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The First Opium War, Episode 47 - 21/02/06


Junks at War (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Junks at War
(Getty Images)
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In the 19th century the British were heavily involved in trafficking opium distilled from the juice of poppy seeds growing in fields controlled by the British Raj. The market was China. The Chinese tried to stop the trade and this led to the Opium War of 1839-1842.

The Chinese economy was poor. The emperors had lost control. The Mandarin classes were corrupt as was the untrustworthy army. The East India Company needed the Chinese market for the money it made and because they could gather taxes if their Indian opium growers were profitable. The answer to raising taxes was in ginger and opium.

A district report claimed that "the best opium is obtained in that portion situated north and east of the Simla range and the finest ginger in the southern Thakooraees… The cultivation of these important articles of export would be increased and additional employment would be found for the inhabitants of all classes in the opium fields and this pernicious but useful drug would become a monopoly in our hands".

In the spring of 1839 the Chinese authorities at Canton seized the opium and set fire to it. It took time for the news to reach London. In 1840 British forces moved towards Tientsin. In January 1841 they took Hong Kong and kept it until the Japanese occupation during the Second World War.

The Chinese were forced to negotiate. But the fighting continued. The British took city after city including Cha-p'u and Shanghai and very nearly Nanking. The Chinese offered a three million dollar ransom to the British if they would not bombard Nanking. The negotiations were protracted because it took days to translate Chinese documents into English and then English documents in Chinese.

On 29 August 1842 the Opium War ended with the Treaty of Nanking. The Chinese paid the British a multimillion dollar indemnity, ceded Hong Kong and opened five treaty ports to traders: Canton (which had been open), Foochow, Nangpo, Amoy, and Shanghai.

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Historical Figure

Sir Henry Pottinger (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Sir Henry Pottinger
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Sir Henry Pottinger 1789-1856

Sir Henry Pottinger was born on Christmas Day in what is now Northern Ireland. His ancestor was the first governor of Belfast and is named in the city's 1613 charter. At 15 he was in the army and serving in Sind. In 1816 he published his then widely read Travels in Beloochistan and Sinde after leading an expedition across from India to Persia. He is remembered as the general who took over the British assault on Chinese cities to end the first Opium War and then negotiated the Treaty of Nanking. He became the first Governor of Hong Kong although he ended his spell in the colony following long disagreements with colonial traders. He went on to become Governor of Cape Colony and Madras. He died in Malta. He was said to take drink.

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Did You Know...

That the Chinese called the British barbarians not in the pejorative sense, but simply as one of describing foreigners. But at the negotiations in Nanking, this offended the British who thought it unrefined and had it struck from the agreements. The Chinese translator wrote: His Excellency Hsien argued "Emperor Shun was a man of the eastern barbarians Tung-i. King Wen was a man of the western barbarians, Hsi-i. The word 'I' is recorded in sacred classics; why is it not refined?"

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Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the Far East region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on the Far East

Colin Watters
I found todays episode facinating because my family history was effected by the opium war. My Great Great Grandfather Henry Watters went to China via India with the army to fight the Opium war (the army muster records still exist). On the way back in 1843 he left the army at Fort William and settled in India. The next 3 generations on my fathers line were born there.

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Contemporary Sources

Queen Victoria appoints Sir Henry Pottinger as Minister Plenipotentiary

"To all and singular who shall read this patent, be it known that because there is a disputed matter with the great Ch'ing empire which makes it necessary to depute a competent minister to negotiate on My behalf, I especially appoint Sir Henry Pottinger, baronet, minister Plenipotentiary. Given at our Court at Buckingham Palace the 14th of May in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and forty one, in the fourth year of our reign."

A Chinese view of the negotiations for the Treaty of Nanking

Excerpt from Diary of the Pacification of the Barbarians by Chang Hsi

"At the ceremony of the reception of the barbarians, after sitting at a table, they took out the peace treaty and asked to use the seals. The treaty was written on foreign paper - first in Chinese and then in the barbarian language. It was bound together as one book and four copies were made each part keeping two. The seal of our Imperial Commissioner was placed right in the middle, that of the Governor-General Liang Kiang on the top, and that of the Minister Plenipotentiary of their country on the bottom. The three high authorities and the barbarian Pottinger all have their names and official titles written on the last page, and each personally signed his own name. After the seals had been stamped, all felt very happy. The barbarians hoisted a yellow flag at the central mast and immediately fired twenty one guns in succession in the same ship. They said it was the birthday of their queen."

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