The Opium Wars – Exploring the Addiction of Empires

Discover the tragic realities and horrifying truths about The Opium Wars and the utter destruction that followed!
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The following are the first 2 chapters from the book “The Opium Wars: Exploring the Addiction of Empires from Beginning to End”

The Opium Trade up to 1799

What is Opium?

It is difficult to understand the chaos and near-total collapse of social order caused by the Opium Wars without knowing what the drug is, and the level of human suffering it caused.

Opium is made from the latex—a sticky, milky secretion like sap or resin—of the poppy plant Papaver somniferum. Not all poppy varieties produce opium, and they have many uses other than their latex. The opium poppy is grown across the world today, but historically was limited to Mediterranean Europe and West or South Asia. It contains an analgesic alkaloid compound called morphine, which is a powerful narcotic substance.

Today, a huge variety of drugs are made by extracting the morphine from opium and refining it into different forms. This is how heroin is made, as well as many pain killers. But for much of history opium was consumed in a raw, unrefined form, often by vaporizing and inhaling it through a special pipe.

Taking opium greatly reduces pain and can cause drowsiness, a feeling of euphoria or detachment, shallowness of breath, and constipation. Long-term abuse can cause dependence, lung edema, and respiratory or cardiac collapse. Even controlled use for medicinal purposes can lead to addiction. Withdrawal effects can be almost as lethal as the drug itself.

In a time and place before modern medicine and rehabilitation—like many areas of nineteenth century China—opium addicts were usually customers for life. Those lives were normally short and painful as a result. And for the opium dealers and smugglers who witnessed this, it was terribly easy to be blinded by the money it made.

It is difficult to understate the damage greed and opium caused to people and communities in this time period, like they do today. And it is vital to keep this in mind as one reads ahead, so that the tragic spiral China and its European associates were trapped in can be understood.

 

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The History of Opium in China

The milky extract of the poppy plant was known to China long before it flooded the markets during the late Qing period. It was first known during the Tang Dynasty of the seventh to tenth centuries, having been brought east by Arab traders. For centuries it was known by names like yingsu soup or black spice.

It was mostly limited to religious or medical purposes at first. Daoists believed it could help regulate chi, while doctors saw it as a cure for diarrhea or as a way to enhance sexual health and ability in men and women. By the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1637, it had acquired a reputation as an aphrodisiac used to prolong arousal in elaborate or long-lasting sexual acts.

Considering what it would do in later days, it might be surprising that opium remained legal and mostly unregulated in China for hundreds of years. The substance slowly gained a wide enough appeal beyond ritual uses to be made a taxable commodity.

To the late Ming royalty it was even valuable enough to be part of the Chinese tributary system. Hundreds of pounds of opium were offered as gifts to Ming emperors by the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya in modern day Thailand, alongside other rare and exotic goods like frankincense, ivory, and peacock feathers.

When the Ming fell to civil war and invading Manchus became the ruling class of a new Qing Dynasty, the mystique and allure of opium survived among the Han Chinese elite. It eventually spread to their Manchu lords, which allowed opium use to survive for decades as a leisurely activity of the wealthy and powerful.

Political relationships with other kingdoms in South and Southeast Asia shifted and changed over the generations, but the cultural exchange started by the Ming tributary system guaranteed that certain practices would be shared with China.

This included the recreational smoking of madak—a blend of tobacco and opium. Smoking madak had been already popular among Siamese, Javanese, and Bengali commoners for centuries. Members of the Chinese diaspora living in port cities like Batam and Batavia—modern day Jakarta, Java—picked up this habit by the early eighteenth century. In turn, it was spread to the common people of Qing.

But the recreational use of opium by common folk tarnished its former reputation as a mystical, sensual thing of the upper class, and finally revealed how destructive it could be to society. The Yongzheng Emperor criminalized madak in 1729, and subsequent emperors would continue to take minor actions against the drug.

Opium continued to enter China in many forms. Local dealers would buy opium from smugglers and distribute it to the many drug dens in port cities and beyond. This created a small but growing smuggling industry and black market.

European Addictions

This trend didn’t go unnoticed by outsiders. Thanks to hundreds of years of imperialist ambition, the port cities of those Siamese, Javanese, and Bengali people who were in contact with the Chinese were often under the control of Europeans.

Merchant groups and colonies like the British East India Company and the Dutch East Indies already had firm control of parts of the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia by the seventeenth century. They were also no strangers to exploiting local markets for profits back home. These early European capitalists saw the potential for a much larger market for opium in mainland China, and decided to make it a reality.

The Portuguese were the first to try selling opium to China, exporting it from Indian ports like Goa and Daman. Next came the British through their East India Company (EIC), which by 1773, controlled huge swaths of India and Bengal.

The EIC tried to form a monopoly on the opium trade after conquering opium-producing parts of the shrinking Mughal Dynasty. The EIC was deep in debt thanks to its wars with the Mughals and other powers in India, so peddling the drug to China seemed like a good way to start turning a profit again. By 1793, dominating the opium market and eyeing markets in China was an explicit part of the EIC’s charter.

But there was a deeper desire—a deeper need—fueling the English, Portuguese, and other ambitious Europeans in Asia.

The Western powers which were becoming more and more interested in the opium market in China, had already been dealing with their own obsessions for generations. But opium wasn’t their drug. Their addiction was to silk, porcelain, and tea.

The wealthy consumers of early modern Europe and the Americas got a taste of fine Chinese goods like silk, porcelain, and tea early on in the Age of Exploration. But European markets lacked the ability to manufacture those luxury goods as well or as fast as the Chinese could.

So they remained limited to buying them from China, often at a steep price. But the desire for these goods only grew, and so did the cost to afford them. This might not have been so bad for westerners, if not for the fact that the only accepted form of payment for all these goods was the increasingly limited resource of silver.

 

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American Silver, Chinese Coffers

The global circulation of silver had been transformed in the last three hundred years, thanks to the so-called Columbian Exchange and the exploitation of people and natural resources in the Americas.

The early Spanish Conquistadors and Portuguese explorers had gotten a taste for American gold and silver after so much of it had been looted from the cities of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca. 

When there was no more to be taken, the Spanish used the expertise of local Native Americans to mine more from the mountains of Central and South America. When the indigenous people were devastated by disease and mistreatment, their colonial masters brought in slaves from West Africa to replace them. These laborers toiled away thanklessly, digging in the darkness of mine shafts or processing silver ore using noxious and sometimes poisonous materials like mercury.

The net result of this besides unimaginable human suffering was a whole lot of precious metal entering circulation across the world. From 1560 to 1685 between twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand tons of silver were produced by the mines of New Spain. 

From 1686 to 1810, that amount more than doubled. The small, formerly poor kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula became very rich, very fast, and it didn’t take long before that silver began to flow in to other European nations with goods to sell.

At the same time, the Qing Dynasty was coming into its own, and China was slowly opening itself back up to international trade the way it hadn’t since the later years of the Ming. It still wasn’t much, however, because the Middle Kingdom prided itself in being self-sufficient and avoiding dependency on foreign imports. And it just so happened that China was very good at being self-sufficient, because of how huge and diverse its economy was.

The one exception to this was silver, which China was happy to accept as a form of payment. This is because Chinese currency was backed by and made of silver, which couldn’t easily be mined in China. Because it was literally currency, any silver imported from abroad expanded the Chinese money supply. This led to Chinese markets growing and becoming more competitive with the rest of the world, while also staying fairly stable.

Flushed with silver from the Americas, Europeans were finally able to offer China its most desired payment for silk, tea, and manufactured goods. And for a time, things were good. China grew wealthy in silver while Westerners enjoyed their new valuables. The famous love affair between the English and their tea started here, for example. But because China was only importing silver, it enjoyed a steadily growing trade surplus while all of its European partners experienced a trade deficit.

A trade deficit is not by itself a terrible thing, but it led to a decline in the silver available to Europe after a few centuries. When the growing empires of Europe started to hold on to their remaining precious metals in order to mint coins, trade with China ground to a halt. This ended up hurting European consumers more than Chinese producers, because China was able to combat stagnation or inflation by importing small but consistent amounts of silver from Japan.

Thus, European colonies in Asia began to look for a market where the Chinese would import as much as they did silver. Finding nothing, their more creative minds decided to just invent one.

So, those aforementioned cities in India and Indonesia began to produce huge amounts of opium. If opium merchants could increase the market for it in China—essentially get the empire hooked on drugs—then they would finally have a cheaper, renewable export to trade for Chinese goods. 

The only problem was getting China to accept the stuff. Opium being illegal in China was certainly a challenge, but they wouldn’t let that stop them. Trade companies could circumvent the law, or better yet change it, if they could just get a foothold in China. But to do that, they would need to do away with the Canton System.

The Canton System & Fallout of the Flint Affair

Prior to 1757, Chinese trade policies had a protectionist bent inspired by Confucian ideals. If a market or foreigner in that market was seen as harmful to societal harmony and Chinese values, contact with them was limited. The Qing Dynasty also often worried about commercial threats to their power from the outside world. And while some were imaginary, others were very real.

As a result of these protectionist policies, each foreign trade vessel docked in a Chinese city was beholden to a local merchant called a Hong. The Hong took responsibility for its crew and cargo and required them to pay taxes for any trade deals. The Cohong, the organization each Hong belonged to, was the direct intermediary between Qing Dynasty officials and foreign traders.

The Cohong system gave the Chinese government a high level of control over trade in its own cities. This frustrated European crews who had to pay high tariffs to a Hong and do exactly what the strict trade laws stated. These restrictions only got worse after a merchant named James Flint decided to ignore the laws and repeated warnings from the Qing government.

James Flint was a British merchant who chafed under the trade restrictions in the southern city of Canton, where his EIC ship was forced to dock for the whole trading season of 1755. Eventually he grew sick of the slow and controlled business in Canton and wanted to find new business opportunities in other Chinese port cities. He broke Cohong regulations and sailed north to the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province. Instead of finding better trade deals, James Flint made trade for all Europeans even worse.

In 1757, two years after the “Flint Affair,” the Single-Port Commerce System was put in place by the Qianlong Emperor. It became better known outside of China as the Canton System, because the only port where foreign ships were allowed to trade was at the city of Canton. It was no coincidence that Canton was where Cohong control of trade was strongest.

European merchants would fight this system every step of the way, including James Flint himself. Flint unlawfully embarked from Canton yet again in 1759, this time to file a complaint in Tianjin. He spent three years in a prison on Macau for that stunt.

But while legitimate traders fought a protracted war of diplomacy with the government in Canton and China at large, opium smugglers just continued to do what they always did. 

An order to halt the illegal trade came down from the governor of Canton himself in 1799, and once again it was met with little success. 

With the turn of the century, came a boom in opium trading, a political atmosphere balanced on the razor-thin line between civility and conflict, and some of the strangest smuggling tactics yet.

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The Opium Trade from 1800-1838

Floating Warehouses

As long as they remained low-key and bribed the right officials, Chinese opium dealers could freely move throughout China in ways that a European trader couldn’t. But the inside agents of the opium trade still relied on foreigners to supply them. So when it became too conspicuous for European opium traders to dock in Canton for those arrangements, they simply moved their business offshore.

Europeans, mostly British, bought large numbers of old Chinese ships in the beginning of the nineteenth century. They then sailed the ships just past the mouth of the Pearl River, and anchored them at sea in big groups that didn’t go anywhere.

This flotilla of old junks became the new stopping point for European opium ships, which would unload their cargo for payment and then sail back to India or the islands of south east Asia. The anchored ships, acting like floating warehouses, would store huge amounts of opium over time. Chinese dealers would then sail out to the ships and purchase the opium in exchange for silver. 

Meanwhile, the Qing authorities were unable to do anything about these storehouse ships once they discovered them, because the Chinese navy was built to fight river battles against pirates and other local threats, and didn’t perform well on open ocean. They were forced to sit by and watch as the EIC and other trade companies distributed opium up and down the coast of China with impunity, immune to inspection or confiscation.

Americans got in on the opium trade in the early 1800s, offering cheap but low-quality opium imported from the Ottoman Empire in the west. The competition between different western nationalities drove the price of opium down, making it even more accessible to the lower classes of China.

This increased the national addiction to opium, which increased its demand, which made the market even bigger as more and more foreigners joined in. Opium started to be paid for with silver. The Europeans, who often smuggled opium on the side for their legitimate businesses, then used this silver to buy Chinese goods and turn even more of a profit back home.

This little detail had terrible significance, because it showed the moment where the opium smuggling scheme truly succeeded: not only had foreign merchants found a product other than silver to trade with the Chinese, but the Chinese were now giving up their own silver in exchange for it.

The Chinese trade surplus was being reversed, and the nation’s fortunes along with it. Even the Cohong families were eventually corrupted and turned around on the issue, tacitly letting the drug trade expand in Canton while reaping bribes and taxes from it. And with civil war wreaking havoc in the background, taxes were only getting higher.

The White Lotus Rebellion

The rest of China was not staying still while Canton and the rest of the southeast coast was infiltrated by opium. Peasants were working hard in their fields, artisans were making their living in towns, provincial governors were collecting taxes from them, and religious revolutionaries were fomenting rebellion in the hills. Were it not for the growing foreign influence on the coast, this would have been business as usual in Qing China.

The White Lotus Movement was a secretive religious and political movement which existed since the Mongols conquered China and formed the Yuan Dynasty in the thirteenth century. The movement rebelled countless times over the centuries. The White Lotus was made up of Han Chinese, who now sought to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and usher in an era of salvation in which the Buddha would return. 

The movement was the desperate hope of desperate peasants, taxed into poverty by the increasingly corrupt officials of the Chinese government.

Despite being peasants untrained in war, the White Lotus managed to score several surprise victories over Qing troops before being subdued. Proof that the Qing army was weak inspired more peasants to rebel. A renewed rebellion started in 1794, in the Daba Mountains, in response to high taxes. This revolt would drag on until 1804, putting a huge strain on China’s manpower and treasury that could have been spent combating the opium crisis.

The White Lotus wasn’t defeated until the Qing forced hundreds of peasant villages into bigger fortress cities, where they were trained to fight their countrymen in militias. But after the Lotus was gone, those same militias rebelled against the government for their mistreatment. The Qing had created another problem for themselves, at a time when they really didn’t need it.

More manpower and resources bled into the countryside, while more opium crept in to the coast.

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The Foreign Quarter

Increasing dependency on the opium trade and other European-dominated markets forced Canton and Macau to grant large concessions to foreigners at port. Thanks to the industrial revolution, changes in government trade policy, and the development of liberal economic theories by figures like Adam Smith, the EIC was joined by more independent traders in Canton. Though, it didn’t lose its monopoly on trade with China yet. This greater competition increased the influence of Europeans on China further.

By 1820, European merchants were living in Canton year-round, and becoming quite established within the city. The Thirteen Factories district was the center of European activity, and it grew until its proper name was replaced by the more popular “Foreign Quarter.”

A chamber of commerce was built in the district, and the small group of elite European merchants who influenced so much of the trade in Canton—including opium—began to rise to places of political power in the region.

Two of the most infamous Foreign Quarter residents were the Scotsmen William Jardine and James Matheson. The two shrewd businessmen met in Canton in 1820 and quickly became partners, both in legitimate business and in opium smuggling. They formed a consignment and shipping conglomerate named Jardine, Matheson & Co. in 1828. 

As a testament to their success, this conglomerate still operates in Canton and Macau two hundred years later, now known as Jardine Matheson.

Jardine was a skilled political schemer, and he can be credited—or blamed—with subverting Chinese authorities to further the drug trade. With Matheson’s support, Jardine petitioned the British government to force greater recognition and trade rights out of China.

An enormous victory was won for entrepreneurs and the opium trade in 1834, when British Parliament ended the EIC monopoly completely. This change let anyone with money join in on the game. It’s no surprise that many of the reformers in Parliament at the time were getting financial kickbacks from Jardine and Matheson.

In the year 1787, the EIC had been sending about four thousand chests worth of opium to China, each chest weighing about one hundred and seventy pounds or seventy-seven kilograms. This totaled to about three hundred and forty tons of opium a year.

By 1838, Britain was selling over fourteen thousand tons of opium to China per year—that’s more than a forty-fold increase.

To put that in perspective, the average chronic opium addict in China at the turn of the twentieth century would be smoking about eight grams of opium a day. Fourteen thousand tons would allow for almost four million three hundred and fifty thousand extreme addicts to get their fix every single day for an entire year.

Of course, not all of the opium was going to a few severe cases. Uncounted millions were suffering from addiction. Opium had surpassed silver in value and was now used for bartering, or as currency. People paid and collected taxes in opium, despite drug trafficking now being punishable by death thanks to another imperial decree. The situation had become a powder keg, and Qing officials scrambled to do something about it.

Diplomatic Blunders & Insults

For the past thirty-odd years, a diplomatic dance of death was underway. Britain had the largest piece of the opium pie in Canton by far, but neither side wanted to wage an all-out war to resolve the conflict. 

Unsurprisingly, the adamant opposition between the two parties led to more than one diplomatic crisis. Most of them were caused by British persons breaking the etiquette or conduct expected of them by the Qing government.

Many times over the decades, European governments sent delegations to the court of the Qing Emperors in order to negotiate trade between their nations. The British first arrived in 1793, followed by the Dutch mission in 1794, and the Russians in 1805, with the British attempting a second mission in 1816. All of their proposals were rejected by the emperors of the time.

Both times that Britain sent a mission, first under Earl George Macartney, and then Earl William Amherst, highlighted incompatible worldviews, as well as a few cultural misunderstandings. 

Both ambassadors—as well as other European dignitaries—wanted the rights to exclusive use of islands off the coast of China for harboring ships and building warehouses. Or they petitioned for their nation’s freedom to trade in other Chinese cities besides Canton.

These requests would put one European nation ahead of the other, with respect to the relatively equal trading rights which China granted them. To break that balance would have caused a new rash of political fiascoes as every other power in the area tried to garner the same advantage, which would be more of a headache for China. Understandably, the Chinese emperors declined their offers.

On top of that, both British ambassadors refused to perform a deep bow of respect, commonly called a kowtow, for the Emperor, because it was seen as an act of subservience toward a foreign ruler.

Their missions did not fall through just because of a kowtow, contrary to popular opinion both then and now. But their refusal of standard Chinese courtly etiquette while making demands of that same court is symbolic of the strained, misunderstanding relationship between parties.

This, coupled with the continued spread of opium, led to the slowly deteriorating status quo, which made conflict almost inevitable. And conflict did finally occur.

After the end of the EIC monopoly on Chinese trade, another British delegation was sent to China in July 1834. Rather than requesting specific land rights or broader trade agreements, the mission led by one Lord William John Napier of the Royal Navy was more general.

Napier’s mission was to obey all Chinese regulations, communicate directly with Qing government officials like the Viceroy of Canton and Guangxi provinces without any intermediaries, survey China’s coastline, and superintend trade in contraband opium. If that mission statement looks like one big self-contradiction, that’s because it was.

Napier was unable to follow all Chinese regulations, because a firmly-entrenched part of China’s relations with Europeans was the use of messengers and go-betweens to allow communication between Qing authorities and any representatives. By breaking regulations and trying to circumvent these formalities, Napier also angered the official he was attempting to meet. This caused Napier to fail in two tasks at once.

The Viceroy refused an audience with Napier, frustrating the Lord’s order to oversee trade in the region. For reasons known only to him, Napier then decided that military force was an appropriate answer.

In what would be known as the Napier Affair, the naval officer sent two frigates to bombard the Chinese forts at Whampoa on September 11th. The stalemate was cut short when Napier suddenly fell ill with typhus, and he retreated to Macau where he died exactly one month later.

The skirmish was indecisive, with light casualties and damage on both sides. But the real wounds were diplomatic. Napier left Anglo-Chinese relations worse than he’d found them, though not before seeding the idea among other colonial officials that Britain should also seize Hong Kong.

Amazingly, all-out war between Britain and China did not come to pass yet. Both nations needed the other on some level, and it would take the burning of more bridges to finally set war in motion.

Britain’s trading dominance was weakened by the affair without a doubt, and all British merchants were forced to leave Canton for a period of time after the battle, sent to either Whampoa or Macau. 

In that vacuum, Americans and other European nations who had maintained peaceful trade ties with China moved in to fill that gap. This didn’t remove the British from their position of power in the opium trade in the long-run, but it diversified the fingers in China’s pot.

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Lin & Elliot Enter the Scene

In 1839, the Daoguang Emperor appointed a prominent scholar and official named Lin Zexu to the post of Imperial Commissioner. He was tasked with eradicating the opium trade by any means necessary.

He began with an open letter directed at the British, personally addressing Queen Victoria. The letter questioned the morals of the British government and pointed out its hypocrisy in dealing with the Chinese. For the opium trade was strictly forbidden in Great Britain, yet the crown seemed to turn a blind eye to the trade in Asia.

Lin Zexu wanted to remove the plausible deniability and the benefit of ignorance from the heads of state, while also reaffirming his own mission. He stated:

“Your Majesty has not before been thus officially notified, and you may plead ignorance of the severity of our laws, but I now give my assurance that we mean to cut this harmful drug forever.”

We can never know how Queen Victoria might have replied to Lin’s letter, because it appears she never received it. It may have been lost in transit, or perhaps it had been intercepted at some point.

Regardless, Commissioner Lin moved forward with his duty without a reply from the British crown. He issued yet another ban on the sale of opium in the empire and ordered that all supplies of it be turned over to the Qing government.

This time, however, the decree was followed by effective action. Beginning in the spring 1839, the Pearl River was closed to all ships, trapping European traders in Canton. The Foreign District and its warehouses were searched, and the stockpiles of opium found within were seized. 

More impressively, Qing naval forces under Lin’s command managed to board and capture British ships in the rivers and at sea despite their disadvantage against British vessels. Here, they also destroyed the smuggled shipments of opium.

The British colonial administration in East Asia, which by now had headquarters in Hong Kong, was not pleased by the seizure and destruction of British merchandise, even if it was illegal contraband. Charles Elliot, Superintendent of Trade in China, saw Commissioner Lin’s actions as an attack. He ordered all remaining British ships carrying opium to flee from Chinese-controlled waters, and to prepare for battle in the event of the occurrence of hostility.

The game of political chicken was ramped up by Lin, who responded by surrounding and cutting off the supplies and communication of the Europeans still in Canton, effectively laying siege to the Foreign Quarter.

Uncharacteristically for a British trade official in this time and place, perhaps because of recent memory of the Napier Affair, Charles Elliot was the one who offered concessions in order to avoid the situation escalating further. With the promise that the British government would reimburse them for their losses, Elliot convinced the trapped dealers in Canton to hand all of their remaining opium stockpiles over to Lin.

They did so, and by the end of May that year the Chinese government had seized and destroyed two hundred sacks of opium and over twenty thousand chests of it, totaling to more than one thousand two hundred tons.

This is a paltry number in comparison to the number of tons that had been imported that same year, but it was a highly visible victory, and the image of Qing personnel burying millions of pounds of opium in the sand of Cantonese beaches sent a clear message to the world.

In addition, Lin’s letter on morality to the Queen was unintentionally validated by Elliot’s promise. If the British government did compensate those traders for their smuggled illegal substances, it meant that Britain implicitly supported the drug trade outside of its own borders. 

Unfortunately, the British government was aware of this trap. No compensation for lost goods was ever actually given, lest a political firestorm be unleashed back home in Parliament. 

Charles Elliot’s risky attempt to de-escalate the situation ended up being for naught. The indignity Britain suffered at the hands of the Emperor’s official meant that the English now had a casus belli—a justification for the declaration of war, if they were inclined. But for the time being, Britain held on to its grudge.

Commissioner Lin later reopened trade and allowed it to continue under altered rules and new conditions. The strictest rule was that no more opium was to be shipped in to China in any way, and that all parties involved in transactions were equally responsible.

Lin had discovered the corruption and complacency of the major Hong families in his investigation of trade policy up to that point in time. He had been especially shocked to find that in all of the years of opium being unambiguously illegal, not one recorded instance of a complaint being filed about smuggled opium could be found in the Cohong archives.

This would not continue under his watch. All foreign merchants, as well as Qing officials, were ordered to swear a binding oath not to deal in opium, under penalty of death. 

Officially, Britain objected to this because it violated its idea of free trade. But individual British companies who did not engage in opium smuggling were more willing to make the agreement, supporting the new Chinese regulation while driving a deeper rift between the two governments. 

Ironically, the people made most happy by the arrangement were black marketeers. The sudden loss of stockpiles and supply lines raised the price of opium, making it an even higher risk, higher reward product to smuggle in to China. The drug was able to trickle in thanks to some European ships being told of the opium ban before docking, which allowed them to drop their shipments off elsewhere.

Further hamstringing the policy change was Charles Elliot’s unwillingness to enforce it. He had orders to stop smugglers, but at this point tensions were so high between Britain and China he feared any naval action by his ships, even against smugglers, could be construed as an attack.

Things may have had a chance to simmer down from a boil, had violence stopped. But before they could return to the former status quo, a different drug was introduced into the mix. The metaphorical powder keg of China had its fuse soaked in alcohol, and then lit.

Flashpoint at Kowloon

On July 7, 1839, a group of British sailors in ships owned by Jardine, Matheson & Co. landed in Kowloon, Hong Kong. They joined some of their colleagues from some other English and American crews in the area, and began to drink heavily.

The powerful rice wine they drank fueled a violent altercation between two of the sailors and a local villager named Lin Weixi. Lin was savagely beaten by the sailors and died the next day, leaving his hometown of Tsim Sha Tsui in an uproar.

Superintendent Charles Elliot, who was in charge of the men, was quick to pay for damages. He offered a reward of one hundred dollars and two hundred dollars to anyone who could provide evidence of who was responsible for the fight or the murder, respectively.

He paid one thousand five hundred dollars in compensation to the victim’s family and one hundred dollars to the village, as well as a smaller sum of four hundred dollars in “protection money,” to guarantee the family would not be extorted for their money by local officials.

But Commissioner Lin Zexu was on the case, and once again he was not satisfied with Elliot’s methods—a subject of the Chinese Empire had been murdered on Chinese soil, and so Chinese law would be followed accordingly. 

Unfortunately, Elliot also took issue with this, because it would require that he hand his men over to be executed by a foreign power.

The two men were at an impasse. Elliot refused to turn the guilty parties in, and instead held court aboard an English vessel and tried the sailors with himself as judge. He found five sailors guilty, and sentenced them to fines and hard labor upon return to Britain.

Due to Elliot’s lack of proper jurisdiction, these sentences would all eventually be overturned back home. Lin Zexu declined the offer to send observers to offer “comments” on the proceedings, seeing the naval court and its ruling as an obstruction of justice and a violation of Chinese sovereignty.

In response, Commissioner Lin ordered a ban on the sale of food to British residents in Canton until those involved in the murder were turned over. War junks were deployed on the mouth of the Pearl River to blockade the port, and—false—rumors circulated that the Qing had poisoned the fresh water sources used by foreign ships.

This blockade of all trade continued until the end of August, when on the 23rd an opium smuggler ship was attacked by the river pirates who so often plagued the Chinese government.

A rumor quickly spread among the British that the Chinese navy attacked the ship, and as a precaution Charles Elliot ordered all British ships to leave the coast of China by the next day.

Withdrawn from Canton and forced out of Macau, dozens of ships and thousands of people were stuck idling off the coast of China with dwindling supplies. On August 30th, the heavily armed frigate HMS Volage arrived off the coast to defend the ramshackle fleet from any Chinese aggression.

Elliot demanded that the embargo end. Five days later, without any word on the end of the ban, he sent an armed cutter and schooner to Kowloon with an ultimatum for the blockade ships stationed there: allow shipments of food to pass through to the British by three that afternoon, or be fired upon. 

The ships’ guns were readied. The Qing forces made no reply. The deadline came and passed. The first volley was fired at fifteen minutes to four.

The Battle of Kowloon, one of the early skirmishes of the First Opium War, had begun.

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