What caused the First Opium War?

By the 1830s, opium was causing severe social and economic problems in China – but when the emperor targeted the trade in 1838, the British responded in a surprising way. Stephen Platt traces the events that led to the First Opium War and the beginning of the end of imperial China

Engraving depicting Chinese opium smokers in a saloon

By the 19th century, opium smoking had become a major problem in China. Use – and, correspondingly, supply – of the drug had expanded rapidly over the previous century, despite efforts by various rulers to quash the trade. From 1773, most opium in China was imported by British traders, and by 1838 some 40,000 chests – around 2,500 tonnes – were arriving in Chinese ports each year. The Daoguang Emperor decided it was time to act.

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The opium trade in China had long been illegal, though enforcement of that law was negligible. Trafficking was largely conducted by British and Indian smugglers who carried the drug to China’s coast; Chinese criminal guilds and corrupt officials then handled inland commerce. It was a cosy and profitable trade for those involved, and enormous fortunes were made on both sides – at the expense of the addicts in China, of course. If one could ignore those unfortunates – and most British did – it might seem, as the Scottish opium baron William Jardine wrote in 1830, “the safest, and most Gentlemanlike speculation that I am aware of”.

No one profited more from this trade than the East India Company, which produced opium on a vast scale in Bengal for sale to China by middlemen such as Jardine. By the late 1830s, opium had eclipsed all other exports from India, and it seemed to many that the economy of British India could not survive without it. Opium also effectively paid for all of the tea the British bought from China. That tea was subject to a heavy tax back home, so the British government had an indirect stake in the traffic, too.


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China’s emperor had long opposed opium on moral grounds, but the final straw in his decision to suppress it was that the trade appeared to be draining China of its silver supply. As Chinese silver flowed into the coffers of foreign drug dealers, the metal became more scarce in China and thus more expensive. This caused a crisis, because taxes were assessed in fixed quotas of silver, which peasants had to pay by converting their small-denomination copper currency into silver at market rates. As silver’s value went up, their taxes effectively rose as well – in some places by 70% or more. China’s economy spiralled into a depression, and in 1838 fear of widespread social unrest finally drove the emperor to act…


Opium dispute, 1838–39: The Chinese perspective

Opium threatened public order and wreaked havoc in the economy

The man charged with enacting the emperor’s decree was Lin Zexu, a legendarily incorruptible minister of the Qing dynasty. Lin was one of his country’s strongest critics of opium – indeed, a statue of him now stands in New York City’s Chinatown, bearing a plaque reading: ‘Pioneer in the War against Drugs’. In 1837 he had orchestrated a local suppression campaign in central China that greatly impressed the Daoguang Emperor, so in 1838 he named Lin an imperial commissioner, authorised to act in the emperor’s name. Lin was sent to the southern port of Canton, where the British conducted their trade, to put an end to the opium problem for good.

When Lin arrived in Canton in early 1839, he got straight to work. He quickly arrested Chinese drug dealers and corrupt officials, and plastered the city with proclamations demanding that users surrender their smoking equipment to be destroyed. Judging that the British bore at least as much blame for China’s opium problem as the domestic scofflaws did, Lin also issued orders that all British merchants must immediately surrender their opium stocks for destruction.

As Lin saw it, this was a simple and clear-cut moral campaign. Opium threatened China’s public order and corrupted everyone who came into contact with it. The smuggling trade was wreaking havoc in the economy. There was simply no possible justification for allowing the trade to continue. At the height of his campaign against opium, Lin wrote a letter to Queen Victoria in which he chastised her for letting her subjects sell the drug in China. Everything the Chinese sold to the British, he told her, was beneficial – tea, silk, pottery and so on. “By what principle of reason, then,” he asked the queen, “should these foreigners send in return a poisonous drug, which involves in destruction those very natives of China?”

Though there is no evidence that Queen Victoria ever read the letter, a copy was brought home by a British merchant, printed in The Times newspaper in the summer of 1840, and became famous among western critics of the opium trade.

Demanding destruction

Since 1760, the British had been confined to trading at just one port in the empire’s far south, Canton, in order to keep them confined and to restrict their contact with ordinary Chinese people. Even there, they weren’t allowed into the city proper (which, in the early 19th century, was the third-largest in the world) but rather had to make do with a small trading compound encompassing under five hectares at the edge of a river outside Canton’s city walls.

Lin Zexu had never before interacted with foreigners, and he held the British in rather low esteem – as did the emperor. Perhaps because of his poor opinion of the British, Lin expected quick acquiescence to his demands – but at first nothing happened. After his orders were delivered requiring that the British hand over their opium, they did not produce anything.

In fact, the opium itself was not actually in Canton but on ships that the merchants had scattered to distant ports, so there was no way for Lin to forcibly seize their drugs. Furious at the merchants’ refusal to heed his orders, he took a further step, announcing that none of the British could leave Canton until all of their opium was surrendered. He removed all Chinese servants and employees from the foreign trading compound, and surrounded it with a cordon of soldiers.

That seemed to do the trick. Within a couple of days, Charles Elliot – chief superintendent of British trade in China – intervened, and arranged for the merchants to hand over all of their opium to Lin Zexu. It took six weeks to gather all stocks of the drug – the ships carrying it had to be called back from locations as far away as Singapore and Manila. Once assembled, it comprised a fantastic amount: 20,283 chests containing more than 1300 tonnes of the raw drug.

Over the course of three weeks in June 1839, Lin Zexu made a grand show of destroying all of the opium and flushing it out to sea. As he saw it, his moral campaign at Canton had clearly triumphed. The merchants had caved in to his demands and surrendered more opium than he could possibly have expected.

With the destruction of the opium, Lin considered the matter to be settled. He reported to the emperor that the British merchants were now chastened. No one had resisted. When confronted with the emperor’s authority, “naturally they were cowed into submission”. In addition, to show sympathy for the British opium dealers who had surrendered all of their capital, he recommended that the emperor show benevolence by giving them a small gift of tea to make up for their losses. That, he felt, would mark the end of the episode.


Opium Dispute, 1838–39: The British perspective

The government discovered it was on the hook for £2,000,000 of opium

Charles Elliot, however, saw things differently. The lone British official in China, Elliot held an ambiguous position – chief superintendent of trade – that made him responsible for the British merchants without giving him any actual power over them. To his credit, he was no admirer of the opium trade, which he considered immoral and disgraceful, though he also acknowledged (with regret) how important it was to the economy of the empire.

The opium trade was a dirty secret from which the British government tried to distance itself. Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, had given Elliot clear instructions that any British people who got into trouble for violating China’s laws (meaning opium dealers) should suffer the consequences and would receive no support from home. If a level-headed superintendent had followed those instructions, Lin Zexu’s crackdown in 1839 would have entailed a relatively small number of British opium dealers losing their wares (and perhaps going bankrupt), but that would have been the end of the matter.

But Elliot was not an entirely level-headed man. Nervous and highly strung, he was given to occasionally impulsive actions that one merchant described as “Elliot’s mad freaks”. He had spent much of his time in China worrying about the possibility of a violent collision between the opium dealers and the Chinese government – and was fearful that he, as superintendent, would somehow be blamed for it. When Lin Zexu imposed his lockdown of the foreign compound in Canton, Elliot panicked. The collision he feared, it seemed, was finally happening.

The merchants themselves were phlegmatic. They had previously weathered threats from officials that never turned into anything serious; after all, the trade at Canton was just as important to China as it was to Britain, and nobody wanted to see it interrupted for long, so they weren’t concerned for their own safety. Elliot, however, got it into his head that if they did not follow Lin’s orders immediately, the Chinese would start chopping off the traders’ heads. Envisioning the slaughter of the entire British population at Canton on his watch, Elliot felt he had to make the merchants comply – but he had no power over them, so how could he do that?

Elliot’s bizarre solution – for which he had absolutely no authorisation – was to buy all of their opium on behalf of the British government. The dealers knew that the drug market in China might never recover, and that their opium might be unsellable in the future – and suddenly Charles Elliot was offering to buy it all at full price. They quickly got him to sign notes promising British government payment for the entire season’s worth of opium – those 20,283 chests, valued at £2,000,000 – which, with his signature, all became crown property. The merchants revelled; as one of their newspapers put it: “the health of the young and lovely queen of England has been drunk, in flowing cups, on Her Majesty being at the present moment the largest holder of opium on record”.


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Aftermath of the deal

Even as Lin Zexu took stock of his seemingly effortless victory at Canton, Elliot was writing to Palmerston, accusing Lin of threatening violence against the merchants and demanding a war fleet to protect them. His demand was accompanied by the astonishing news that the British government was now on the hook for £2,000,000-worth of opium – and the drug merchants wanted their money. Certain that parliament would never provide those funds, Palmerston convinced the cabinet that Britain should make China pay.

And so a war was launched with the initial aim of forcing China to pay for the opium Lin Zexu destroyed. In 1840, Britain sent an expeditionary force to China, and by the time the war ended in 1842, Britain was demanding not just payment for the opium but also that several Chinese ports open to international trade, and that Hong Kong be ceded as a British colony.

British supporters of the war insisted that it was a point of national honour, and nothing to do with drugs. Critics easily saw through that bluster but proved unable to stop the war. When a motion in parliament intended to prevent the conflict failed by just nine votes, future prime minister William Gladstone – who supported the motion – wrote in his diary that he was “in dread of the judgements of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China”.

In the long run, critics of the conflict would have the last word. As The Spectator declared angrily in 1840, no matter how Britain’s government ministers tried to paint the war with China as a respectable one, “do what they can – gloss it over as they may – THE OPIUM WAR is the name by which history will hand it down”.

Stephen Platt is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and author of Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (Atlantic, 2018)

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This article was taken from issue 17 of BBC World Histories magazine