The Second Opium War  


Opium Trade in China

Tensions Emerge

First Opium War

Second Opium War

Lasting Effects

Works Cited



The Second Opium War, sometimes called the Arrow War, can be seen as a continuation of the First Opium War. With imperialism hitting its high point in the 1850’s, western countries wanted more of a say in China. The treaties of Huangpu and Wangxia that China signed with France and the United States respectively in the 1840’s allowed for negotiations after 12 years. The British wanted this privilege as well, and wanted to negotiate the Treaty of Nanking in 1854.

The British wanted all of China to be open to merchants, legalization of the opium trade, foreign imports to be exempt from internal tax duties, the stifling of piracy, regulation of the coolie (Chinese people sent to the west as indentured servants) trade, ambassadors to be allowed to reside in Beijing, and the English version of treaties to take precedence over the Chinese version. China refused to negotiate with any of the countries, which angered the western countries.

Tensions came to a head in October 8, 1856 when Chinese officials boarded the Arrow, a ship rumored to be involved in piracy and smuggling. The officials arrested 12 Chinese subjects from the ship. The Arrow was a Chinese owned ship and registered in Hong Kong, but was flying a British flag and the British claimed it had recently been registered to them. The British demanded the release of the sailors, using the unequal treaties as the legal grounds for this request.

The term ‘unequal treaties’ refers to the treaties China and other Asian countries signed with western countries that were slanted towards western interests. They often involved China paying large reparations, opening ports, and making concessions to the West. Under these treaties, any foreigners that were arrested were to be tried by a court run by their own country.

The British argument was a weak one and they resorted to claiming that the Chinese soldiers had insulted the British flag. The Chinese government was too busy dealing with the Taiping Rebellion to try and resist the British military, and the British easily destroyed the forts at Canton and then moved in to attack the city. American and British warships bombarded the city, but the soldiers and citizens were able to force them back to Humen, an area in Canton Province just outside the city.

The British asked France, the United States, and Russia to join them against the Chinese. The French were very enthusiastic to help because one of their missionaries had recently been assassinated by the Chinese. The US and Russia sent envoys promising support, but never sent any actual military assistance.

In March of 1857 the British and French militaries joined forces under Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, with the British being led by Lord Elgin and the French by Jean Baptiste Louis. Later that year, the combined forces attacked and occupied Canton, capturing the governor-general Ye Mingshen. Bo-gui, the governor of Canton Province, surrendered.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1868 Russia attacked the northern regions of Manchuria. The Chinese agreed to sign the Treaty of Aigun in May of that year. The treaty ceded 600,000 square kilometers of land between the northern bank of the Amor River and Outer Xing'an Ridge to Russia and gave joint possession of the land between the Ussuri River and the sea.

The British and French forces moved on to Wanghailou, a city on the outskirts of Tianjin and waited there for a peace-talk. On June 5th, 1858 the Chinese agreed to meet with the French and British for negotiations. Later that month, the British and Chinese signed the Treaty of Tientsin, which France, the US, and Russia were also parties in. The treaty opened 11 more ports to the west, allowed Britain, France, Russia, and US to establish small embassies in Beijing (a previously closed city), all foreign ships would be allowed on the Yangtze River, foreigners could travel to the interior of China, China would pay both Britain and France 2 million taels (1 tael = about 40g) of silver, and China would pay Britain an additional 2 million taels of silver for destruction of property.

However, the peace did not last long. China was not adhering to some of the elements of the treaty, particularly by not allowing embassies to be set up in Beijing. The British responded by attacking Chinese forts at the mouth of the Peiho River. Throughout 1860 the British and French forces attacked many forts throughout China, and on October 6th they entered Beijing. Emperor Xianfeng fled to the Summer Palace and appointed his brother, Prince Gong, as head of negotiations. The British and French looted the city and burnt both the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace.

The countries decided to negotiate and on October 18, 1860 the Convention of Peking (Beijing) was held. At the convention the Treaty of Teintsin was ratified by Prince Gong, Christians were given full civil rights, the city of Tianjin was opened, the Chinese ceded No. 1 District of Kowloon to Britain, freedom of religion was granted in China, British ships would be allowed to carry indentured Chinese to the Americas, China would pay Britain and France each 8 million taels, and the opium trade was legalized.


Shandra Goldfinger © 2006.  Created for World Politics 116, Mount Holyoke College.  Contact: goldf20s at mtholyoke dot edu.

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