The Opium War, 1839-1842

Described is the Opium War, the first War on Drugs in history, fought between China and Britain between the years 1839 and 1842.

Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, hashish, opium - all these drugs are illegal; all these drugs are profoundly destructive for users; all these drugs are front and center in the current American War on Drugs. This war is not the first such in history. Between 1839 and 1842 another drug war was fought, and lost by the victim nation. This became known as the Opium War, fought between Britain and China.

As now, 19th Century trade in illegal drugs was rooted in economics. British colonialist expansion was then at its peak and one British company, the British East India Company, had secured exclusive trade rights with China. Throughout much of the 19th Century the principal British export to China by this trading company was opium, grown in British colonies in India and Bengal. Opium exceeded in value the total of all other export trade commodities the British were selling in China, despite that opium was illegal under Chinese law.

In 1817, Britain sold 240 tons of opium into China. Within ten years, the level had risen to 750 tons, and by 1837, just prior to the Opium War, it exceeded 2500 tons.

The trade enriched the British at home and supported their colonies abroad. However, the trade imbalance was severely draining Chinese fiscal resources. Moreover, an estimated ten million Chinese, mostly in urban areas, had become opium addicts.

From a domestic policing point of view, the Chinese were powerless to cope. Corruption had reached the highest levels of their society and turning a blind eye was most often the order of the day. From a military point of view, the Chinese were powerless against the British. During that period Britain outgunned every country in the world and was at the height of its military power. Indeed, for a century and a half, apart from a setback in North America--the American Revolution--the British were supreme to every horizon, putting together an empire surpassed in size only by that of the Mongols in their time.

The issues that sparked the Opium War were economic. The British wanted not only to protect their existing trade relationship but also wanted to expand it. Their exclusive trade agreement with China had expired in 1834. They wished to renew it and at the same time obtain rights to trade through more Chinese ports. Traders from other countries, notably the United States and Holland, were using the period of the agreement's lapse to infringe on what the British regarded as their sovereign exclusive right. They did not see free trade as in their interests, especially with regard to opium. The Chinese, in the British view, were dragging their feet.

The Chinese ruling dynasty, the Manchus, wanted to halt the outflow of wealth, estimated in 1837 to be about $20 Million annually, which would be billions in today's values.

As well, in some powerful Chinese quarters, paramount was a desire to restore the ancient Chinese cultural values of the traditional, so-called, Middle Kingdom, to the Chinese, the chosen place in the universe. Though ten million Chinese may have been opium addicts, many other tens of millions of Chinese would have preferred to be rid of the "white devils."

Just prior to actual armed hostilities, the Chinese sought to stifle the opium trade within their domestic jurisdictions. Stiff penalties were decreed: flogging for opium smokers, prison or death by strangulation for traffickers. However, local corruption was so rife, enforcement was negligible. During this period opium use actually increased.

The Chinese also considered legalization of the trade, a means at least to collect legitimate taxes, and they made proposals to the British along these lines. Seeing only reduced profits, the British balked.

The Chinese faction favoring outright prohibition eventually prevailed in the Chinese political arena. In late 1838 and early 1839, the Chinese moved against traders at Canton, the principal port of entry for British opium, confiscating tons of opium from the ships in the harbor.

Given that the British East India Company was mostly owned by members of Britain's peerage, the British navy was quick to respond. The war was on.

Logistically and politically, that the Chinese would lose was a foregone conclusion. That the war dragged sporadically through nearly three years was primarily due to misinformation being provided to the Manchu rulers in their far off capital. The Manchu treatment of messengers bearing bad news resulted in their being fed a regular diet of good news having no basis in reality. When the Chinese lost the key interior city of Nanking to the British, the bad news could no longer be withheld. The Chinese were obliged to officially capitulate.

In 1842 the Treaty of Nanking was signed, effectively ending the Opium War. The Treaty, that is, the Chinese defeat, has had far-reaching effects on the shape of China and its relations even in our contemporary times.

Among immediate results of the Treaty, the Chinese were forced to pay millions in reparations. As well, the island of Hong Kong was ceded to British rule. Opium was not mentioned in the treaty documents.

The self-evident weakness of the Chinese kicked open the door to other aggressive colonialist and trading nations. Before 1850, merchants from the United States, Russia, France, Belgium, Sweden, and Norway were trading into China. By 1860, a staggering 6400 tons of opium was being annually shipped into China.

While the Manchu dynasty appeared powerless to stop or slow the incursions by other nations, the groundswell of sheer Chinese population and vast geographic distances in the country eventually dealt with opium the way Chinese have dealt with invaders over the course of their history. Eventually, the countryside absorbed, weakened, then obliterated them. According to the Chinese, and their history speaks to its truth, time is the most inexorable and effective of weapons. Regarding opium, and even the Manchus, who themselves were invaders, time finally won.

For many Chinese, the Treaty of Nanking was a signal that the Manchu dynasty was at its end - humiliated, weak, corrupt. A republican movement ran across the political landscape, spurring nearly fifteen years of civil war. In that chaos the opium trade continued to flourish.

By the turn of the century, finally, a Chinese general emerged, Yuan Shih-h'ai, who sent the remnants of the Manchu dynasty and the republicans packing. He was tough, he was keen on Chinese tradition, he put an end to the opium trade. With the Chinese army supporting him, with colonialists pre-occupied by unrest in other countries, he was able to suppress the import and consumption of opium and even wipe out the domestic cultivation in several Chinese provinces. Had Yuan not died in 1916, there is speculation that he may have even circumvented the rise of communism in China.

Even before the opium trade in China reached its peak, it bore remarkable similarities to the current American experience. The market spread across all sectors of society, beginning with poor people in urban areas but eventually reaching upward to the elites. The corruption that facilitated the trade and the substantial profits to be had were similarly widespread.

Eventual suppression in China was enabled by a combination of domestic interdiction and international instability on the supply side, much the same approach being taken today to suppress the drug trade.

Is the American problem as significant as that which developed in China? Currently, the United States accounts for consumption of sixty percent of all illegal drugs produced in the world. If it is not yet as significant, it could become so.

© High Speed Ventures 2011