November 18, 2019
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For centuries, China had remained largely
aloof from the intrigues of world politics, but things were beginning to change, and what
started as a dispute over trading rights, would bring about a full-scale war, which was to
then bring about a huge influx of foreign influence and herald the beginning of a “century
of humiliation”. The Middle Kingdom would never be the same again, and it all started
with two highly addictive and lucrative goods: tea and opium. I’m Indy Neidell, welcome to “Battlefields”. Regular trade between China and Europe had
been ongoing since the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th Century. As European economic
power expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, Chinese goods like silk and porcelain became
highly fashionable in the cities and courts of the West, and trade in these products was
very lucrative. In Britain, however, there was no Chinese product which created a greater
demand than tea, for which the British developed an insatiable appetite. There were two problems with that, though. First, European
merchants could not directly access the Chinese market, but were restricted to a small merchant’s
quarter outside the city of Canton. They dealt through Chinese middlemen known as the Cohong,
who charged high prices in order to cover heavy taxes. Second, Chinese interest in European
goods was limited, and payment was only accepted in silver. To the British, who were on the
gold standard and had to purchase silver from other countries in order to trade with China,
this created a huge trade deficit. How then could the British trade for these
goods? Well, there was one crop, abundant in British-controlled India, which might solve
the problem. Opium, a narcotic derived from the resin of the opium poppy, had been known
in China since at least the 8th Century AD, initially being used for medicinal purposes
and as an aphrodisiac. When the Portuguese first introduced tobacco from North America, many Chinese had started smoking the two drugs together recreationally. It became a popular
social pastime and by the late 18th Century, increasingly large amounts of opium, produced
by the British East India Company, were being shipped to China. The Chinese imperial government
tried to ban the opium trade several times, but the British were able to bypass these
laws with the help of smugglers and cooperative local authorities eager to exploit the demand. British companies flooded the black market
with thousands of tons of the drug during the 1830s receiving silver in return. The
number of Chinese opium addicts grew as large as 12 million, obviously a cause for concern.
In December 1838, the Daoguang Emperor sent commissioner Lin Zexu to Canton
to deal with the problem. Lin declared the death penalty would
be applied to anyone found importing or possessing opium. He also confiscated over 1000 tons
of opium (worth £2 million) following a blockade of the merchant’s quarter. He then had the
opium destroyed in May 1839. The British merchants demanded compensation for their seized goods, which, Superintendent Charles Elliot assured them, would be provided by the British government. But that government was unwilling to compensate
the merchants for the seized opium, believing that the responsibility should lie with the
Chinese. There was a fierce, prolonged public debate on the matter. A young William Gladstone
said, “…a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover
this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know.” But profitable interests won out
over moral outrage at the “infamous and atrocious traffic”, and parliament voted in April 1840
to send a fleet to China carrying Britain’s demands: Compensation for the confiscated
opium, an end to the Cohong monopoly, and the right to occupy an island off the coast
to use as a base. By June, the expeditionary force had arrived
on the Chinese coast. It blockaded the Pearl River before heading north to bring the demands
to the Emperor. On July 6th, the British captured the island of Zhoushan near the
mouth of the Yangtze, virtually annihilating Chinese defences in a nine-minute barrage
after local officials refused to surrender. They headed further north in August, blockading
more ports. In battle after battle, the dire state of
the Chinese military had become clear: Soldiers were equipped with bows, spears, and swords,
and the occasional matchlock musket. Military units, scattered across a vast empire, would
take many months to march to where they were needed. Chinese coastal defences were crumbling
stone forts, and the small war junks simply weren’t equipped to fight the battleships
and frigates of the Royal Navy. Also, local authorities and military leaders were unwilling
to bear news of defeats to Beijing, and the Emperor instead received fabricated reports
of heroic victories. Seeing the whole business with Britain as a mere sideshow, many refused
to acknowledge that there was a war on at all. Indeed, when the British fleet first
arrived, Daoguang was informed that it was simply an unusually large flotilla of opium
smugglers. The British attacked two forts guarding the
mouth of the Pearl River, Chuanbi and Tycocktow. Fighting lasted less than an hour, with over
500 killed on the Chinese side and a mere 38 wounded among the British. The battle of
Chuanbi also marked the debut of the first steam-powered iron warship Nemesis, whose
devastating onslaught was described in a book from 1845: “The very first rocket fired from the Nemesis was seen to enter the large junk against which
it was directed, near that of the admiral, and almost the instant afterwards it blew
up with a terrific explosion, launching into eternity every soul on board, and pouring
forth its blaze like the mighty rush of fire from a volcano.” Several more battles followed in February and March 1841, with the British seizing more
towns and forts on the Pearl River, putting them in a position to bombard Canton itself
by the end of May. Local officials and merchants paid the British six million dollars to withdraw. Following the withdrawal from Canton, the
fleet headed north again, occupying several cities between August and October 1841. Campaigns
the following year captured Chapu and Shanghai, then still a small town. The final major battle
of the war took place at Zhenjiang [Jen-jiahng], where the British assault destroyed much of
the city and killed many of the men defending it. With the road to Nanjing open, and with
it control of the entire Yangtze region, the Chinese government became fully aware of how
serious the situation was, and sued for peace. On August 29, 1842, Britain and China signed
the Treaty of Nanking. Among other things, China agreed to pay 20 million silver dollars
in indemnities, abolish the Cohong monopoly, adhere to fixed customs duties, open five
ports to foreign trade (including Canton and Shanghai), and cede the island of Hong Kong
to Britain. This was the first of many “Unequal Treaties” that China was to sign
over the following decades. The 1850s saw Britain and France fight China in a second
Opium War, which culminated in the burning of the Emperor’s Summer Palace in Beijing, fully legalised the opium trade and opened yet more ports to foreign merchants. The one-sided victories that the technologically
superior British forces had achieved drove home the need to modernise, and shook the
public’s faith in the ability of the Qing Dynasty to defend China from a foreign invasion. The huge influx of Westerners in the second half of the 19th Century was to have a profound
influence on the Chinese way of life. All these factors would lead to the Boxer Rebellion
and the overthrow of imperial rule in the 20th Century. But that’s all story for another
time. In any case, while it might initially have been seen as a relative sideshow at the
time, both in London and Beijing, it should be no surprise that the first Opium War is
now widely regarded as the beginning of modern Chinese history. The Opium War, though, wasn’t the first
time that century that Britain crushed their enemy with their naval power. You can find
out all about Admiral Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar up here. A battle that would lay
the groundwork to centuries of Great Britain’s naval superiority. So what do you think? Was the forceful opening
of China an inevitable consequence of rising European Imperialism and China’s military
weakness, or might things have gone differently if the opium dispute had taken a different
course? Let us know in the comments. Stay tuned for next week when we’ll look at what happened in China during
the second half of the 19th century. Don’t forget to subscribe to It’s History for more
historical action every week.

Tony wyaad

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