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What Caused the Opium Wars

The Opium Wars, also known as the Anglo-Chinese Wars, were two separate conflicts that occurred between the Qing Dynasty in China and the British Empire. Both wars were the climax of disputes and tensions over trade and diplomatic relations between the two powers. The first of the Opium Wars occurred from 1839 to 1842, the second occurred between 1856 and 1860. The resolution of these wars resulted in treaties that dictated trade agreements and concessions as well as the cession of Hong Kong Island which became a British colony until 1997.

What caused the First Opium War?

During the Qing Dynasty of China, trade with China was extremely lucrative. However, trade with foreign countries was limited to the sea port of Canton, and trade agreements could only be forged with selected Chinese merchants known as the thirteen Hongs. The Qing Dynasty also imposed a trade condition that China would only accept silver as payment for any goods that it exported. This made trade with China extremely costly and difficult and numerous countries tried to negotiate alternative trade agreements with China. All trade agreements were vetoed by the reigning Chinese emperors and they continued to demand silver in return for their exported goods. This situation created a trade imbalance that was highly unfavorable for the British Empire. The cost of importing from China was far higher than the profit made from selling the goods imported, namely tea and other luxuries such as spices and silk.

This set into motion a series of events which lead to the beginning of the first opium war. The significant events that contributed to the escalation of violence are outlined below:

  • To balance the uneven trade the British Empire began to counter-trade with the narcotic, opium, which they could acquire from another British colony, India. This was at first accepted due to mutual profit.
  • The increased amount of opium entering the country soon became a problem not only socially but economically and a governor was appointed to Canton to reduce and eliminate the trade of opium within the Chinese empire.
  • British Traders were forced to hand over their stock of opium. This opium was destroyed and the traders were required to sign a bond which stated that they would not sell opium and would abide by Chinese law. Some traders signed and others refused.
  • Tensions rose between British traders and Chinese officials with numerous small incidents leading to a riot in Kowloon. This resulted in the death of a Chinese man. The Chinese government demanded the men responsible be handed over for sentencing and the British government refused.
  • The British Superintendent of Trade in China felt that the stipulations for trade with China were too stringent and ordered the British community to withdraw from Chinese soil.
    A British ship owned by Quakers attempted to develop trade relations with China against the British Superintendents wishes and a blockage was set up across the Pearl River.
  • Fighting began when another British Ship, the Royal Saxon, attempted to run the blockage and trade with China. The Royal British Navy fired warning shots across the bow of the ship and the Chinese Imperial Navy attempted to protect the merchant ship escalating the tension into an armed conflict.

What Caused the Second Opium War?

The second Opium War was initiated due to a number of factors that are outlined below:

  • The Treaty of Nanking was signed by China and the United Kingdom at the end of the first Opium War. However, the Chinese refused to adhere to the terms stipulated in the treaty. They worked to keep out foreign traders and dealt harshly with Chinese traders who traded with British Merchants.
  • To protect ships that would trade with the British Empire these Chinese traders were granted British registration and allowed to fly the British flag. In 1956 the Chinese captured a ship called the “Arrow” and accused those on board of piracy. This caused political tension as the ship had been flying a British Flag and it was against the treaty for the Chinese to capture or punish the crew. The British demanded an apology and release of the crew. The crew was released without an apology. The Chinese felt no apology necessary because it was a pirate ship and its British registration was expired.
  • The British Governor in Hong Kong ordered warships from Hong Kong to bombard Canton as a reprisal.
  • This was a breach of international law, but was supported by British officials in London who wanted China to agree to full trade with Britain.

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