The Opium Wars: The Substance That Started a Trade War

A Trade War Turns Hot

China is running a massive trade balance with a Western power based on consumer goods.

What was the logical economic and political solution? Require China to accept more imports from that power to level the imbalance. Sounds a lot like 2023, but we’re talking about 1839.

The Western power was Great Britain. The consumer good was tea. The British solution was forcing China to buy addictive drugs from other parts of the British Empire. When China tried to resist, the British accused them of restraining trade.

This was the First Opium War.

Trading Starts Between the United Kingdom and China

Western merchants had been trading with China by sea since the 17th century.

The British were relative latecomers to this trade. But by the late 18th century, they were major players in Chinese trade. China exported tea, porcelain, and silk, commodities that were highly sought after in Europe. However, the Chinese restricted trade through a few ports, particularly the port of Guangzhou (known at the time in the West as Canton) on the Pearl River delta.

The Chinese restricted imports of Western goods. In exchange for silk, porcelain, and tea, which were very much in demand in Great Britain, the Chinese insisted on payment in silver bullion.

Initially, the Europeans could sustain a large trade deficit with China because of the relative abundance of silver in Europe. However, as the 18th century turned to the 19th, warfare and a growth in industrial activity increased the domestic demand for silver, particularly in Britain, driving up costs for the precious metal.

Increased Chinese restrictions on trade in the early decades of the 19th century, including a partial ban on tea sales in 1817 in an attempt to fight corruption, also drove up prices. The result was that the trade imbalance increased even further.

It was about this time that British merchants discovered a highly lucrative product that was easy to smuggle and could be exchanged for the goods they desired: opium.

Opium Enters the Trade

The British East India Company, which held a monopoly on trade with China and India in Britain before 1833, began importing opium from farms it controlled in India. 

Its use exploded among the Chinese population. It was a simple matter for them to redirect the opium trade to Chinese ports and buy Chinese goods for the British market.

In 1821, total imports through Guangzhou were 4,224 chests. Within a decade, imports of the addictive drug quadrupled to 18,956 chests. This trade created 12 million Chinese addicts in short order.

The opium trade also eliminated the Chinese trade deficit. By the 1830s, the trade had even skewed the balance of payments toward the British. Effectively, British merchants were trading an addictive drug for tea, porcelain, and silk instead of a rare metal. 

In 1833, British merchants in London ended the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China through an Act of Parliament. With these shackles removed, the opium trade doubled again before the end of the decade.

Efforts to Diffuse the Opium Trade

This situation did not go unnoticed by the royal court in Beijing. The Daoguang Emperor dispatched a commissioner, Lin Zexu, to Guangzhou to end the opium trade there. Zexu was considered incorruptible by the emperor. 

He immediately showed that the Chinese drug traders that distributed the British opium could not buy him. Lin strengthened the coastal defenses of the area and demanded that the British traders hand over their opium supplies. 

Commissioner Charles Elliot, wishing to defuse conflict, gathered up 2.3 million pounds of opium and handed it over to Lin.

In a public ceremony in May 1839, Lin destroyed the supply by dumping it into the harbor. 

The British merchants, thinking that Elliot was trying to safeguard their opium stockpiles, were enraged by the commissioner’s actions and sent a note demanding his relief to London.

In July, a group of British sailors on a drunken rampage killed a Chinese villager. While Commissioner Elliot paid compensation to the victim’s family, he refused to hand the sailors over to the Chinese authorities for trial. 

In response, the Chinese denied food and water supplies to the foreign merchant community. When Elliot sent armed ships to demand the Chinese sell supplies to the foreign communities, fighting broke out in Kowloon between the British ships and a fleet of Chinese junks in the Pearl River. After driving off the Chinese ships, the British secured the needed supplies in the town.

Over the rest of 1839, the Chinese intermittently blocked British ships from unloading their goods. In January 1840, in an attempt to freeze out British merchants, the emperor demanded that all foreign delegations stop aiding the British with any supplies.

Meanwhile, in London, the Chinese problem became a major political issue in Parliament in early 1840. The Tory and Liberal opposition opposed the opium trade on moral grounds. However, the Whig Government, led by Foreign Secretary Palmerston, saw the Chinese actions as an affront to British nationalism. 

In February 1840, after sending a naval force to aid Commissioner Elliot, Palmerston issued directives to blockade Chinese ports with the additional forces.

The War Begins

It is hard to date the exact day on which hostilities began. Some historians date it to the armed attempts by Elliot to get supplies in the summer of 1839. Some date it to skirmishes that followed over the rest of that year. 

Serious British attempts to cow the Chinese, however, did not begin until June 1840, when a powerful British squadron arrived in the Pearl River delta.

The British strategy was to choke off Chinese maritime trade, both domestic and foreign. The new ships were dispatched to the mouth of Yangtze, which they blockaded, seizing an island near Shanghai as a base.

British forces were still too scarce on the ground to mount a serious campaign on the Yangtze, so they abandoned their gains there. Instead, they concentrated operations on the Pearl River delta in the south, which was much closer to their commercial interests. 

This withdrawal was not because of defeats in battle, but because there weren’t enough ships to cover multiple parts of the Chinese coast.

The Chinese forces were no match for British technology. At all levels, the British enjoyed marked advantages in range and hitting power. Their ships could stand off out of range of both Chinese land and ship-based cannon and pummel their opponent’s forces with relative impunity. 

After 25 years of continuous conflict during the Napoleonic Wars (1791-1815), the British military was a well-oiled machine.

“While China enjoyed a long-standing peace from 1760 onwards, intense warfare in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe ‘drove state centralization and innovation in military tactics, technology, organization and logistics’ (p. 3). As a result, the different trajectories of change culminated in a ‘technological gap’ (p. 270) that led to China’s continuous military failures against the West after the First Opium War in 1840-2.”

SOURCE: Lin, Hang “Review of The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West in World History,”War in History, 25/2, p. 277.

The British Gather Forces and Begin Their Attacks

The biggest problem the British faced was getting their forces to China. Their buildup was slow as ships were transferred from South Africa, India, and the home islands. This logistics train, stretching tens of thousands of miles, meant operations in 1840 were limited to the ships on hand.

Newly arriving forces included the steamship HMS Nemesis, a warship that the Chinese had no answer to. This could maneuver in the confines of the Chinese river system. 

The reinforcements began to have an impact in early 1841. Hoping to secure their commercial holdings in the south, the British embarked on a campaign to subdue and capture the Chinese forces guarding the Pearl River. 

In March, British forces captured Guangzhou (Canton), forcing the Chinese to negotiate an armistice. Both sides agreed to a truce, but this failed in May as the Chinese assembled a large army outside the city. Skirmishes resulted in another Chinese defeat and the British once again occupied the city.

Fearing a peasant revolt and seeking to defuse the situation, Elliot ordered the city evacuated and withdrew British forces down the river. They established their principal base on the island of Hong Kong off the coast of the town of Kowloon. 

Elliot repeatedly sought accommodations with the Chinese to avoid expanding the conflict. Morally, he opposed fighting a war over the drug trade. Elliot hoped that negotiations of commercial terms could defuse the Chinese hostility toward the British.

These actions, along with hostility from the British merchants, cost Elliot his job in July 1841. Henry Pottinger, who agreed with the military commanders that more aggressive action was needed to bring the Chinese to heel, replaced him. The war entered a more aggressive phase at this point.

A Critical Win: Cutting off Trade in the Yangtze

The Yangtze was the economic artery of China. This became the next British target.

After blockading or capturing several smaller Chinese ports, the main British force arrived on the Yangtze with 25 warships and 10,000 men.

In the Spring of 1842, this force destroyed or captured much of Chinese commerce on the river. This plunder included the Emperor’s tax barges, which was a major economic blow to the court in Beijing.

In June 1842, this force advanced up the river, fighting pitched battles with Chinese forts and garrisons along the way.

Despite huge manpower advantages, the Chinese could never concentrate their army to eliminate the smaller and more mobile British landing forces. The armies that the emperor could field were increasingly unreliable as his ability to pay them was strangled by British action.

When battles occurred, such as at the Battle of Zhenjiang, superior British musketry and discipline repeatedly defeated Chinese forces. Even on land, British military discipline was honed to a fine point by their experience during the Napoleonic war.

Repeatedly, rows of musketeers poured almost continuous fire into massed Chinese formations, resulting in large casualty disparities. At Zhenjiang alone, the Chinese lost over 1000 casualties against the British losses of only 36 men.

These lopsided defeats were repeated throughout the campaign. The Chinese could do nothing about the British forces in the river, as the Royal Navy had destroyed their junk fleets at this point in the war. British steam gunboats could prowl the river at will, destroying whatever Chinese forces they encountered and landing forces wherever necessary.

After the Battle of Zhenjiang, the British cut the vital Grand Canal that connected the Yellow River and Beijing to the Yangtze. This move crippled the Chinese economy.

Coupled with British landings near the imperial capital in Beijing in the north, the Emperor found himself in an untenable position and sued for peace.

The Treaty of Nanking and the Second Opium War

On August 29, 1842, the First Opium War officially ended with the Treaty of Nanking.

In the treaty, the Chinese compensated the British for their war and economic losses (including the dumping of opium in the Pearl River). This indemnity amounted to the equivalent of 21 million dollars.

China was forced to open four additional treaty ports besides Guangzhou, including Shanghai, on the Yangtze. The British also forced the Chinese to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity. Eventually, they forced the Chinese to lease Kowloon, across the straits from Hong Kong, to them as well.

The Chinese still see the Treaty of Nanking as the beginning of a “century of humiliation.” The collapsing Qing dynasty (which would end in 1911) and its successor, the Nationalist governments, were subjected to unequal treaties that encroached on Chinese sovereignty and independence.

Unresolved issues led to a Second Opium War from 1856 to 1860 in which the British, aided by the French, captured Beijing and destroyed the Summer Palace. The Western powers then forced the Chinese to grant them additional concessions.

After their defeats in these two wars, the Chinese did not modernize their military forces like their neighbors the Japanese did in the closing decades of the 19th century. Instead, the court in Beijing became insular and corrupt as Chinese power declined.

Japan Joins the Wars

The Japanese were to emerge as the next competitor to a weakened China. 

In 1895, they defeated the Chinese in a lopsided war that established Japan as a mainland power. Over the next 50 years, Japan would conspire with, and then attack, Western power in China. 

Japanese adventurism culminated in World War II and its preceding Sino-Japanese war. World War II resulted in the complete defeat of Japan but left the Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek dependent on US support. 

After a brief civil war, Mao Zedong emerged as the leader of a unified communist China in 1949. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan, which they held throughout the Cold War with explicit or implicit US military support.

Effect of the Wars on China

It is easy to trace the roots of Chinese expansionism in the early 21st century back to the humiliation that they suffered at the hands of the British in 1840-42.

Internally, Qing military power was never the same again. It would take more than a century before the Communist regime under Mao asserted effective control over the whole of mainland China again.

Externally, ever since the Qing Empire bowed to the Western powers in the 19th Century, China has seen its dominant power on the East Asian mainland constrained by the actions of outsiders. Even today, China views foreign control of the islands rimming China, stretching from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines to Malaysia as a threat to their freedom of action.

We can view Chinese threats to Taiwan and their attempts to spread their reach into the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this context.

Once again, it’s a competition over who controls commerce in East Asia that is driving conflict in the region. We should not forget that this tension has a long history.


Cassan, Benjamin “William Jardine: Architect of the First Opium War,” Historia, v. 14 (2005).

Hill, J.R., The Oxford History of the Royal Navy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Lin, Hang “Review of The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West in World History,” War in History, 25/2, p. 277.

Suwanthanin, Waroonporn, “Closed-Door Policy of the Qing Dynasty and China’s Defeat in the First Opium War” Journal of ASEAN PLUS Studies v. 3/2 (July 2022).

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