists, who argued that the government was better of legalizing opium. By regulating the substance and demanding high taxes, they would make it so expensive that most people would have to stop or at least moderate their use.


On the other side were the moralists, who asserted that the use of opium was deplorable and should be rooted out. The biggest hardliner in the debate was Lin Zexu. He was an ambitious official who regarded the opium trade as a malicious aim at ruining Chinese society. He felt that it was the smugglers and merchants who should be targeted. Zexu was able to convince the emperor, and was sent to the ports to stamp out all the smugglers and the dealers. 

Lin Zexu and the destruction of the British opium. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Zexu came to Guangzhou in 1839, and started a heavy offensive on different levels. First of all, he wrote an open letter to queen Victoria, in which he questioned the British support of the opium trade and its morality. Secondly, he had 1600 Chinese dealers arrested and tens of thousands of opium pipes destroyed. Last but not least, he demanded that all the foreign opium traders exchanged their opium for Chinese tea immediately. 


When most of them didn’t follow these orders, Zexu confiscated their goods. 2,6 million pounds (20,000 chests) were taken, including the merchandise that was still on British ships in the port. He destroyed everything by mixing it with salt and lime and then sinking it into the sea. Then he expelled the unwilling British ships to the port of Hong Kong. 

First Opium War

According to Zexu, the ships had been anchored in Chinese waters, but the British claimed that the goods had been confiscated in international waters. They saw this as a violation of international treaties and the free market economy. After a skirmish between British merchant ships and Chinese war ships in November, 1839, a heated debate erupted in the British Parliament. It was decided with a small majority that Brittain would declare war on the Chinese. 


It took until June of 1840 before the British fleet arrived at Guangzhou (that’s how fast things like that went in those days). This was the beginning of the First Opium War – a humiliating conflict for the Chinese. The Imperial army was no match for the British ships, armed with the most advanced technology of its day. After two years of British bombardments on Chinese ports, lost battles and conquered cities, the Chinese saw no other option than to surrender. Dozens of Imperial generals commited suicide out of shame. 


The Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Nankin (Nanjing), 1842.

The first Opium War ended with the Treaty of Nankin (Nanjing), which the Chinese signed at gunpoint. It stated that Hong Kong was to be given to Great-Brittain; that the Chinese were to pay huge reperation costs to the Brits; that five new trading ports were to be opened, where British merchants were allowed to reside and work; that these traders did not have to live according to Chinese rule, but according to British rule and that no other country would be favored over Great-Brittain when trading with the Chinese. And Zexu? He was exiled by the Emperor. 

Second Opium War

In the following decaded, the British opium trade in China thrived. Even more people got hooked to the treacherous stuff. But the British Empire felt that trad with the Chinese could be opened up more – forcefully, if needed. When a Chinese crew of a British ship was arrested by Imperial forces, the British used the event to declare war to the Chinese again. This time, the French, who also had a skirmish with China, also declared war on them. 


When, after four years of fighting, Beijing was conquered by Western troops and the Emperor’s Summer Palace was plundered and destroyed, he had to flee and the Chinese had to surrender once more. In the second treaty, another eleven ports were opened up to trade, the opium import was completely legalized and Christian missionaries also got their foot between the door. The war opened up trade with the Empire, but also left the Chinese agrieved and penniless (and many of them addicted, too). 


Many Chinese still visit the ruins of the Old Summer Palace, which was destroyed and plundered by British and French troops in 1860.

Century of Humiliation 

For the Chinese, the Opium Wars are the start of what they’ve dubbed the Century of Humiliation. For the first time since the conquering by the Mongolians, the mighty Chinese empire was forced to its knees by a foreign army. The political turmoil, the addiction problems and the surrender of the mighty port Hong Kong that followed, left a deep scar on the Chinese sense of pride. 


The Century of Humiliation is also a historical framework often referred to by the Chinese president Xi Jinping, in order to instill a sense of Chinese nationalism. In this paradigm, the century started with the Treaty of Nankin. No wonder his government is fighting so fiercely to get Hong Kong back under Chinese law; it goes much deeper than most people realize. And to think that this entire conflict started with drug trafficking. 

Sources: New York Times/ Asia Pacific Curriculum/ Wikipedia

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