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The Nineteenth Century Opium Wars

Drugs have caused violence and bloodshed for hundreds of years. Drug rehab has only become widely accessible in the last century, but addiction has been a problem throughout human history. Two of the worst conflicts occurred in the 1800s, when British and Chinese forces battled for control of lucrative opium trade routes. Understanding these Opium Wars can give us greater insights into the drug-fueled wars that plague our world today.

The Anglo-Chinese Opium Trade

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the opium trade had been banned in most parts of China. Addiction was rampant among citizens, and rulers worried that traders were gaining too much power and control over the drug’s lucrative trade routes. However, the British devised a way to continue profiting on the illicit market.

In 1773, the British abolished the major opium syndicate in India, essentially giving their East India Company control of the trade in that region. They sold their product first in Calcutta, where it was then diverted to the Chinese market through Indian merchants. The Chinese government attempted to curtail sales of opium, but officials met with little success. The country’s border was large and difficult to police, and the demand among Chinese citizens was incredibly high.

First Opium War, 1839-1842

In 1839, the Chinese attempted to exercise greater restriction over the influx of Indian opium. The blockaded British vessels at their ports, and they began boarding ships and destroying cargo. In 1840, large forces of British and Indian merchants retaliated by attacking coastal towns and ports.

This war was devastating for China. The British had steamships, heavy cannons, and more advanced small arms at their disposal, and they decimated entire cities. They also took control of the central area of Canton, as well as the Emperor’s tax vessels. When the Chinese pushed for peace in 1842, they were forced to make immense concessions. They reopened four ports, ceded control of Hong Kong, and granted special privileges to British merchants. The Opium trade continued unfettered for another fifteen years.

Second Opium War, 1856-1860

From 1842 to 1856, Chinese authorities attempted to mitigate the effects of the treaties from the first war. Although the British were technically allowed to trade in China, local governments discouraged merchants from dealing with foreigners. They also continued the ban on the importation of opium, though it was nearly impossible to enforce.

In 1856, the British incited further conflict by landing the pirate vessel Arrow in a Chinese port. As expected, local officials seized the crew and cargo. They eventually let the crew go, but their refusal to apologize to the British crown was used as a pretense for another war. Now allied with France, the British again took control of Canton and forced a treaty 1858. The Chinese opened more ports and officially legalized the opium trade.

This new treaty was short-lived, however, as China refused to allow British and French diplomats into Peking in 1859. Fighting resumed, and Chinese forces were again defeated. The final treaty of the Second Opium War opened additional ports and led to the influx of merchants from Russia and other European nations. It wasn’t until 1906 that the British finally cooperated with the Chinese in reducing the influx of opium.

If you’re struggling with opium or any other drug, you need to get help as soon as possible. Call the number at the top of your screen for a toll-free consultation, and let our dedicated counselors answer all of your questions. We can get you started on a drug rehab program that will you have you back on your feet, living the life you truly deserve.

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More