Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom

Larry Holzwarth - November 21, 2019

In the 19th century the British Empire, through the Royal Navy and the military wing of the East India Company, fought two wars to force Imperial China to accept the illegal opium trade. Britain forced China to make opium legal within its empire while keeping opium illegal in Great Britain. It also punished Chinese impertinence in attempting to protect the well-being of Chinese citizens by seizing territory and imposing trade laws. The opium wars devastated the Chinese economy and led to massive addiction among the Chinese people, while they ensured Chinese silver entered British coffers, further weakening the Qing Dynasty in China.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
A landing in Canton in 1858. Wikimedia

A modern-day equivalent might be the governments of Colombia and Peru forcing the United States to accept the illegal trade in cocaine and allowing Colombian and Peruvian merchants to sell it in American cities openly, with the cashflow leaving the United States for their own treasuries, and the city of Miami becoming a port under their control. Yes, that is farfetched, but it is equivalent to what happened during the period of Chinese history known as the Opium Wars. Here is how it happened, during the period of history which was known as the Pax Britannica.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Imperial portrait of the Daoguang Emperor of China, who ruled during the First Opium War. Wikimedia

1. The Qing Dynasty expanded China’s Empire, but isolated it from the west

The Qing Dynasty of Manchuria brought the lands of Tibet into the Chinese Empire, conquered the lands of the Uyghurs in what became Xinjiang, and the island of Taiwan. Within the borders of the Chinese Empire trade was bustling by the beginning of the 18th century, and it grew throughout, with trading centers along the rivers and internal roads. Foreign ships were banned, the Qing denied access to foreign diplomats, with the exception of the port of Canton. Trade was allowed in a district of the city of Canton (Guangzhou) known as the 13 Factories, with Chinese goods traded for silver.

Britain’s powerful East India Company held a monopoly on trade with the Chinese, as well as a monopoly on the tea trade to Britain. Tea from China, as well as Chinese silks and porcelain, departed from Canton, paid for by British silver. The East India Company didn’t like trading hard specie – always in short supply – for Chinese goods, and they also needed a market for the opium produced in the company-owned territories in India. By the middle of the 18th century, ships from the East India Company were smuggling opium – used in some traditional Chinese medicines – to China, being paid in silver, in effect recouping the coinage paid to the Chinese for other goods.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Ships of the East India Company dominated trade to India and China in the 19th century. Wikimedia

2. The East India Company was soon joined by the United States

By the end of the 18th century, the East India Company was shipping tons of opium from India into China, where its casual use, that is, non-medicinal use, was illegal. The market was highly lucrative, and the EIC was aided through the use of the time-honored practice of bribing local Chinese officials. After the American Revolution, ships from the United States joined in the illegal trade, shipping opium from the Ottoman Empire to China. In China, opium addiction rates soared, while Great Britain continued to ban casual use of the drug in the British Isles. The EIC brought in opium through the exploitation of loopholes in Chinese law – which allowed limited importation of opium for medicinal use – though most was simply smuggled in by its ships.

By the 1830s China’s Qing government recognized the crisis it was facing due to the trade with the western nations. Illegal opium trade had created frighteningly high rates of addiction to the drug, with millions of Chinese affected. The trade with the west had been intended to provide an influx of silver into the Emperor’s treasury. Instead, the demand of opium traders to be paid in silver had created a drain on the treasury, and a shortage of silver in China. The Daoguang Emperor ignored the calls from some advisors to legalize, regulate, and tax opium and appointed Lin Zexu to serve as Imperial Commissioner for Trade in Canton, with the mandate that the illegal trade in the drug be brought to a halt.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
An open letter by Qing authorities to curb the opium trade received no response from the British. Wikimedia

3. The Chinese attempted to stop the opium trade through diplomacy rejected by the British

One of Lin’s first efforts to bring the illegal and damaging (to the Chinese) opium trade to a halt was the composition of a letter addressed to the British Monarch, Queen Victoria, in 1839. The letter was an open appeal to the morality of Her Majesty and appeared in the Times of London, but Victoria did not send a response, and there is no evidence of her commenting on the subject. Lin then proposed to the East India Company to exchange their opium in warehouses for Chinese tea, which the company rejected, having no desire to create a surplus of tea, for which it paid substantial taxes to the British government. The illegal opium trade was untaxed.

The East India Company neither produced nor refined opium in India, Java, and other sources. Instead, it facilitated moving the drug to ports it controlled, where officially it was sold to private traders for shipping. Unofficially its ships did carry the cargo, but company bills of lading identified it as other products (often salt), thus creating evidence of their avoiding illegal activity. Several officers of the EIC made fortunes in the drug trade. By the early 19th century the EIC controlled all aspects of the growing of poppies and the refining of opium in India, controlling the prices, and selling the refined product to shippers at auctions during the winter months.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Lin Zexu tried diplomatic means before attempting to stop the opium trade through enforcing Chinese law. Wikimedia

4. Addiction to opium created a serious health crisis in China

When Lin arrived in Canton with a mandate to bring the trade to a stop it was following a series of Imperial orders which had been intended to end the illegal trade but failed. One for example, which forbade the unloading of ships in Chinese ports until they had been inspected by Imperial officials was circumvented by British traders through using ships as floating storage facilities. Anchored in open water, the trading ships would unload their cargo into the storage ships, from which the opium was sold directly to Chinese dealers. China’s weak navy was powerless to intervene with ships which flew the British flag.

In 1810 the Daoguang Emperor declared in an edict, “Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality”. For the next two decades, government attempts to control its use increased, and failed, in large part because the trade was too lucrative for the British (and Americans) to give up. It was also lucrative to the Chinese dealers in the drug, who moved it into the interior of China, where foreign traders were banned. By the time Lin arrived in Canton, the EIC had established a garrison of its troops in Macau, allegedly to protect British interests from French interference, and maintained armed ships on station as protection against piracy.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
A German depiction of the Daoguang Emperor, who mandated the death penalty for opium dealers. Wikimedia

5. Lin took action to seize British opium stockpiles in 1839

Having failed to achieve a diplomatic solution to the illegal trade in opium, and in response to British lobbying to legalize the trade, Lin moved to suppress it, in accordance with Chinese law. China announced that dealers in illegal opium were subject to the death penalty, with the Daoguang Emperor releasing an edict in March 1838 which included, “Any foreigner or foreigners bringing opium to the Central Land, with design to sell the same, the principals shall most assuredly be decapitated, and the accessories strangled; and all property (found on board the same ship) shall be confiscated”. The Emperor granted a grace period for enforcement of 18 months.

The following year Lin summoned the council of Chinese merchants known as the Cohong, who served as intermediaries with the British traders. Lin informed the twelve members of the Cohong that he considered them traitors, and demanded that they confiscate the opium then held in China by British and American traders. The British merchants offered to turn over a small amount of the drug, less than 10% of what was stored in warehouses and aboard ships. The British Superintendent of Trade, a deputy of the Crown, announced that all foreign merchants and their stockpiles were under the protection of the Crown. Lin responded by closing off access to the 13 Factories region and closed the channel of the Pearl River to navigation.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Charles Elliot, in the uniform of a captain of the Royal Navy. Wikimedia

6. The British Superintendent of Trade agreed to Chinese demands to surrender the opium stockpiles

The British Superintendent, Charles Elliot, agreed to Lin’s demand that the opium held by British merchants be surrendered to the Chinese, telling the merchants that they would be paid for their financial losses. By mid-May, over 20,000 chests of opium had been surrendered to the Chinese, and Lin ordered the merchants who had been involved banned from China. The British ships then withdrew to Hong Kong, where a British garrison offered security. Lin had the seized opium destroyed, and Elliot found himself in hot water with the British government, who disavowed his promise for reparations to the merchants and his timidity in dealing with Lin.

The British government instead demanded that the government of the Daoguang Emperor make reparations to the merchants, whose property had been, in their view, under the protection of the British flag when it was illegally seized and destroyed. The British government considered the Chinese enforcement of Chinese law to be an act of war. Representatives of the merchants involved lobbied the government to send a military expedition to China to enforce British demands for reparations and to punish the Chinese government. In the spring of 1840 a British naval force of 16 warships, supported by more than two dozen other ships, departed for war with China.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Lin Zexu, in Commissioners’ robes, demanded China’s law be applied to British sailors ashore. Wikimedia

7. Drunken British sailors led to a legal disagreement between Elliot and Lin

While lobbyists for the opium merchants pushed for a war in London, affairs between the British and Chinese grew more tense in Canton. An incident between intoxicated sailors and a Chinese villager led to the latter being beaten to death by the former. Elliot had the sailors arrested, tried by military court aboard a British ship, and convicted. They were sentenced to fines and hard labor, though a court in Britain overturned the verdict. Lin demanded they be turned over to him for trial under Chinese law, which Elliot refused. In response, Lin ordered no further trade with the British, upon which they were dependent for food and water.

In September 1839, Elliot dispatched two armed ships to Kowloon, with the demand they be allowed to purchase food, or they would open fire on armed Chinese junks preventing them from dealing with the townspeople. The British opened fire on the junks, which was returned by the Chinese until the junks withdrew at nightfall. After the exchange, Elliot distributed a flyer among the residents of Kowloon, accusing them of hostility towards the British through the act of denying them the right to purchase food. “To deprive men of food is the act only of the unfriendly and hostile”, it read.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
The Indiaman Thomas Coutts ignored the British imposed ban on trade with Canton and reached its own agreement with Lin. Wikimedia

8. The Chinese demanded all British traders sign a bond they would not deal in opium

When Lin demanded that all traders sign an agreement not to trade in opium – on pain of death if violated – Elliot banned British traders from signing it. In the fall of 1839, a British ship owned by Quakers entered Canton, and negotiated its own trade agreement with the governor (the Chinese knew the owners opposed the opium trade on moral grounds). Elliot considered the act as flaunting his authority as trade superintendent and ordered a blockade of the Pearl River, preventing other British ships from following the precedent established by the Quakers. On November 3, another British ship, Royal Saxon, attempted to enter Canton.

The blockading ships fired warning shots at Royal Saxon, and armed junks sortied to protect the British merchant ship from the British Navy. The resulting naval battle saw the destruction of four junks. The British then moved their ships to Macau, where they were denied the right to unload cargo by the Portuguese authorities there. In January, 1840, the Daoguang Emperor issued another edict, which asked foreign merchants of all nations to cease providing material assistance to the British, including the sale of food and other necessities. The same month, Queen Victoria told the British Parliament, “Events have happened in China which have occasioned an interruption of the commercial intercourse of my subjects with that country. I have given, and shall continue to give, the most serious attention to a matter so deeply affecting the interests of my subjects and the dignity of my Crown.”

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Lord Palmerston pushed hard for war to support the illegal opium trade in China. Wikimedia

9. Lord Palmerston established war aims which imposed British authority over Chinese trade

The war aims of the British government were established in writing in a letter sent by Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston to Elliot. They included Britain being given most favored trading status, the opening of several additional trading ports in addition to Canton, British legal authority over British residents in China, reparations for British property destroyed, and the Chinese law over dealing in contraband (such as opium) not be applied to British subjects. They also included the seizure of Chinese territorial islands which could be used as defense positions by the British military. At the same time, a letter was dispatched to the Daoguang Emperor informing him of a British military expedition to enforce the demands.

Both the British Army and troops of the East India Company’s Army were prepared for war, supplemented with additional troops from the Empire. In the summer of 1840, the British forces captured Dinghai, on the island of Zhoushan, for use as a staging base for attacks on mainland China. In August the British forces drove Chinese forces out of Macau and Portugal remained neutral, though allowing the British to use the harbor there as another staging area for future attacks against the Chinese mainland. Britain then focused its efforts on Canton and the Pearl River.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
The Royal Navy and the EIC Navy gave the British an overwhelming superiority at sea and along the rivers. Wikimedia

10. British naval superiority made a defense of the Pearl River difficult for the Chinese

The Chinese junks were utterly ineffective against the British warships, and by early January, 1841, British forces controlled the Pearl River beneath Canton. Lin Zexu was replaced by Qishan in 1840, and tasked by the Daoguang Emperor with negotiating peace with the British if possible. Qishan recognized the improbability of the Chinese recovering control of the Pearl River and opened negotiations with Elliot in the hope of limiting the war from spreading deeper into the Chinese mainland. In January, 1841, Qishan and Elliot agreed to the Convention of Chuenpi, in which China agreed to make reparations and ceded Hong Kong to the British.

Both the Daoguang Emperor and Lord Palmerston rejected the agreement, and both Qishan and Elliot were removed from their posts by their respective governments. In the case of Qishan, the Emperor was furious at the concessions. Palmerston, on the other hand, was furious that so few of his stated war aims were achieved. British General Henry Pottinger replaced Elliot; Qishan was replaced by Yang Fang. Resumption of hostilities occurred within a few weeks, and though the British had returned the forts on the Pearl River to Chinese control, they quickly recaptured them.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
A fort originally built by the Dutch at Canton. Wikimedia

11. The British captured Canton and reopened it for trade in March, 1841

British forces, both naval and ground troops, captured Canton on March 18, including the 13 Factories. In the days following, they secured most of the region surrounding the city in a series of military victories. Within days trade was reopened, negotiated with the Cohong, whom the Emperor declared to be traitors, as well as any others trading with foreigners at Canton or along the Pearl River. Chinese forces of the Qing built up a large army surrounding the area, and in the temporary absence of British warships (Elliot had withdrawn them) hidden artillery batteries along the Pearl River.

On May 21, Qing forces attacked the British at several positions and launched fire rafts against British ships. British forces counterattacked from Hong Kong, and for several days there was heavy fighting between Qing troops and British naval and ground forces. Canton was recaptured, and another peace was signed by Qing authorities and Elliot (who no longer had the authority to do so, though he was as yet unaware of it). The peace had the British withdrawing troops from Canton, with trade remaining open. It was called the Ransom of Canton.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
The 18th Regiment of Foot (Royal Irish) fought at the Battle of Amoy against Qing troops. Wikimedia

12. The British decided to expand the war in mainland China in the summer of 1841

When Elliot finally received word he had been relieved at the end of July, his arguments for restoring trade were silenced, and the British commanders agreed that prosecuting the war vigorously would force the Emperor to accept Palmerston’s terms. Palmerston wanted the city of Amoy to be an international trading port after the war, so Amoy was seized by the British, who garrisoned a nearby island in August. They then withdrew from the city and Qing troops reoccupied it. Meanwhile, Lord Palmerston was replaced by William Lamb, who supported the war and his predecessor’s terms for its end.

When Qishan had ceded Hong Kong to the British, Elliot in turn had ceded Zhoushan, which had been occupied by Qing troops. In October British troops captured the island and its harbor at Dinghai a second time. Hostilities ceased during the winter of 1841-42 for the most part, and the British used the lull to reinforce their holdings and consolidate forces for a campaign along the Yangtze River in the spring of 1842. They planned to take Shanghai, Nanjing, and force the Emperor to agree to the terms which had been dictated by Palmerston in London prior to the war being launched. In the early days of the campaign, in May 1842, the Emperor’s tax barges were seized by the Royal Navy.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Sepoy troops of the East India Company Army also fought in China during the First Opium War. Wikimedia

13. The war ended with the Treaty of Nanking

By the end of the summer of 1842, British military gains had all but bankrupted the Emperor’s treasury, disrupted China’s ability to distribute food across the country, and destroyed much of its military. Delegations from the hostile parties met at Nanking in negotiations which lasted several weeks. On August 21 the Daoguang Emperor acceded to his advisors and authorized the Qing delegates to sign the treaty, ending the war. The Qing government obligated itself to pay $6 million in silver as reparations for the opium destroyed before the outbreak of the war. Other reparations levied a total of $21 million on the Qing government, to be paid over three years at 5% interest.

The Chinese were told which of their ports would be open to trade in addition to Canton, and the requirement to use the Cohong as intermediaries were ended. Hong Kong became a Crown Colony of Great Britain. The opium trade was not made legal by the treaty, though in a subsequent treaty with the United States, the Americans agreed to abide by Chinese law and refrain from the opium trade. The opium trade remained in place, and was expanded by the opening of other ports to international trade. Most of Lord Palmerston’s expressed goals for the war were achieved, though opium continued to be illegally traded in China for another fifteen years.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
The big guns of British men-of-war backed up the peace negotiations at Nanking. Wikimedia

14. The First Opium War set the conditions which led to the Second Opium War

The Treaty of Nanking was the first treaty of many which in China were known as unequal treaties, because the believed they were made with unequal nations. It was followed by similar treaties with France and the United States. Officially the treaty with the United States made the trading in opium illegal, though American merchants continued to do so through the expedience of allowing emissaries in the treaty ports of China to participate in sharing the profits. French and British emissaries did the same. In the case of the British, the emissaries were representatives of the Crown in the treaty ports. Both the French and American treaties carried terms which allowed them to be renegotiated every twelve years. The British demanded, retroactively, the same terms.

The British leaned on their having received, through the Treaty of Nanking, most favored nation status from the Chinese of the Qing government. With competition from the French and Americans, the British demanded even more favorable terms than they had extracted from China in their treaty. Among them was the demand that they not be restricted to operations in the treaty ports, but allowed to trade freely anywhere in China. Another was the legalization of the opium trade, but only by British and Chinese traders, excluding the French and Americans from the business. While they pressured the Qing government to legalize the opium trade they continued to participate in it illegally.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Britain demanded further concessions from the Qing government following the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. Wikimedia

15. Britain began registering Chinese ships as British in the 1840s

During the late 1840s, Chinese traders with the British found their ships entered into British registry by the port officials, a requirement of engaging in trade with any port of the British Empire. The Qing government, with little experience in the complicated area of international and maritime law, accepted the practice. The acceptance later proved disastrous. The British also encouraged citizens of Great Britain to acquire land in and around the treaty ports, a right they had obtained through the Treaty of Nanking. British enclaves began to crowd out Chinese residents in the treaty ports, and there were incidents of violence between British and Chinese residents.

The British continued to press for the establishment of an embassy in the Chinese capital, with access to the Daoguang Emperor’s court and the Qing government, rather than settling for international affairs being handled by envoys in the treaty ports. The Qing government resisted, concerned that British influence in Chinese affairs was already too strong. By 1850 the British were insisting that their most favored nation status gave them the de facto right to trade anywhere in China, rather than being restricted to the activities in the treaty ports.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
The Taiping Rebellion was a long and costly religious civil war which strained the resources of the Qing government. Wikimedia

16. The Qing government became preoccupied with the Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping Rebellion was an insurrection against the Qing government, led by a religious fanatic named Hong Xiuquan, who publicly proclaimed that he was the brother of Jesus Christ. Virtually ignored by western history, it was waged for fourteen years between the Taiping movement and the Qing Dynasty. It was one of the bloodiest wars of human history, with estimates of 30 to 70 million people killed before it was won by the Qing Dynasty in 1864. The Taiping Rebellion is believed by scholars to have distorted the perception of Christianity in China in ways which remain in the 21st century.

As the Qing government and military struggled to first contain and then defeat the rebellion, which arose in 1850 in the province of Guangxi, the British increased their demands upon the Qing. By 1854 the Taiping rebels threatened the Yangtze valley and controlled a significant portion of the country. Incidents of violence by Taiping supporters against British subjects were cited in London and elsewhere as a reason for British action in Chinese affairs. The British government led by Prime Minister William Gladstone was replaced with Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who had been Foreign Secretary during the First Opium War.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Harry Smith Parkes reported the Chinese “insult” to the British flag and demanded an apology, creating a casus belli. Wikimedia

17. The British attacked the Chinese after they seized a ship under suspicion of piracy

In the fall of 1856, the Chinese detained a merchant vessel named Arrow in Canton, arresting 12 men of its crew, all of whom were Chinese. Two others, including its captain, were released. The British Consul in Canton, Harry Parkes, interviewed the captain and learned (he later claimed) that although the ship’s registration as British (at Hong Kong) had expired, it had been flying a British flag when it was seized, and that the flag had been removed by the Chinese troops which arrested the crew. Parkes protested to the Qing authorities, claimed the crew had been under the protection of the British flag, and demanded their immediate release.

Nine of the men were released, the other three were held on charges of piracy. But the Qing government refused to acknowledge insulting the British flag, and thus did not issue the apology demanded by Parkes. On October 23, the British destroyed the barrier forts, and on October 29 began to bombard the city of Canton. The home of the Qing representative was protected by the American consul displaying the flag of the United States on its walls. Intermittent bombardments continued until January 1857, when the British withdrew to Hong Kong. It was the start of the Second Opium War.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Augusute Chapdelaine was a French missionary whose execution provided the French with a reason to declare war on the Qing. Wikimedia

18. The United States and the Russian Empire refused to support the British

In April 1857 both the American and Russian governments rejected appeals from Great Britain for an alliance to settle the situation in China. Britain was further delayed in taking decisive action by the Sepoy Rebellion in India, and troops meant for China were forced to be diverted there in the spring of 1857. The French were more open to intervention in China. In February 1856, a French priest, Auguste Chapdelaine, was arrested in Guangxi, where foreigners were forbidden, and in the suspicious and violent atmosphere of the Taiping Rebellion, he was executed for fomenting rebellion. The French wanted revenge.

The French demanded reparations for what they called the murder of the priest, who was killed while violating Chinese law, both entering an area prohibited to foreigners and preaching Christianity outside of the treaty ports. It was clear to the French government that Britain would prevail in a second war with China and dictate the terms of the ensuing peace, and they wanted a seat at the table. The British and French formed a combined force under Admiral Michael Seymour of the Royal Navy, attacking Canton and occupying it in late 1857. The United States was briefly involved earlier in the war when one of its ships was shelled by the Cantonese forts, but the Americans quickly signed a neutrality agreement.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
A British propaganda drawing depicting the Chinese tearing down the British flag, created to drum up support for the Second Opium War. Wikimedia

19. In 1858 the first phase of the Second Opium War was closed by the Treaties of Tientsin

Four separate treaties between the Qing government and the United States, Russia, France, and Great Britain were negotiated and agreed to in the summer of 1858. The four powers were allowed to open legations in the formerly closed city of Beijing. Ten additional treaty ports were opened to western trade. The Qing government was forced to accept the payment of reparations to both France and Great Britain and bear the cost of being invaded by them. Christian missionaries were allowed across China, and the opium trade was legalized. Trade by the foreign powers within the areas under the control of the Taiping Rebellion was forbidden.

The opium trade was not addressed specifically, but clauses that prevented China from creating and exploiting monopolies in any trade goods within their own country were interpreted by British merchant interests as allowing them to trade. As soon as the treaties were ratified the forts at Taku which protected the approaches to Beijing were returned to the Qing government, and the French and British troops were withdrawn. The Qing government troops reoccupied the forts and began strengthening them to deny the promised free access to the Yangtze. The Qing government also continued to act to suppress the opium trade, enforcing the death penalty on opium dealers, and resisted enforcing the terms of the treaty.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
Neither side long followed the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858. Wikimedia

20. The British suffered a major defeat in 1859 at the hands of the Chinese

In June 1859, a British naval force carrying the Anglo-French envoys to Beijing approached the Taku forts and demanded they be allowed to disembark the envoys and an armed escort to take them to Beijing. The Chinese refused to allow the armed escort and ordered the British to land the envoys further downstream. The British attempted to force their way past the forts on June 25, firing on the forts as they went by. Chinese cannon fire sank four British gunboats, and a US Navy steamer (chartered from China) opened fire to help cover the British retreat.

In doing so the American commander, Commodore Josiah Tattnall, violated the declared neutrality of the United States, a fact soon made known to the Qing government. It was likewise made known to the British government, and Tattnall later received a letter of thanks from British residents of Honolulu. He was not reprimanded by the US Navy for his actions, and he continued in its service until 1861, when he left the United States Navy for service in the Confederate States Navy during the American Civil War. Following the defeat at the Taku forts, the British prepared for another overland expedition to capture them and occupy Beijing.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
The Anglo-French assault on the Taku forts ensured the fall of Beijing to the invaders. Wikimedia

21. The British captured the Taku forts in a joint Anglo-French operation in 1860

During the summer of 1860, another combined force of just under 7,000 French and 11,000 British soldiers was formed at Hong Kong. It traveled by water to Beitang, about ten miles distant from the Taku forts, arriving on August 3. By August 12 the entire force was ashore and the advance units drove the harassing Qing troops before them as they approached the forts. Batteries were established to silence the Chinese artillery, and an assault on the northernmost fortification – considered by British commanders to be the key to the system – was prepared. On the morning of August 21, a four-hour bombardment preceded the infantry assault.

After the first fort was captured following an assault which featured heavy fighting, an emissary from the southernmost fort approached the Anglo-French force under a flag of truce. The allies ignored the emissary and assaulted the southern fort, which offered minimal resistance and was quickly captured, and the Qing troops hastily withdrew from the remaining forts. Beijing was exposed to the Anglo-French forces, and they advanced toward the city after capturing Tianjin, the last obstacle in their path. During their approach, a diplomatic incident occurred which led to British negotiators including Harry Parkes being arrested by the Chinese, tortured, and in some cases executed.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
News of the disastrous battle of Palikao forced the Emperor to flee Beijing, leaving negotiations to his brother. Wikimedia

22. Beijing fell to the Anglo-French force in early October

The Qing army attempted to stand before the Emperor’s capital in September. Still, its armaments were in many cases ancient matchlock muskets, and the massed fire of their enemies repulsed its attempts to charge the Europeans to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. At the Battle of Palikao in late September, 10,000 Qing troops engaged the invaders, but their formations were destroyed by the Anglo-French Army. The Anglo-French force suffered a total of 52 casualties, including 5 killed. In contrast, the Qing army suffered over 1,200 casualties, lost nearly all of its weapons and supplies in fleeing the field, and ceased to exist as a viable fighting force.

When the Xianfeng Emperor heard of the disaster outside of Beijing at Palikao (eight-mile bridge) he designated his brother and advisor Gong (also known as Prince Kung) to negotiate peace. He then fled the city, going first to Chengde, where he maintained a Summer Palace, and later fleeing further to Rehe Province to avoid capture while negotiations were underway. British and French troops entered Beijing on October 6, and finding little resistance the French and British troops occupied their time by looting the Summer Palace there, recently evacuated by the Emperor, which contained priceless artifacts and artwork from ancient Chinese history.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
French Zouaves routing Qing troops during the campaign to seize Beijing in 1860. Wikimedia

23. The Anglo-French force withdrew from Beijing as negotiations resumed

The successful Anglo-French force was withdrawn from the city and encamped outside it on October 6. It was in camp when Harry Parkes and the surviving members of his diplomatic party were discovered and released on October 8. The British overall commander of the Anglo-French force, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin heard the story from Parkes and was outraged that diplomats protected under a flag of truce would be so violated (Parkes omitted to tell his lordship of his personally insulting the Qing diplomats). Lord Elgin ordered the Old Summer Palace, which had already been subjected to looting, to be completely destroyed by burning and wrecking.

Lord Elgin also suggested the destruction of the Forbidden City, as a means of humiliating the Qing dynasty and the Emperor personally, and as punishment for the use of kidnapping and torturing those under diplomatic immunity. Russian and French envoys traveling with the force demurred, and persuaded Elgin that the destruction of the Old Summer Palace was sufficient for his purposes. At the time, portions of the Forbidden City were over four centuries old. The destruction of the Old Summer Palace was begun on October 18 and involved over 4,000 troops over three days to raze the ancient structures of which it was comprised.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
The Xianfeng Emperor fled his palace in Beijing before it was looted by French and British troops. Wikimedia

24. Prince Kung ratified the 1858 Tientsin Treaty after the fall of Beijing

On October 18, 1860, as French and British troops began the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, Prince Kung ratified the revised Treaty of Tientsin in the Convention of Beijing. Christians were accorded full civil rights in China as they applied to non-Christians. Embassies were established in Beijing. A large portion of Kowloon was ceded to the British, and they retained their Crown Colony of Hong Kong. As before, the Chinese were forced to pay reparations for the cost of the war to their invaders. Britain gained territory, retained favored nation status, and most importantly to the merchants who supported the war in Great Britain, the opium trade was legalized.

Following the Convention, the Russians forced another treaty on the Qing government, in which the latter ceded parts of Northern Manchuria to the Russian Empire. The Russians began construction of the port of Vladivostok later that year. In France and in Great Britain the war was considered a complete victory by their combined arms. Trade increased with China immediately. The Xianfeng Emperor did not return to Beijing, dying in Chengde in August, 1861. In China, the use of opium continued to increase through the remainder of the 19th century. In 1906, of the 41,000 tons of opium produced worldwide, 39,000 tons were consumed in China.

Opium Wars Broke the Middle Kingdom
William Gladstone deplored the opium trade and the wars Britain fought to protect it. Wikimedia

25. Opium continued to be a serious problem in China for more than a century

British politician William Gladstone railed against Britain’s activity in the opium trade throughout the period of the two opium wars and for years afterward. He was joined by other voices and the opposition continued through the 19th and 20th centuries, but British interests continued to support the trade. As time went on, its complete legalization in China spurred domestic production, and Great Britain found its biggest competition to be the Chinese growers of poppies and refiners of opium. Following the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, opium production and sale became a major part of the Chinese economy in many areas of the country.

The opium wars themselves saw the opening of trade to the point that western interests became ubiquitous, and resented, in China. The resentment focused on western imperialism, western religious influences, the presence of foreigners in China, and exploded into the Boxer Rebellion in 1899. The Russians, French, British, and Americans were joined by German, Austro-Hungarian, Japanese, and Italian forces to defend their interests in China, and their legations in Beijing. As with most wars, the true legacy of the First and Second Opium Wars, was further wars to come.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Opium Wars”. Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest. August 1, 2016. Online

“American Merchants and the China Opium Trade 1800 – 1840”. Jacques M. Downs, Business History Review. Winter, 1968

“Commissioner Lin and the Opium War”. Hsin-pao Chang. 1964

“Captain Elliot and the Founding of Hong Kong, Pearl of the Orient”. Jon Bursey. 2018

“The Chinese Opium Wars”. Jack Beeching. 1975

“Palmerston”. David Brown. 2011

“Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Golden Age”. Stephen R. Platt. 2018

“The Opium Wars still shape China’s view of the West”. The Economist, December 19, 2017

“Did China Have A Chance To Win The Opium War?” Miles Maochun Yu, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. July 3, 2018. Online

“The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another”. W. Travis Hanes and Frank Sanello. 2004

“Deadly Dreams: Opium, Imperialism, and the Arrow War (1856-1860)”. John Y. Wong. 2002

“The Taiping Rebellion, 1851-1866”. Ian Heath. 1994

“A History of Christian Missions in China”. Kenneth Scott Latourette. 2009

“Commodore Tattnall in the Sandwich Islands”. Staff, The New York Times. June 6, 1860

“Narrative of the Earl of Elgin’s Mission to China and Japan, 1857-8-9 (sic)”. Laurence Oliphant. 1859 (1970)