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Opium War

Name of either conflict fought between China and England between 1839-42 and 1856-60 over the rights to import opium from India. Both conflicts are often referred to together in the plural, i.e. Opium Wars. By the 1830's, the English had become major players in the global opium trade. Growing opium in India, the East India Company shipped tons of it into Canton which it traded for Chinese manufactured goods and for tea. In the early part of the 19th century this trafficking had produced a China filled with drug addicts, causing the imperial government to declare opium illegal, in 1836. Lin Tse-hsü (fig.), the Imperial Commissioner at Canton, thus began to aggressively crack down on the trade by enforcing the new opium laws and closing down smoking dens (fig.), as well as rooting out corrupt Cantonese officials, whom the British generously bribed in order to keep the opium traffic flowing. Deeply concerned about the opium menace Lin Tse-hsü set out to cut off the opium trade at its source and wrote a letter to Queen Victoria with the request that the British cease their export of opium to other countries, suggesting that trade should only be in beneficial goods. The English however, who, because of its harmful effects had made opium consumption and trade illegal in England, refused to back down from their overseas trade in opium. In response, Lin Tse-hsü threatened to cut off all trade with England and expel all English from Chinese soil. When Chinese junks attempted to turn back English merchant vessels in November 1839, the English responded by sending warships. Thus war broke out in June of 1840. Due to the technological superiority of the British the Chinese suffered a humiliating defeat and were forced into signing an ignomious peace agreement under the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty stipulated that no restrictions were placed on Englsih trade, and, as a consequence, the opium trade more than doubled in the following decades. But, even with the Treaty of Nanking in place, trade remained rather restricted, thus angering the English who felt this was clear treaty violation. The Chinese, for their part, were incensed at the wholescale export of Chinese nationals, sent overseas to work at what was no better than slave labour. In 1856, these differences escalated into a series of skirmishes that ended in 1860 with a second set of treaties that further humiliated and weakened the imperial government. The most disgracing of clauses in these new treaties was perhaps the complete legalization of opium throughout China. Also called the Anglo-Chinese War and in plural when referring to both conflicts.