Leaves & Beans of History: The Opium Wars, Part III

In the previous installment covering the Opium Wars we saw how the war started and looked at several engagements that demonstrated how outmatched the Chinese were against the post-industrial aged British. After easily occupying the both the island of Zhoushan on the northeastern coast and the island of Chuanbi just south of Canton, the new representative for the emperor, Qishan, was sent to negotiate a treaty with Britain’s Chief Superintendent, Charles Elliot.

Whether They Like It Or Not

The morning after the British troops had taken the first fortress on Chuanbi they were ready to continue the campaign north, but Qishan sent an envoy to Elliot to open up negotiations. After some stalling on the part of the Chinese on January 20th 1841 the Chuanbi Convention was finally drafted. The terms of the agreement were as follows:

  • The Chinese would pay £6 million in reparations
  • The British would pay £6 million for the island of Hong Kong
  • Ambassadors from each country would be exchanged and they would have the authority to make binding agreements between the countries
  • The British would give back all the territory they conquered, including the island of Zhoushan
  • Canton would again be open for trade, but with fewer restrictions and laws. Tariffs would also be agreed upon by both countries. 1

These terms were quite favorable for the Chinese considering the British were more than capable of demanding and taking much more. Unfortunately, neither the Chinese Emperor or the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, were happy with the terms their officials settled on. The emperor was furious that Hong Kong had been sold and that trade would be less restricted, despite the fact Britain had crushed his forces at every encounter (it’s possible his advisors had painted quite a different picture in their reports to him). Palmerston wanted compensation for the 20,000 chests of opium that were destroyed, more ports to be opened, and for opium to be legalized. He was also not pleased that Elliot gave up the territory they had already conquered.

By August of 1841 both Elliot and Qishan were removed from their positions and the war resumed in full. 2 Throughout the rest of the year and into the beginning of 1842 the British cut a swath north towards the capital of Beijing. Despite several brave, and at times desperate, attempts by the Chinese to halt the British forces they were soundly defeated at every encounter. By July the city of Zhenjiang was under British control, which put the city of Nanjing within targeting range. Nanjing was at the entrance of the Yangtze river, which was where almost all trade, including food, flowed to Beijing. Taking Nanjing meant there would be no need to march further north to attack the capital itself.

The emperor received word of Zhenjiang’s capture only a few days after it happened, and he finally understood a true treaty must be reached. On August 27th 1842 the Treaty of Nanjing was signed by both Chinese and British officials. The terms of this treaty were:

  • China would pay £21 million in reparations
  • Five new ports including Canton and Shanghai would open up for trade and permanent residence for British citizens. Each port would also have a British consular official housed and stationed there
  • The Hong merchants would be disbanded and trade could be conducted with anyone willing to do business
  • Hong Kong would be declared a permanent colony of Britain (it was only just returned to China in 1994)

The cultural tendency to view and record British traders as tribute bearing barbarians beneath the Chinese would be abolished. 3

The only point the Chinese did not agree to was the legalization of opium.

Relations and trade between China and Britain resumed under these new conditions over the next 14 years. Other countries such as France, Russia, and the American Colonies would also sign trade treaties with China and would benefit from the now more open policies. However, tensions remained high on both sides. Chinese merchants, mostly in and around Canton, would at times refuse to follow the terms of the treaty and several violent incidents occurred, including the burning of the foreign factories outside the city gates. 4 Britain also found itself with a trade deficit again. It was assumed that since British merchants had access to four new ports that trading profits would grow four times over. However, while the demand for Chinese tea and silk continued to grow rapidly, British goods were still not being bought. By 1854 Britain was once again in debt to China by more than £8 million and opium was soon propping up the British government again. All of this led to Britain and the other countries wanting even more access to China and the renegotiating of treaties. All they needed was a reason to reopen hostilities.

Then, on October 8th 1856 a ship called the Arrow and her crew were seized by Chinese officials in the port of Canton. The ship was last known as a Chinese pirate ship, but was – allegedly – registered in Hong Kong and was flying the British flag. 5 Britain seized this opportunity and used it as an example of how China did not respect the British flag or the British registration and needed curtailing. France joined in this effort since earlier that same year a French priest who was caught trying to convert Chinese people too far inland was executed. 6 On November 3rd Canton was attacked by a joint force.

The Anglo-French task force made its way north from Canton conquering territories and forts and by May 1858 had occupied Tianjin, just some 200 miles southeast of Beijing. It was here that the Treaty of Tianjin was created. The terms of this treaty were:

  • The opening of 6 new treaty ports on the coasts and 4 on the Yangzi river
  • Travel in and around those ports would be unrestricted and the option of obtaining passports for traveling further would be available
  • Christian preachers would be protected
  • The British ambassador in Beijing would be comfortably housed and allowed to have his family and other retainers accompany him
  • The import of opium was legalized, subject to a not unreasonable rate of duty (the use of it was still illegal) 7

By June of 1859 the treaty was on its way north to the capital to be ratified. However, the Chinese blocked the river and prevented it from being delivered. This coupled with a rare Chinese victory by repelling the British and French forces from the Dagu forts emboldened the Chinese to fight on. In response, Britain and France sent twenty thousand troops to reinforce their armies and by the beginning of October 1860 they had stormed Beijing and the emperor’s summer palace in Jehol was sacked and burned. Finally, on November 14th 1860, the Treaty of Beijing was signed and ratified.  This treaty included, along with all the terms of the Treaty of Tianjin:

  • An increase of indemnities China would pay
  • Tianjin made a treaty port
  • Part of the peninsula of Kowloon being added to Hong Kong 8

The Wars’ Effects

Today, despite state run patriotic education campaigns, many Chinese people doesn’t spend much time worrying about what happened over 150 years ago. 9 However, that is not to say the wars still don’t color Western-Chinese relations. Back in November of 2010, then Prime Minister David Cameron and his accompanying ministers visited China and decided to wear their Remembrance Day poppies despite being asked not to. 10 They may have had World War 1 on their minds, but for some Chinese the poppies symbolized other things entirely.

The end of the first opium war and the resulting treaties are known as the start of the ‘century of humiliation’ and the Unequal Treaties, respectfully. They violently forced the country to modernize and open itself to the world at large. The one sided loses shook the people’s confidence in the current government’s ability to protect them and rebellions were common during those 100 years. This time of unrest and being belittled by the imperial west galvanized the Chinese people to unite and become strong. This played a major role in why China shifted to Communism in 1949.

Britain’s demand for tea was one of, if not the, major impetuses for the wars. These processed leaves helped sustain two of the largest economies on earth at the time and how they were bought and sold helped shape nations, their laws, and their people. These wars may not have the infamy or casualty count of other wars, but their effects on today’s tea industry and the proliferation of the beverage cannot be overstated.

Matt Foster is the Wholesale Trainer at Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company in St. Louis Missouri. Barista Intermediate and IDP certified, he spends his days teaching and his nights reading and writing. He's also competed on the regional and national levels of the US Brewer's Cup. His other interests include intriguing cocktails, delicious food, adorable dogs, and traveling the world to find all those things to put his face in.

Contact at mattf@kaldiscoffee.com | Follow on Instagram


1. Ph.D. Hanes III, W. Travis and Sanello, Frank. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2002. pg. 120 2. Keay, John. China, A History. Basic Books 2009. pg. 465 3. Ph.D. Hanes III, W. Travis and Sanello, Frank. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2002. pg. 154 4. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 249 5. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 252 6. Ph.D. Hanes III, W. Travis and Sanello, Frank. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2002. pg. 175 7. Keay, John. China, A History. Basic Books 2009. pg. 475 8. Keay, John. China, A History. Basic Books 2009. pg. 476 9. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 14 10. David Cameron Should Not Have Worn That Poppy In China

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