How the Opium Wars Worked

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Katie: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy. And as most of you know, Katie and I love Victorian Literature and 19th Century British novels and poetry. And we were talking about it recently, the character of the Opium Addict or the Opium eater -

Katie: There's so many of them.Sara: Pops up a lot, doesn't he?

Katie: And for awhile, I thought that was just sort of the easy thing to go to. Like, I need an extra character, who should I put in? I know, the Opium eater. But then I realized it was an actual problem in British society at the time.Sara: It was a major problem in Victorian England. There were a lot of opium addicts. But it turns out that is nothing compared to the problem the Victorians forced on the Chinese at the same time.

Katie: So let's talk about opium history, and how it got to China and Britain in the first place. Opium is great for relieving tension and pain, not that we're recommending this, because we're absolutely not, but that's why it became popular. The ancient Assyrians used it as a pain killer. So did first century Greeks. And there don't seem to be any addictions in those old stories, and that may be because of how they were taking it, which was in pills or added to drinks. Turkish and Arab traders brought opium to China in the sixth or seventh century, but the 17th century marks when we learned how to smoke it. Helpful westerners had seen Indians smoking tobacco in pipes, and thought, "Hey, why don't we add a little opium to the tobacco?" Realized it was fantastic for what they were looking for, and quickly got addicted and brought it over to China. And the Portuguese started making a killing bringing Opium from India to China. IN the 1700s, the west is using opium, laudanum, and paregoric in those wonderful quackery kind of patent medicines. And in 1729, it's a huge problem in China, and the emperor at the time outlaws the sale and the smoking of opium, but it doesn't end. And we're going to talk a little bit about why and how it got there, which would be thanks to the British.Sara: So the British have a very unequal trade relationship with the Chinese, and part of this has to do with the Manchu emperors believing the middle kingdom already had everything it needed, they don't need to import stuff from the British. But that's a pretty valid belief in a way. On the one hand you have the British who are obsessed with tea - they can't get enough tea from China - and Columbia University actually estimates that the average Londoner spent five percent of the total household budget on tea.

Katie: Which is a lot more than I spend on my Earl Gray.Sara: Yeah, that's a pretty hefty price. And it's not just tea. They can't get enough of the china ware, the spices.

Katie: Silk.Sara: Candy, silk. Meanwhile, the British, the goods they have to offer are manufactured items which the Chinese dismiss as toys. They don't really need them. And then a lot of woolen goods, and most people in China don't need these hefty wool sweaters and such from Britain. So you have this really imbalanced trade agreement where the British are importing tons of stuff from China, and because they can't trade, they have to pay in silver.

Katie: So all of their silver is going to China, and China's not getting anything from them. And so the Brits again have been trying for years to open the Chinese market, and everything they bring over, the Chinese aren't interested in, nor are they really interested in dealing with them. And they have super strict rules about trade for foreigners. Foreign factories are only allowed in Canton, for example, only certain ports are open, they can't even enter the cities that they're in. So if you're a foreigner trying to break into the Chinese market, it's just not going to happen for you at this particular time. So enter opium, which is how the British finally figure how to wiggle into the market because there is a growing demand, and the supply comes from an English colony, India.

Sara: So they even go as far as offering free samples out, trying to get people addicted to opium so that China gets this insatiable thirst for opium.

Katie: Tsk tsk to the British.Sara: Yeah, and it really gets out of hand quickly.

Katie: Addiction is a huge problem. by 1773, the British surpassed all other sellers; they're the leading suppliers to the Chinese, and by 1796, the emperor outlaws importing and cultivating opium as well, because it's, again, a huge problem and they're trying their best to stop it.Sara: So how did the British get around these laws though?

Katie: Well, the East India Company is of course not allowed to carry opium since it's illegal, so they hire these country traders who sell opium to the smugglers in China, collect gold and silver for it, and then hand it over to the East India Company, who then takes the gold and silver and buys things in China that they can sell for profit in England, which is pretty slick of the East India Company.

Sara: Yeah.

Katie: So the trade imbalance has now shifted because of this growing demand for opium.

Sara: So it's China that's depleting their silver stores.

Katie: Right. And so China decides that it not only has to save its people from opium, it also needs to learn how to control the Brits in their country.

Sara: So in 1839, the emperor designates Commissioner Lin Zexu - and this is going to be our introduction to pronunciation warnings. We got a little help from a colleague, but -

Katie: We're telling you right now some of these pronunciations may not be correct.

Sara: Feel free to send us kind emails if you have pronunciation corrections. Anyway, Commissioner Lin is appointed by the emperor as the imperial commissioner, and he's authorized to do whatever is necessary to end the traffic of opium. And he does some things you might expect like rounding up the opium addicts and forcing them into treatment, punishing domestic drug dealers, and the domestic drug dealers were punished pretty steeply. But he also goes to Canton where he seizes the opium off of ships and dumps it into the sea. And this radical act happened at the same time as the murder of a Chinese villager by drunk sailors. All of this got tensions brewing.

Katie: And the British government won't hand over the sailors who killed the Chinese man to the Chinese government because they didn't trust the government, which of course makes the Chinese angry. So things aren't going well, and about the same time, Commissioner Lin says that China will completely cut off trade with Britain if the opium stuff doesn't happen. And in February 1840, the Brits decide to hell with it, that's the end of it, they're getting their military involved, and they're going to get in that market.

Sara: So Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, initiates war, and this is the first opium war in China. He wants full compensation for the opium dumped in the sea, but there's a problem with this war. China's at severe disadvantage because of the British gun power.

Katie: Right. And the British Royal Navy is absolutely fantastic. And the Chinese military simply isn't equipped or trained to be fighting against the sort of thing they're fighting against. In June 1840, 16 British warships show up at Hong Kong. A man named Charles Elliot starts negotiating for the Brits, and there's an agreement in January 1841, but both sides hate it, and neither one of them wants to go with it. And in May 1841, the British attack the walled city of Guangzhou, Canton, and get a six million dollar ransom. And the Cantonese attack them back. But again, the navy is simply too good, and the Chinese don't have an effective way to fight back. They're offering rewards for British heads, but it's just not happening. And the tricky British propaganda of the time was putting it across like this. That they weren't there to fight the Chinese people, they were just there to fight the Chinese government and the soldiers who abused the people.

Sara: Trying to leave the opium question out of it entirely.

Katie: Right, and there were some rifts in society that they could play off at the time.

Sara: Definitely. And there were also rifts in the British society about this war. I think Katie and I initially went into this thinking that the British people were all rah rah about the Opium War and trading with China, but that's not the case. A lot of people are against it, and they see it as something to be ashamed about, forcing opium, a drug that is illegal in England, on to the Chinese. It's denounced in Parliament by a young William Gladstone as an "unjust and iniquitous war." And he even accuses the Prime Minister of fighting a war to protect an infamous contraband traffic. And there's outrage on the pulpits and in the press and in America and England. Actually the outrage is so strong in America that a lot of the merchants there kind of back off from it, get out of the trade entirely.

Katie: Even though we'd been selling the Turkish stuff to China as well.

Sara: Yeah.

Katie: This is when we started to back off.

Sara: Commissioner Lin was also tr ying to push this moral argument. He wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, and it's uncertain if she even read this, but in it he was very frank, surprisingly frank for writing to Victoria. He writes, "The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say the great prophet made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people, even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscious?"

Katie: And I'm sure Victoria loved her people being called barbarians, but you can't underestimate the human cost of what was going on at the time.

Sara: Yeah.

Katie: The Chinese end up losing the war. Elliot's successor, Henry Pottinger, captures several of their cities including Shanghai, and at Nanjing they give in. And this is where the treaty of Nanjing is signed on August 19th, 1842. It's the first treaty ever signed by China with any European power. And it's the first of what's known as the unequal treaties, and there is a reason for that.

Sara: Beginning a century of such treaties.

Katie: Right. China gives Hong Kong to Britain. They also open more ports to British trade. They agree to equal official recognition and they pay an indemnity of 21 million dollars. Some of that was payment for the opium that Commissioner Lin had destroyed. And they also give the right of British citizens to be tried by British courts, and they lower tariffs.Sara: And this is an especially awful part. Other western countries quickly demand their own privileges after seeing this treaty.

Katie: Oh, absolutely. The U.S. and France are right in there.

Sara: So we want to be able to trade too, and everybody jumps in to get their piece of the pie.

Katie: To be part of the most favored nation clause, that's what everyone wants. And oddly, considering that this entire war is about opium, opium is not mentioned anywhere in this treaty, and this will come back to haunt us, as we'll see a little later. This treaty also sets up the treaty ports system, which means that in treaty ports, westerners weren't subject to China's laws. They could do their own thing, set up their own legal situation and pretty much do things however they wanted. The major treaty ports in China were Shanghai and Guangzhou. But however, this is the one thing the Chinese did keep. Foreigners still weren't allowed in the interior of China. So the first opium war is over, but the problems aren't over, because opium is still an issue.Sara: The question of opium isn't resolved in the treaty at all.

Katie: Right, trade is still an issue, and the Chinese are still very unhappy about having the British in their country, and the British are unhappy, because they still don't have all of the rights and privileges they would like.

Sara: They want more.Katie: Exactly. So a man named Chi Yang is put in place as imperial commissioner, and he believes in appeasement. So things run smoothly for awhile. But trade doesn't increase the way the British thought it would, and again, the opium thing still isn't settled.Sara: Yeah, you'd think with this sweet treaty they've worked out that everything would be more conducive to higher opium trade, but that doesn't happen.

Katie: No. And the question of whether foreigners should be allowed into the walled city of Guangzhou still isn't settled. After the treaty it was declared open, but it never happened because the Chinese are really resistant to letting the "barbarians" as they thought of them into their walled city. And the Cantonese finally promise the British they can come in in 1849, but they really aren't happy about it. And as 1849 approaches, the protests begin because no one wants the British in there. The British gets in, the Beijing court grants temporary entrance, but the Cantonese have won this round, and I can't help rooting for China at this point. Sara: And there's a lot of xenophobia in China. A lot of anti-foreign sentiment! And it only grows. And with the anti-foreign sentiment comes anti-government sentiment, and some of this ends up carrying into the Tai Ping Rebellion which is a radical political and religious upheaval that goes on from 1850-64, and Katie and I might want to talk about this some more later.

Katie: Right. So we we're not going to give too much away.Sara: We won't give too much away, but it's a pretty wild thing. It takes an estimate 20 million lives. And it permanently alters the Ching or Manchu Dynasty in the way that the Chinese government has worked for so long. But an interesting thing about the Tai Ping Rebellion is they're very anti-opium. It's actually a Christian rebellion. The leader believes that he's the son of God, which surprisingly that does not mean Jesus. He believes he's Jesus' younger brother, but he's very anti-opium, and all of the Tai Ping's credos are really Old Testament. It's not about new testament style forgiveness and such, it's anti-opium, anti-alcohol and tobacco, prostitution, foot binding. So this radical social and government change is happening, also leading up to the second opium war.

Katie: Right, so there's this huge social rift that's going on from 1850 to 1864, that's how long the Tai Ping Rebellion lasted. And the west steps in again and helps put the rebellion down because they're afraid that the China the Tai Ping were advocating would be even more resistant to western influences. So we're very good at looking after our own interests.Sara: And they're anti-opium.

Katie: Which, you know, really wouldn't help us with that whole trade.Sara: That's what this is all about at the end of the day.

Katie: And this is when the second opium war starts. You thought it was over, but it's not. In 1856, Chinese officials get on the ship Aero, which was Chinese owned but British registered, and they charge the crew with piracy and smuggling and lower the British flag. And the Brits want to get more trading rights in China anyway, so they basically use this incident to start the fight.Sara: And the French join forces with the British, using as their excuse the murder of a French missionary in the interior of China.

Katie: But it's really not about the missionary.Sara: No.

Katie: It's about -Sara: It's about the opium and the trading.

Katie: The Russians and the Americans get in on the game and send in their representatives, and military actions again China start in 1857. Guangzhou is occupied. The Dagu Fort is taken, and the Chinese are forced to sign the treaties of Tientsin, which call for residents in Beijing for foreign envoys travel in the interior, and freedom of movement for missionaries.Sara: As well as opening of the new ports.

Katie: And they're also forced to legalize the import of opium in 1858, which is just - I mean, not to be all judgy about history, but seriously?Sara: So the Chinese unsurprisingly refuse to ratify these treaties, which are even more unequal than the earlier ones.

Katie: So, in retaliation, the allies capture Beijing and plunder and burn one of the emperors' palaces, Yuanming Garden. So in 1860, the Chinese sign the Beijing Convention saying that they will in fact observe the treaties. And during this time, Russia has also maneuvered its way into a nice beneficial place to be by acting as China's buddy through these various negotiations, and China cedes to Russia the territory between the Usury River and the sea. So everyone but China gets what they want.

Sara: Yeah, so out of the second Opium War we end up with more foreign privileges, Christians being allowed to come in and evangelize, and a kind of threat to the moral and cultural values of China.

Katie: Right, because Confucianism was what they were observing at the time, and allowing someone to come in and threaten your moral and cultural values that way.

Sara: Not to mention the imperial rule by this point has just been battered. They have fallen every time when they come up against the British, so they're at a threat to forces from their own people.

Katie: And in case you're wondering what happened with opium, the trade routes just keep on keeping on as I put in my notes. We had figured out how to get morphine from opium in around 1804, and use it on soldiers during the Civil War and so end up with plenty of addicts of our own, and we figure out heroin in 1898, which quickly becomes very popular, and still is. But in the early 1900s, China starts to get control of opium trade, at least within its borders and the country signs the Ten Years Agreement with India in 1907, which basically said that China forbids the cultivation and consumption of opium, and India agrees to cease exporting it completely in ten years. So by 1917, we've pretty much stopped that.

Sara: Yeah, but by 1948, Burma gains independence, and they're all about producing opium, and this even goes into the beginning of communism in China. When the communists come to power in 1949, they stop all the opium business. Completely shut it down.

Katie: But it just moves elsewhere. In the 60s and 70s, that's when the golden triangle comes up, the boarder of Myanmar and Laos and Thailand. And the U.N. starts drug control program to limit activity in the area, but they just switch to meth, and the opium goes to Afghanistan instead.Sara: And we know about the wars there too, so opium just keeps on ravaging people across the centuries here.

Katie: And oddly some of the most popular articles on the HowStuffWorks health channel are the drug articles, so if you'd like to learn how meth words or crack cocaine or the dangers of using marijuana, come to our homepage at

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