The Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century forced China to open its doors to trade with the western world. Thomas De Quincey describes the pleasures of opium like this: “Thou hast the keys of Paradise, O just, subtle and mighty opium”. The Chinese had
banned opium in its various forms several times, citing concern for public morals, but the prohibition was ignored. The East India Company held a monopoly on the production of opium in British India. Private British traders continued to smuggle large quantities of opium into China. In this way, the opium trade became a way of balancing a trade deficit brought about by Britain's own addiction...to tea.
The Chinese protested against the flouting of the ban, even writing to Queen Victoria. But the British continued to trade, leading to a crackdown by Lin Tse-Hsu, a man appointed to be China's Opium Drugs Czar. He confiscated opium from the British traders and destroyed it. The British military response was severe, leading to the Nanking Treaty which opened up several of China's ports to foreign trade and gave Britain Hong Kong. The peace didn't last long and a Second Opium War followed. The Chinese fared little better in this conflict, which ended with another humiliating treaty.
So what were the main causes of the Opium Wars? What were the consequences for the Qing dynasty? And how did the punitive treaties affect future relations with Britain?
Yangwen Zheng, Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Manchester
Lars Laamann, Research Fellow in Chinese History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
Xun Zhou, Research Fellow in History at SOAS, University of London
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