Murat Can Bilgincan reporting

The Opium War

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On February 20, 1849, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Palmerston, declared war on China through his dispatch addressed to the Minister of the Emperor of China. In his dispatch, Palmerston mentioned “injuries inflicted by Chinese Authorities upon British Subjects resident in China” and the ban on opium trade as the chief causes of the 1st Opium War. (Cheng, 123) The 1st Opium War was a turning point in Chinese history, since the Chinese Empire accepted the superiority of the West, as a result of the War. The dispatch implied that the main objective of the war was to restore the pre-ban regulations regarding the opium trade. However, some parts of Palmerston’s declaration of war, the consequences that the pre-ban regulations had on China and certain clauses in the Treaty of Nanjing present us with strong evidence to question Palmerston’s sincerity. Was his main concern to restore the pre-ban regulations or did he have far-reaching goals in mind? By analyzing Palmerston’s declaration of war, the consequences of the pre-ban regulations as described in two palace memorials, and the Treaty of Nanjing, this blog post will argue that Palmerston was not interested in restoring the pre-ban regulations. Instead, he implemented a foreign policy that would shatter the Chinese arrogance, which Lord Macartney had been exposed to, and one that would allow the British Empire to initiate the colonization of China.

After the Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu prohibited British merchants from trading opium, Elliot, the British Superintendent of Foreign Trade, fled to Macao in June 1839 to ask for Palmerston’s help. Initially, Palmerston was not responsive; he believed that the merchants should obey Chinese law. However, with the influence of the intense lobbying efforts by the British textiles sector, Palmerston decided to support the British merchants in China. On October 18, 1839, Palmerston notified Elliot that the Royal Navy would blockade Canton and Pearl River in the spring of 1840. The expeditionary force presented Palmerston’s dispatch to the Emperor. In his dispatch, Palmerston explains that the main reasons behind the blockade were:

“to demand from the Emperor satisfaction and redress for injuries inflicted

by Chinese Authorities upon British subjects resident in China, and for insults

offered by those same Authorities to the British Crown.” (Cheng, 123)

Palmerston adds that China and Great Britain had maintained trade ties for hundreds of years and that the violent outrage against the British traders was despicable. Although the Queen of England respected the laws of foreign states, she could not allow her subjects to be abused. Later, Palmerston makes a statement that shakes his credibility: “If [a government] enforces that Law on Foreigners, it is bound to enforce it also upon its own Subjects.” (Cheng, 125) As “Annexed Laws on Banning Opium, July 1839” suggests, Chinese opium traders were also subject to harsh punishment during the ban on opium. Even assuming that Palmerston had not been informed about the treatment of Chinese opium traders, stating that states cannot make laws targeted at foreigners is a weak argument. Although this has not been the case here, judicial systems have targeted natives and foreigners independently.

Another weak argument that the Secretary of State for the British Empire makes is that the Chinese government has applied a double standard by disregarding “the transgressions of its own officers”. (Cheng, 125) The first clause of the “Annexed Laws on Banning Opium” contradicts Palmerston’s statement: “Any officer or soldier on the coast station who shall receive bribes to connive at opium being brought in…. shall immediately upon conviction be strangled.” (Cheng, 120) Once again, even assuming that Palmerston was misinformed on the topic of punishment, how can the British merchants’ breaching the law be justified with some Chinese government officials’ breaching the same law? Both parties are to be punished and the sequence of the punishments is irrelevant. Through such weak arguments, Palmerston attempts to convince the Emperor to restore the pre-ban regulations where foreign and native subjects were treated equally with regards to trade law.

If Palmerston was sincere in his dispatch, and did not have a hidden agenda, why would he aim at restoring the pre-ban state? Two palace memorialists address this question. In 1836, Xu Naiji, sub-director of the Court of Sacrificial Worship in Peking wrote a memorial acknowledging the evils of opium but supporting its legalization. Xu, “a 1809 jinshi from Renhe County, Zhejiang”, analyzes the effects of the opium trade like an economist. (Cheng, 111) He observes that Chinese merchants purchased opium with considerable amounts of silver, instead of trading it with a Chinese good. Since the chances of being caught were higher for Chinese middlemen who would bring goods with them to the island where they met with the British opium traders, silver was the preferred medium of exchange. As a result, “the annual waste of money somewhat exceeds ten million of taels.” (Cheng, 112) British merchants did not buy Chinese goods with the millions of taels that left China as a result of the opium trade. Therefore, the British silver reserves increased. China’s depleting levels of silver signaled a balance of payments crisis where the Chinese would not be able to pay off their debt due to the lack of specie. Such economic instability would increase the risk of political instability and reduce China’s power as an empire. Furthermore, this was not the only negative impact that opium trade had on China. The increased demand for silver caused inflation: “a tael of pure silver exchanged for nearly about 1000 coined cash, but of late years the same sum has borne the value of 1200 or 1300 cash”. (Cheng, 113) Inflation was not only a major concern for the opium traders but also for other sectors of business. For instance, in the salt agency, inflation implied higher duties. Salt was sold in cash, but the duties on salt were paid in silver. Since the value of cash diminished with inflation, the salt traders’ incomes automatically decreased. The situation was the same for peasants. Therefore, restoring the pre-ban state would weaken the Chinese economy and strengthen the British economy on the contrary.

A vice-president of the Board of Rites and sub-chancellor of the Grand Secretariat, Zhu Zun, wrote a memorial in 1836 that concentrated on the negative social implications of the opium trade. Opium caused the addict’s health to deteriorate, his income to decrease and his productivity to diminish. Peasants, bureaucrats and soldiers were among opium addicts. The Chinese campaign against the Yao rebels, in 1832, exemplifies the loss of productivity caused by opium:

“In the army sent to Yongzhou, on that occasion, great numbers of the

soldiers were opium smokers; so that although their numerical force was

large, there was hardly any strength to be found among them.” (Cheng, 118)

The soldiers were not able to fight in their full capacity due their addiction. What can be more threatening for the national security of an empire? Zhu emphasizes the word “people” as he says, “in the people lies the very foundation of the empire”. (Cheng, 117) If we extrapolate the dire situation of the soldiers to the Chinese society, we can easily realize how unstable that “foundation” had become. Hence, it is difficult to dispute Zhu’s claim that foreigners brought opium into China in order to weaken the central government. By restoring the pre-ban regulations, Palmerston would guarantee the continued weakening of the Chinese Empire.

As Zhu Zun and Xu Naiji’s memorials suggest, restoring the pre-ban state would weaken both the Chinese economy and the Chinese society, while strengthening the British economy and allowing Britain to manipulate China. Therefore, by restoring the pre-ban regulations, Great Britain would not only assure the safety of her subjects in China and protect their economic interests, but also move significantly closer to achieving far-reaching goals, such as making China dependent on the British Empire. The main objective of the lobbyists who influenced Palmerston in declaring the First Opium War was to protect the interests of the British textile merchants, since they were hired by this particular sector. However, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of a colonial empire must have had more in his mind than simply to achieve immediate goals. The first piece of evidence pointing at this direction comes from Palmerston’s dispatch. Right after explaining the nature of the British blockade, he adds that the Brititish army “shall take possession of some convenient part of the Chinese territory…. until…. the satisfaction of the British government [is reached]”. (Cheng, 126) Since the dispatch articulates Palmerston’s intentions to restore the pre-ban regulations, why would it be necessary to occupy Chinese land, in addition to blockading their harbors? Palmerston’s ambitions became apparent once more when he dismissed Elliot for “failing to extract better terms from the Chinese”. (Spence, 158) In a proposed treaty that was not ratified by either side, China offered Hong Kong, six million US dollars in indemnities, direct official contact and the rapid reopening of Canton trade, to Great Britain. Such a generous offer that went far beyond restoring the pre-ban regulations could not satisfy Palmerston’s appetite.

Finally, in 1842, the Secretary of State achieved both his immediate and far-reaching goals through the Treaty of Nanjing. Articles 1 and 4 solved the problems that Palmerston had presented in his dispatch as the chief causes of the War. These articles guaranteed the security of British subjects and required the Chinese government to pay the value of the confiscated opium. As we have seen through Xu and Zhu’s memorials, the pre-ban state that Articles 1 and 4 restored would pave the way for Britain’s achieving its far-reaching goals. These goals have been directly addressed in Articles 2, 3 and 5. Article 2 requires the opening of five new Chinese ports for British residence; Article 3 states that Hong Kong has become a part of the British Empire, and Article 5 obliges the Chinese government to abolish the Canton Cohong monopoly. These three articles increased the British control over China tremendously by allowing many more British people to live in and around China, and by granting the British inhabitants a stronger voice in Chinese trade. Ironically, opium was only mentioned in a single article, indicating that the British motivation to start the War did not come from the urgency to achieve immediate goals.

Ever since Macartney’s audience with the Chinese Emperor in 1793, Great Britain had been attempting to gain “rights of diplomatic residence in Peking”, to end “the restrictive Canton trading system”, to “open new ports to international commerce” and to fix “equitable tariffs”. (Spence, 122) The Amherst mission in 1815 had the same goals as the Macartney mission and it failed against the rude Qing reception, just like Macartney had. In 1834, the first Superintendent of Trade in China, Lord Napier, sought similar goals. His attempt shared the dire fate of the previous missions. When Palmerston came to office, he was fully aware of this embarrassing legacy. He was being insincere and political as he wrote his dispatch to the Chinese Emperor, which indicated that the chief objective of the War was to restore the pre-ban regulations. Interestingly, our analysis of the possible motivations for returning to the pre-ban regulations stresses the existence of the far-reaching goal of dominating China. The pre-ban regulations allowed Britain to make progress towards achieving this goal. Palmerston’s mentioning the annexation of Chinese territory in his dispatch and the articles of the Treaty of Nanjing that go far beyond restoring the pre-ban regulations display Palmerston’s commitment to rapidly dominate China. Therefore, the Treaty of Nanjing that satisfies all of Macartney’s requests did not come into being due to Palmerston’s opportunist character. The opportunity brought about by the dramatic Chinese defeat allowed Palmerston only to stretch the limits; he had planned the rest.



Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2nd Ed. New York: Norton, 1999.

Pei-kai Cheng, Michael Lestz eds., with Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China: a Documentary Collection. New York: Norton, 1999.


Note: The original paper was written in 2008, for a Yale undergraduate history class taught by the eminent Prof. Jonathan Spence.


Author: bilgincan

Journalist & Filmmaker

One thought on “The Opium War

  1. You have failed to review any revisionist literature on the topic and so have produced a fairly outdated account on the Opium wars. Putting aside the fact that the war started in 1839, not 1849, you need to consider the accounts of Julia Lovell, David Keith Schoppa, and others alike, as you present your findings without giving any suggestion to other accounts.

    Furthermore you have taken several primary sources at face value, for example: ‘As Zhu Zun and Xu Naiji’s memorials suggest, restoring the pre-ban state would weaken both the Chinese economy and the Chinese society, while strengthening the British economy and allowing Britain to manipulate China’. You would find here ‘Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China
    Book by Frank Dikötter, Lars Peter Laamann, and Xun Zhou’ and interesting read, as they explicitly disprove the idea that China was dependent on the drug, or that the opium wars were actually the result of Opium consumption.

    Happy reading.

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