Opium- an addictive drug originally used as a painkiller. It is obtained from the unripe seeds of the opium poppy and can be made into substances that a person can smoke causing relaxation, alleviated anxiety, and a state of euphoria. Continued use of the drug also induces deterioration to the mind and body of a person eventually causing death. The substance was therefore stated illegal in China during the late 18th Century yet consistently smuggled into the country via British merchant ships.
As the Chinese placed more restrictions on trade in an effort to abolish the importation of opium, the battle against the drug raged on until war was unavoidable between England and China. It is this war that lasted from 1839-1842 which eventually led to the British reign over Hong Kong and legalization of opium trade in China as well as the opening of many trade routes along the Chinese coast. The British success of the war is unarguable, however, the extent to which they devastated China could have possibly been avoided if the Chinese emperor had received accurate information regarding his country’s failure during the first battles. If the emperor had known of his navy’s lack of success against British warships a compromise could have been met however, due to inaccurate reports to and from commissioner Lin Tse-hsu the emperor was unaware of England’s inevitable victory. With Lin in charge, Chinese success over the opium trade was going well and followed through to an extreme degree.
The presence of soldiers in Canton, the main trading port between them and the British, and the threat of potential execution to any person found using or selling the drug illustrated the extent to which Lin would proceed. (So then) The opium crisis began in 1837 when Chinese officials disrupted the smuggling by burning the boats used to carry the opium ashore from the floating warehouses. It was such threats that prompted Palmerston of England to dispatch a warship to China to protect British property in 1837. Despite this, China still raged on against the narcotic and in March of 1839 convinced the head of the British trade commission at Canton, Captain Charles Elliot, to hand over more than 20,000 chests of opium.
However, after the killing of a Chinese by drunken seamen and the lack of punishment put forth on them by the British, Lin suppressed all trade with England and proceeded with other measures as well. Lin ordered that delivery of all rice, tea, meat and fresh vegetables to the anchored ships at Macao to be intercepted and cut off. Freshwater springs that were known to be used by the British at various points along the coast were poisoned. Large banners were posted to warn Chinese villagers not to drink from the streams.
Lin then pressured the Portuguese authorities at Macao to evict the British from their harbor, under penalty of severe trade restrictions. These drastic measures forced all of the British ships to retreat from Macao to Hong Kong by the middle of August. However, such trade limitations would not go well with England and a severe response was in order. On August 31, Commissioner Lin learned that the merchant ships anchored off Hong Kong had been joined by a twenty-eight gun British frigate.
Although this news was not good, Lin, who had the use of a fleet of Chinese war junks at his disposal, was not frightened by the arrival of a single British warship. Finally the first confrontation between the two navies occurred and it was the barbarians, as thought by the Chinese, that were victorious. Although the Chinese warships returned the British fire, they did no damage to the British ships, and were forced to retreat after being badly shot up by cannonballs. The captains of the defeated Chinese junks feared that their failure would be viewed by higher authorities as a disgraceful act of cowardice. The captains therefore reported to Commissioner Lin that they had won a victory and had sunk a British ship.
This incident also represents the first of inaccurate messages passed to Chinese officials providing the government with a false sense of security. The British response was not one intended for violence however. For security, a second armed vessel joined England’s entourage in an effort to deliver a sealed letter to the Chinese. However, the Chinese refused to open the message before returning it triggering another battle.
The British immediately sank five of the largest Chinese war junks and severely damaged many others in an attack that lasted just under 45 minutes. Once again the Chinese suffered significant losses against superior weaponry and once more out of fear, falsified the encounter. Commissioner Lin now faced serious difficulties. If he truthfully reported his defeat to the Emperor, he was likely to be disgraced and punished. He therefore kept his report of the battle brief and vague, describing six imaginary “smashing blows” that had been inflicted on the impetuous British barbarians.
This conveniently crafted statement no doubt prolonged Lin’s authoritative position in addition to providing the Chinese government with more unfounded confidence, which would soon be exploited. In the beginning of June, 1840, Lin suddenly found himself confronting a large British expeditionary force that had come from Singapore, which included steam-powered gunboats and thousands of British marines. In a report to the Emperor, Lin wrote, “English warships are now arriving at Canton. Although it is certain that they will not venture to create a disturbance here, I am certain that they will, like great rats, attempt to shelter the vile sellers of opium. ” Still confident that the Chinese coast-guard could prevail in the event of trouble, Lin concluded “People say that our junks and guns are no match for the British.
. . . But they do not know!” Commissioner Lin’s forces, however, proved to be no match for the invaders, who immediately imposed a blockade on the Canton estuary, then attacked and took control of strategically important sites along the China coast. There was no way of disguising this loss to the Emperor and Lin was justly reassigned. However, ten years later Lin was once again told to stop the trade of opium but collapsed and died during a trip to Kwangsi.
The successive Imperial Commissioners who replaced Lin Tse-hs in Canton were unable to stop the opium traffic. In conflicts known as the First and Second Opium Wars, British naval and marine forces seized control of Hong Kong, ravaged the Chinese coastline and briefly occupied the capital city of Peking. In 1858 the Chinese government, bowing to British demands, reluctantly legalized the importation of opium. These wars have faced the efforts for justification and many reasons can be found. However, the underlying reasons for war rarely live up to the expenses paid. The wars waged on the Chinese people caused untold deaths and casualties.
The British destroyed, plundered, looted and raped their way along the coast of China. Had the Chinese properly been notified on the trend of the war, perhaps these lives would have been spared. Legal Issues