A Brief History of the Opium War

December 6, 2013 | | Comments Off on A Brief History of the Opium War

China refused to trade with the West because they saw no benefit from trading with them. The British were especially irritated by the high customs duties the Chinese forced them to pay for they had to pay silver in order to get tea, which was only grown in China. However, they had a plan to get around it and that was opium. Opium was used to aid the effects of diarrhea, however, it quickly became abused and thousands of Chinese became addicts. The Chinese government forbids the import of opium. Despite the attempts of Chinese authorities to stop the growing import trade in opium, the trade continued to flourish. Privately owned vessels of many countries made huge profits from the growing number of Chinese addicts. The opium smuggling upset the previous trade balance and destroyed the Chinese economy. The Chinese noted that the foreigners seemed intent on dragging down the Chinese through the encouragement of opium addiction (A Short History of Opium).

The balance of trade turned against the Chinese in the 1830s, and the British decided to force the issue of increased trade rights. By the late 1830s more than 30,000 chests, each of which held about 150 pounds of the extract, were being brought in annually by the various foreign powers. In the spring of 1839 Chinese authorities at Canton confiscated and burned the opium to show that they were being serious of the ban of opium. In response, the British occupied positions around Canton for they did not want to give up the wealth the opium trade had given them (A Short History of Opium).

In the war that followed, the Chinese could not match the technological and tactical superiority of the British forces. In 1842 China agreed to the provisions of the Treaty of Nanking. Hong Kong was ceded to Great Britain, and other ports, including Canton, were opened to British residence and trade. The ports were declared to be duty free. The foreigners received legal exemptions from Chinese law. China also had to pay for the war costs (A Short History of Opium).

The French and Americans approached the Chinese after the Nanking Treaty’s provisions became known, and in 1844 gained the same trading rights as the British. The advantages granted the three nations by the Chinese set a precedent that would dominate China’s relations with the world for the next century. China’s right to rule in its own territory was limited. This began the period referred to by the Chinese as the time of unequal treaties – a time of unprecedented degradation for China. Meanwhile, the opium trade continued to thrive. The Chinese attempted to over throw the Western domination, but consistently failed to do so. In a final attempt, the Boxer Rebellion occurred in 1899 to push out the West. In response, the Western powers completely crushed the rebellion (A Short History of Opium).

Written By: Megan Flaherty



This map shows how China lost territory to the Western powers.








Jay MacMichael. “China and opium war edited final 6 min.” Youtube.com. Web. 4 December 2013.


“Map Showing Effects of Western Imperialism in China.” Map. Western Civilization II Guides. Blog. 4 December 2013.

Wallbank, Taylor, Baikey, Jewsbury, Lewis, and Hackett. “A Short History of the Opium Wars.” Civilizations Past and Present. (1992): Chapter 29. Scahffer Library of Drug Policy. Web. 4 December 2013.

Modified from:

“A Short History of the Opium Wars.” Western Civilization II Guides. UMW. Blog. December 2013.


“The Scramble for Empire: South and East Asia.” Western Civilization II GuidesUMW.Blog. 4 December 2013.



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