First Opium War

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The First Anglo-Chinese War (1839–42), known popularly as the First Opium War,[nb 2] was fought between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Qing Dynasty of China, with the aim of securing economic benefits from trade in China.[3] In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking—the first of what the Chinese called the unequal treaties—granted an indemnity to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island, ending the monopoly of trading in the Canton System. The war marked the end of China's isolation and the beginning of modern Chinese history.[4][5]

Contents

Background

During the 19th century, trading in goods from China was extremely lucrative for Europeans and Chinese merchants alike. Due to the Qing Dynasty's trade restrictions, whereby maritime trade was only allowed to take place in Canton (Guangzhou) conducted by imperially sanctioned monopolies, it became uneconomical to trade in low-value manufactured consumer products that the average Chinese could buy from the British like the Indians did.

Instead, the Sino-British trade became dominated by high-value luxury items such as tea (from China to Britain) and silver (from Britain to China), to the extent that European specie metals became widely used in China. Britain had been on the gold standard since the 18th century, so it had to purchase silver from continental Europe and Mexico to supply the Chinese appetite for silver, which was a costly process at a time before demonetisation of silver by Germany in the 1870s. In casting about for other possible commodities to reverse the flow of silver out of the country and into China, the British decided on opium. Opium as a medicinal ingredient was documented in texts as early as the Ming dynasty but its recreational use was limited and there were laws in place against its abuse. It was with the mass quantities introduced by the British motivated by the equalisation of trade that the drug became prevalent. British sales of opium in large amounts began in 1781 and between 1821 and 1837 sales increased fivefold. The drug was produced in traditionally cotton-growing regions of India under British government monopoly (Bengal) and in the Princely states (Malwa) and was sold on the condition that it be shipped by British traders to China. The Qing government had largely ignored the problem until abuse of the drug had spread widely in Chinese society.

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