The “yellow peril” has been a nightmare to the western world for many decades. Some 80 years ago, opium was woven into the western literary image of oriental evil, drugs, secret traps and lizard eyes glittering behind a lacquered screen. Fantasies epitomised by Sax Romer’s Dr. Fu Manchu struck deep. One result has been that most people who have heard of the opium war of 1839-42, only by name, would assume that the British waged it to free China from opium: the truth was the exact opposite. The British Empire was the world’s largest grower, processor and exporter of opium, and China was its main market. The English fostered the addiction in China and had a virtual monopoly of the drug and blundered into war largely to defend their profits against an emperor who was struggling to stamp out the trade. Opium was a hard political currency of the far east and England made it so. In 1876, an observer summed up “the east and the west England, India and China act and react on each other through the medium of poppy juice”.
In 1875, the Indian empire’s income in round figures was £40 million (£400 million today). Of that £12.5 million or 32% came from two English monopolies, salt and opium and £6.5 million came from opium sales alone nearly 17% of India's gross national income. That sum was as much as England spent on all public works, education, transport, communications and administration of justice on the vast subcontinent of India in 1873.
Politically the British Raj was addicted to opium as any 30 pipe a day coolie. “If the Chinese must be poisoned by opium, I would rather they were for the benefit of our Indian subjects, than for the benefit of any other exchequer”, Sir George Campbell said in the House of commons in 1880.
It would however caricature history to see the British Government as a frock coated Mafia degrading China with drugs for bloated profits. It must be borne in mind that opium was the ‘aspirin’ of Europe at this time. The English took it copiously; in 1840 the average intake was one quarter of an ounce per person. Doctors prescribed it for hysteria, travel-sickness, toothache, neuralgia, flu, cholera, hay-fever, ulcers and insomnia. King George IV’s doctors prescribed opium as a hangover cure; Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan on it Berloiz ate some and emerged from its effects to write ‘symphonie fantastique’. It was used as a painkiller and memory-wiper wherever the ’dark satanic’ mills stood in Birmingham, Lancashire, Sheffield and Nottingham
Thus at the time of the opium War, there could have been few Englishmen who had not taken opium for relief or stimulus To set the political scene with regard to the Chinese Empire, in the 18th century, this empire was the largest and oldest in the world. Its foreign policy was modelled on the ‘Confucian’ pattern of family hierarchy. Other nations - Burma, Vietnam, Korea, were mere tributaries to the Celestial; Throne. Their ambassadors came regularly to Peking to make the ‘three kneelings and nine prostration's’. For more than 3 thousand years the Chinese had dealt with all other states, when they dealt at all, as inferiors. So when English traders arrived in the 18th century, and presented their royal credentials, Chinese officials treated them as ignorant barbarians. All Britain wanted, initially, was an equitable trade relationship with China. But to the Emperor there could be no such equity.
In 1793, King George III, anxious to secure a footing in China sent Lord Macartney, to Peking to ask for a free trade arrangement and a British trading port. The Emperor sent Macartney back to the king with a letter. There would be no commissioner or embassy in Peking. Macartney had failed; he did not go in low enough. The only way an envoy could approach the celestial Throne was on supplication as a vassal.
When, on the other hand, an Italian trade mission make the right obeisance, the Emperor promptly claimed Italy as part of the Celestial Empire. The truth was that Ch’ien-lung was right about Anglo-Chinese trade, in that China’s economy was self sufficient; and did not need English goods, but the English needed Chinese tea and silk.
Opium was known in China long before the English arrived, Its source, the red poppy, was probably introduced by Arab traders.
When Lord George Macartney, heading Britain’s first diplomatic mission to China, passed through Peking in August 1793, he was sure he could soon fulfil his task of negotiating a formal trade agreement with the Emperor. Undaunted by the capital’s enormous guard-houses, and by the noise and stench of the inhabitants - encouraged by the unfailing graciousness of the Chinese officials, confident in his well proven diplomatic skills he pressed on northwards to meet the Emperor in Jehol, the summer residence, happily unaware of the frustrations to come.
Macartney had carefully chosen a retinue of guards musicians and scientists to impress the Emperor, and an artist - William Alexander travelled with them to record the visit. But the Emperor who was impassively awaiting the British in Jehol’s ‘Garden of countless Trees’, was not to be impressed. He considered the English - and for that matter all foreigners as to be barbarians. Macartney, then presented the Emperor with gifts clocks, chandeliers, astronomical instruments, he seemed delighted. That, however was the last Macartney saw of him.
Opium left its traces in Chinese literature , as provoker of ecstatic reveries and hallucinations, but there is no evidence of an addiction problem among the Chinese peasants or the imperial Court. The use of opium as a widespread pleasure-giving indulgence came to China from the west. The Chinese had to learn to “smoke” it. A person taking orally, encounters a delay, as the drug acts on his system, but the smoker can tune his intake precisely. A pipe takes five or six inhalations to finish and anything from twenty to thirty pipes may be consumed according to need. The human lung absorbs the narcotic into the blood and the brain faster than the stomach.
The first opium dens were on Formosa. The Chinese authorities issued regular proclamations, whenever a clipper arrived with opium, warning the ‘foreign devils to sail away before - the dragons of war with their fiery discharges annihilate all who oppose them’. Nobody, of course, took the least notice of this. Most of the opium was ferried up river to Canton, the only town open to foreign trade. Here were crowded along the waterfront, the ‘factories’ the trading station of the East India Co. And the French, Dutch and American merchants. Few Europeans could step outside their factories without learning afresh, of the distaste with which they were regarded by the Chinese. It is not surprising that, despite the demand for opium, Chinese dealt with the barbarian traders only through the ‘hong’ merchants. Opium had long grown in India but the East India Company turned into an immense industry. No land in the provinces of India, Bihar and Benares could be sown with poppies without the company’s permission and not an ounce of opium could leave India without passing through the company’s control.
In 1821, the district of Sarun, in Bihar province had between 5000 and 6500 acres of the poppies, by 1829 this had risen to 12,000 acres. At the companies depot the opium was pressed into fist-sized cake, wrapped in a crust of dried poppy leaves and packed into wooden chests. The average chest contained about 125 lbs . An opium addict was expected to consume 40 grains per day, one chest, therefore represented a month’s supply for 8,000 addicts. However it must be noted that addiction can come from twenty or even ten grains per day, At forty grains a day, an addict is in a very bad way. It is estimated that there were about between 10 and 12 million addicts in China by the 1840’s. Strangely, the East India Co. Always strove to minimise the addiction in India. It wrote in 1817 to the governor in Bengal expressing the hope that ’His measurers would tend to restrain the use of this pernicious drug”. In the year they penned those words, the directors of the East India Co. Had sold over 500,000 lbs of opium to the Chinese smugglers. The East India Co. Treated the native growers as serfs. In 1839 he was paid three and a half rupees (6 shillings) for a 29.5 oz ‘seer’ of raw opium. Hence he could hope to earn rather less than three pence a day during the harvest which rarely lasted more than a fortnight. A share-cropper with wife and three children might hope to gain 13 shillings as his years income from growing opium. In 1837 it cost the company about £15 to produce a chest of opium on its own territory and bring it to Calcutta. There it was auctioned to exporters. Theoretically the company’s responsibility for the opium ended at the Calcutta wharves.
From 1800 to 1837 the company raked in average profits of 465% from its opium auctions in Calcutta. In 1830 a missionary at Canton noted, the booming trade off Lintin Island “the boats are but seldom interfered with as the ‘free traders’ can afford to pay the mandarins so much better for not fighting than the government will for doing their duty.
The Chinese coast from Macao to Chusan is now the cruising ground of twenty opium ships. In Macao besides several houses engaged in the sale of opium on a large scale, fifty or sixty smaller dealers distribute it in the ‘catty’ or ‘cake’ and the preparation of the drug for smoking - gives employment to ten time that number of Chinese. Because so many Cantonese were involved in the opium business, as middlemen, dealers, processors and smokers, the English traders enjoyed their support. In fact, Chinese sentiment in Canton did not turn against the English until 1841, when the hardships of war made themselves felt. Now opium had cancelled out China’s favourable trade balance, it paid for tea. The drain on China’s silver reserves threatened inflation and there was great friction between the official envoys in London, Peking and Canton.
The English trade superintendent, Captain Charles Elliot, neither backed nor controlled the opium smugglers his powers were vague, his ammunition blanks. Lord Palmerston the Foreign Secretary, instructed the first Canton superintendent Lord Napier in 1834, “It is not desirable that you should encourage such adventures as opium smuggling but neither have you any authority to interfere or protect them”. This waffling showed Britain's lack of a foreign policy. The situation drifted and a Peking official proposed legalising the trade. He argued that since the trade could not be stopped, it was better to admit the drug, tax it and stop the outflow of silver bullion, by making opium saleable only by barter; but the Emperor sacked the official expressing these views. Eventually by way of a great show, a number of Chinese opium dealers were executed. This did nothing to stop the drug piling up but did throw the Cantonese market into panic. In 1838 the Viceroy got another imperial reprimand, and to vindicate himself he seized a few cases of opium and expelled two notorious traders, one of the William Jardine, owner of Jardine Matheson & Co. Meanwhile Captain Elliot did all he could. He closed the warehouses assured the Chinese government there would be no intervention on behalf of the smugglers, a prediction that could not have been more erroneous; and cleared the Canton River of opium ships
New Years Day 1839 saw the arrival of bad-tempered memos from the ‘Vermillion pencil of the Celestial Throne’ proclaiming among other things that the penalty was death for opium smoking. The viceroy was dashing nervously about lopping Chinese necks to mollify imperial wrath. A new imperial commissioner Lin Tse-hsu, appeared in Canton in March 1839. He was a formidable man and had emerged from poverty to become one of the most powerful scholars and officials in imperial China. He told the Canton traders what he was going to do and then he did it!. This left the English, used to years of paper threats from Peking, flabbergasted, also he was un-bribeable. Commissioner Lin spent his first week in Canton probing the opium trade and issuing orders to the Chinese. The English thought it was grossly peremptory but the commissioner pointed out that “imperial laws of the Manchu dynasty applied to barbarians equally as they did to the citizens of China”.
All opium in foreign hands whether on shore, warehouses, depot hulks or in clippers must be handed over for destruction. Captain Elliot was away in Macao and the British Chamber of commerce, offered a token, they would hand over 1,000 chests of opium. (CONTINUED BELOW CONTENTS BOX)
Elliot contacted Palmerston and suggested a fit reply would be a withdrawal of all the Queens subjects from the grasp of the government of China. Lin would not let them go until the opium had been delivered. Thus it happened that Lin’s distrust of the English turned Elliot irrevocably against the Chinese and he wrote to Palmerston suggesting a pre-emptive strike. It took 20 days to destroy the opium but at last it was all done. Not an ounce of the drug remained, officially in Canton and the ports of the estuary or in British holds. But all Lin achieved was to kill the trade at Canton. By October the drug was being run to Chusan and other northern ports, it was an un-pluggable flow.
Thus Palmerston prepared for war but at a leisurely pace. On September 4th 1840 there was a skirmish between British and Chinese ships in the Canton estuary, which the Chinese claimed as a victory but in fact no one one and no one was hurt. On November 3rd, a more serious engagement took place off Chuenpi. It would seem the Chinese lost for some dozen of their ships were sunk.
Lin briskly rejected this sop and asked to be visited by Lancelot Dent of Dent & co. The biggest eastern trader after Jardine Mathieson. Four days passed and Dent did not enter Canton to see the commissioner. Lin now threatened force and began to assemble Chinese troops on the Canton river. Dent still failed to appear. Lin had however, lost interest in him, and decided the man he wanted was Elliot. By the evening of the 24th when Elliot dropped anchor, Lin had surrounded the foreigners compound with soldiers and the English were now imprisoned. No messages could get in or out The whole foreign community in Canton was hostage to the opium. Elliot armed with no power, (a fact which Lin did not believe,) did the only thing he could and gave in. He not only agreed to hand over the opium but also committed the government to indemnifying the opium traders for their losses. All the opium in the Canton area 20, 283 chests were now theoretically in Lin’s hands. Commissioner Lin now sent new demands to Elliot, who read them with horror. Her Majesty’s Government must not only withdraw from the opium trade but stop making opium . Any vessel carrying opium in Chinese waters would be confiscated.
On June 21st the British Expeditionary force appeared off Macao, 20 warships carried 4,000 troops. It hove to for a few days then sailed away and the Chinese thought they had returned home, they were wrong. The British had sailed north to attack the port of Tinghai. The people there had no hint of British plans assuming the vessels were opium carriers and were pleased that the trade was coming to their town. Then the fleet opened fire,. Nine minute later under broadsides from 15 cruisers most of Tinghai was rubble. English troops landed and swept through the town. The English occupied Chusan which, they had wanted all along. The Chinese forces with their outdated weaponry and their ancient belief in their spiritual superiority stood no chance against the British forces Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangtse fell to them in June. The British sailed into Nanking in August. On August 29th 1842, The Treaty of Nanking was signed and the Opium War was over.
It was a taste of what was to come after the British Expeditionary force arrived on June 21st 1840. The Chinese had no idea of what they were facing and their generals contempt for barbarians clouded their - never-very-acute power of strategic planning.
The Chinese officers even took the English musket as a sign of weakness The sight of a British paddle-wheeler was so novel that the imperial Chinese sailors were thunderstruck when they saw it.