Tension between China and England  


Opium Trade in China

Tensions Emerge

First Opium War

Second Opium War

Lasting Effects

Works Cited



The British were keen to have the Chinese smoke opium because it provided them with a huge profit. They completely ignored the sanctions against it by the Chinese government and the pleas from China to stop the exportation of opium from India to China. In the early 1800’s, domestic competition within India caused the price of opium to decrease. As a result, the demand for opium in China spiked. Domestic problems in India further affected the opium trade in 1833 by ending the British East India Company’s monopoly.

Depiction of a Chinese opium den

In 1834 England sent Lord Napier to Macao to discuss trade with government officials. He wanted to negotiate the terms of the Canton system now that the East India Company no longer had a monopoly. However, the Canton system did not allow direct contact with Chinese officials and Napier was turned away by the governor. The governor closed trade on September 2nd and the British, despite Lord Napier’s desire to force open the port, agreed to continue trading under the old terms.

Without the British East India Company to serve as a buffer, the British government had to intervene more frequently in China. This angered the Chinese government and further stressed relations. In March of 1839 the emperor appointed Lin Zexu as an official to govern trade in Canton. Lin sought to enforce the emperor’s ban on opium and demanded that the British merchants hand over opium stock within three days and sign a bond promising to not traffic opium. The penalty for breaking this agreement would be death.

Charles Elliot, the British superintendent of trade, tried to negotiate with Lin but failed. In response, Lin suspended trade and held all foreign merchants hostage. Elliot surrendered to Lin and ordered the merchants to relinquish their opium. Lin disposed of the opium by dumping it into the sea. The Chinese government did not realize the message this would send, as the British saw it as the destruction of their private property. China and Britain were now set up for a major conflict.

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

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