The ‘Opium War’ that Wasn’t

One hundred and sixty-six years ago this week, Lord Palmerston, the great British Foreign Secretary, sent a letter to the Imperial Chinese government that paved the way for the 1840-42 Anglo-Chinese conflict, the “Opium War.” It’s a brilliantly snappy name that sneakily prejudges the issue: The world is now convinced that the war was a case of commercial and imperialist British greed trying to force opium on the Chinese.

The world is wrong.

By 1840, the British had several difficulties with China. For a decade, London had rejected China’s insistence that British royal officials could only communicate with provincial Chinese authorities indirectly by way of “petition,” instead of on terms of diplomatic equality. There was also irritation with Chinese constraints on trade—Western traders were confined to Canton (modern Guangzhou) lest too many foreigners should disturb the tranquility of Chinese life. But the British, like everyone else, were dazzled by the prospect of a limitless Chinese market, if only they could get there; so they wanted more ports opened to trade. Furthermore, free trade was fast becoming a moral imperative in Britain. A dozen years later, the chief British official in China, Sir John Bowring, coined the dictum: “Free trade is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is free trade.”

More earnings from trade were also needed to pay for growing quantities of that essential British import, Chinese tea. In the 1660s, Britain imported some two lbs. of it; by the 1780s that had become 15 million lbs., and by 1830 it was 30 million. To balance this, the British needed to sell more to China—but the Chinese did not want nearly enough of what the British tried to sell, items such as scratchy English woolens.

In the meantime, there was one thing the Chinese did want to buy: Indian opium. They had used the drug, for medical and other purposes, for a thousand years. But by the 1820s, the Chinese government had become concerned about its social effects and tried to ban it. The result was that many Chinese, including senior officials, went on smuggling it in, supplied and supported by private British merchants, some of whom became smugglers themselves.

Neither the British government nor its “Superintendents” at Canton at any point countenanced, let alone supported, illegal opium trading into China. Nor did any British Minister or official question China’s right to control its own shores and borders, or to decide what should be imported and what excluded. At the same time, neither in Britain, nor in America, were there laws against opium (or any other drug) until many decades later.

Similarly, opium was entirely legal in India. While China was the largest market for Indian opium, respectable quantities were sold to the Dutch in the East Indies (now Indonesia) and to England itself. In 1839, England imported some 100,000 lbs. of Indian opium, and by 1840 it was around 200,000 lbs. There was only some social disapproval. In fact, opium, in the form of laudanum, was in widespread use, and cough mixtures including a little of it could be bought over the counter in England as late as the 1950s.

The Chinese government’s own attitude seemed ambivalent. Even in the later 1830s, the emperor’s advisers were divided between enforcing prohibition and legalizing, regulating, and taxing opium imports. Only in 1839 did the emperor opt for a strict prohibition, sending the admirable Commissioner Lin to Canton to see to it. Lin ordered the surrender of every last ounce of opium at three days notice, forbade the traders to leave Canton, and surrounded them with armed soldiers. Shortly afterwards the traders and their families had to seek refuge aboard British merchant ships at sea, deprived—at least officially—of food and water supplies from shore. When somewhat embellished reports of Chinese soldiers threatening English women and children reached London, there was real fury. For British politics the issue ceased to be opium—about which many people sympathized with China—and became the fate of not just opium traders but also innocent men, women, and children threatened by armed Chinese soldiers.

On Feb. 20, 1840, Palmerston wrote to the emperor and the commanders of a British force sent to Canton. While the Chinese were fully entitled to enforce their anti-opium edicts, it was something else entirely to punish the innocent together with the guilty and to threaten lives without charge or trial. The force should seek reparations for the insults to the Queen’s officer at Canton, and to British people; to secure the opening of other ports to trade; to get agreement that the British and everyone else could trade in China; and to send British diplomats to Beijing and the ports.

War began. Two years later, in the peace treaty of Nanjing, China did agree to open four more ports; to stationing foreign consuls at each port; and to treat British and Chinese officials as equals. The Chinese would also pay a sizeable indemnity; and the British would get the (then) barren rock of Hong Kong to maintain merchants and their own magistrates.

The treaty did not mention opium.

Even then, the Chinese saw opium as the true cause of strife. Eventually, it became just one entry in a long catalogue of Western sins that made China an innocent victim of foreign aggression and exploitation. In Britain and the U.S. too, an upsurge of moral, largely missionary, revulsion at China’s opium miseries came together with growing anti-imperialist sentiment. Yet the great international anti-opium conferences and arrangements of 1880-1913 were entirely futile. Well before 1900, the Chinese were growing at home many times more opium than the British, or anyone else, could import, and they kept on doing it.



Professor Harry Gelber is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies. He will be giving a talk on the “Opium War” at the Center for European Studies at 2:15 p.m. on Friday, February 24th.