1839 - 1842 CE
The first opium war: China vs Britain

In 1839, China demands the handover of all opium and demands all foreign traders sign a bond making them subject to Chinese law if they are found to be involved in the opium trade. Initially the British refuse to hand over any opium but, in the end, are forced to give up thousands of chests of opium that are confiscated and destroyed by the Chinese. Refusal to sign the bond results in China threatening to close all trade with the British and in the expulsion of the British traders from Canton.

Major debate rages in England pitting representatives of the opium traders (“Big Opium”) against the anti-opium party that argued for China’s right to suppress a pernicious trade. In the end the hawkish policy of the ruling party wins out and Britain prepares for war. Meanwhile, a few traders who do not deal in opium are prepared to sign the bond leading to the first skirmish as British warships try to stop British traders from defecting from the official opposition to the bond.

The British government sends modern military forces against the antiquated Chinese military. This results in the destruction of a Chinese blockade on the Pearl River and the occupation of the city of Canton. The fighting ends with the capture of Nanking in August 1842 and the signing of the Treaty of Nanking ceding Hong Kong to Britain and granting the British open access to Chinese ports. Among all the terms and conditions, no mention was made of opium. Officially the opium trade was still illegal; in practice it was still big business.

In 1844, China also establishes treaties with the USA and France giving them certain trading rights and allowing them to engage in religious and cultural interaction with China.

Source: Hanes, T.W. & Sanello, F. (2002). The Opium Wars. Sourcebooks.

Drugs: Opium (morphine, heroin, opioids)
Regions: China, UK (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland)
Topics: Cultivation, production and trade, Drugs and war