The first Opium War was a series of military confrontations between Britain and China which at that time was ruled by the Qing Dynasty. The incident that started the war was the confiscating of British opium stocks at the port of Canton and China refusing to legalize opium. You might not have heard about this war, but it actually has a profound impact on global history, something we will discuss at the end.
In the 18th century, Britishers were crazy for Chinese goods like tea, silk, and porcelain. About 5% of a British family’s income was actually spent on tea and it made about 10% of the Government’s revenue. But there was a huge issue, the Chinese did not like foreigners on their soil, they allowed only one port Canton to be open for trade and every time the British tried to open more ports to them, they would put harsher trade conditioners on the British. This caused money to flow out of Britain and into China. The British were going into a loss as if this kept on going, they wouldn’t be able to sustain their colonies but they couldn’t leave tea either. So, they came up with an idea, they decided to sell opium in China and use the money earned to buy tea. India was the perfect place to make this opium and coincidently, it was right next to China. But there was still one huge issue to tackle, opium was illegal in China and the emperor refused to legalize it, the British then decided to sell it in China illegally. Opium was a huge hit in China, almost everyone was using it.
In 1839, the emperor was furious and sent his Vice Roy Lin Zhexu to deal with the mess. Lin tried to stop the spread of opium users by sending all the addicts to rehabilitation camps and offering tea to British Merchants in exchange for them forfeiting their opium stores. The merchant refused and then what happened, was the spark that started the opium war.
Lin forcefully confiscated 21,000 chests full of opium, which is about $26 million and penalized the use of opium by death. This was the last nail in the coffin, the British sent their royal navy as they took over many islands including Hong Kong where they set up their base. They further followed the river into China slaughtering all Chinese ships in their way. The British were just about to attack Nanking (the city which supplied all goods to Beijing) when the Chinese surrendered. It was in 1842, the Qing dynasty was forced to give in to British demands including giving them access to 5 ports for trade and the island of Hong Kong. But there was one demand they did not give into, that was the legalizing of opium. The Chinese felt this treaty was very unfair while the British weren’t too happy as they did not get all they wanted.
This unhappiness was what caused the Second Opium War which actually involved the superpower, the United States of America. The war was also the source of the Taiping Rebellion which further weakened the already weak Qing Dynasty. This was also set a lot of international relations whose impact could have been seen in world war I and is also the source of many drug routes in Asia.