8/21/09 - more opium

In today's excerpt - the Chinese attempted to stop the British from smuggling opium into China, but the British used armed force to reestablish their opium trading rights in the first Opium War, which ended with China's humiliation in the Treaty of Nanking and the establishment of Hong Kong as a major trading center:

"[In the early 1800s] the Chinese authorities had begun to jail large numbers of local opium smugglers, and brought trade [with Britain] to a standstill. In March 1839, [Canton commissioner] Lin Tse-hsu increased the pressure by making foreign merchants criminally liable for any illicit shipments. Shortly thereafter, Lin ordered the public beheading of Chinese opium dealers under the eyes of horrified Europeans and then held all the resident foreigners—English, American, Parsi and French—hostage in their factories for several weeks until they agreed to turn over more than twenty thousand chests of opium. Only after Lin's forces had destroyed the huge haul were the foreigners released. ...

"Several months later, in August 1839, following the murder of a local villager by a drunk English seamen, Lin cut off food and water to the British naval forces and demanded that the sailor be handed over for trial. [British Superintendent of Trade Charles] Elliot refused and instead submitted the defendant to a British jury of merchants, who meted out a fine and a six-month sentence, to be served in England. (When the sailor arrived in England, he was set free on the grounds that the jury, which included James Matheson, had been improperly constituted.) At about noon on September 4, [missionary Karl] Gutzlaff, under orders from Elliot, presented letters to the commanders of two Chinese junks off Kowloon and informed them that if supplies were not forthcoming within thirty minutes, their ships would be sunk. No food or water arrived ,and HMS Volage fired on the vessels.

"In retaliation, Lin ordered that all trade with Britain be forever banned, and that English ships would be fired on.

"Meanwhile [wealthy British trader] William Jardine and other veterans of Lin's blockade of the Canton factories made their way back to England. On arrival, they asked the cabinet of the Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne to demand an apology from the Chinese and negotiate a more 'equitable' treaty that would open several other ports to the West. ...

"Jardine and his allies further recommended that their demands be backed up with naval force. All that remained was a means to finance the war. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the war minister, supplied it: have the Chinese pay reparations. Melbourne dispatched a force consisting of a dozen men-of-war and several thousand marines that arrived in China in June 1840.

"The first Opium War had started. It would not end until 1842 and the infamous Treaty of Nanking, which awarded Britain monetary recompense, eliminated the [Chinese traders'] monopoly, set Chinese export and import tariffs at a low rate, and opened Canton and four other treaty ports (Shanghai, Amoy, Foochow and the island of Ningbo). In these ports, Britons had the privilege of extraterritoriality (immunity from Chinese law) and were governed by British consuls. No mention was made of opium, whose continued importation was tacitly understood by both sides. To this day, the humiliation of the Treaty of Nanking burns in China's national consciousness. That not one American in a hundred has heard of it does not augur well for Sino-American relations in the twenty-first century.

"The English sought, in addition, a permanent colony. ... Elliot, a former naval officer, coveted Hong Kong's superb harbor, and on his own initiative had its transfer written into the treaty. Even before the treaty was signed, [influential British trader James] Matheson moved his partnership's headquarters to Hong Kong, beginning the island's and the firm's dual ascent to prosperity."


William J. Bernstein


A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World


Grove Press and imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.


Copyright 2008 by William J. Bernstein


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment