China: The First Opium War

For decades the Chinese govenment had made strenuous efforts to halt the illegal opium smuggling conducted by foreign , mainly British, ships at Canton. Quite apart from the physical dangers to native Chinese of opium smoking, there was, particularly since 1830 or thereabouts, the considerable economic damage caused by the drainage of cash silver from the country to pay for the illegal imports. The trade had become so pervasive (millions were addicted and corruption was rife among customs officials) that a lively discussion now took place among Chinese officials as to the advisability of legalizing the drug and, at least, bring the trade under the normal purview of the customs department. There were others, of course, who adopted the contrary view that opium smoking was a national evil which had to be stopped. Finally, the Chinese emperor took the path of suppression and in 1838 severe measures, leading to summary execution of native drug traffickers, were instituted; though as one observer commented: "They might as well have tried to concert a measure to stop the Yellow river in its impetuous flow, as to check the opium trade by laws and penalties"!

Although the British government connived at the trade by allowing imports of the drug from the East India Company's distribution center in India, the British naval officer Capt. Charles Elliot, then supervising the legal trade at Canton, incurred the ire of his countrymen when he posted a public notice citing the danger to the regular trade of illegal trafficking by British merchants which "was rapidly staining the British character with deep disgrace." The entire situation was transformed, however, with the arrival of the special Imperial Commissioner, Lin Tse-hsu, at Canton on March 10, 1839, the signal that the Chinese government meant to deal the death-blow to the trade by finally attacking the evil at its root--the foreign ships in the harbor. As the emperor himself is reported to have said to Lin: "How, alas! can I die and go to the shades of my imperial father and ancestors, until these direful evils are removed!" One week later the first of Lin's edicts was issued both to the co-Hong and foreign merchants: all opium cargoes in foreign store ships in the harbor were to be handed over and bonds given that, on penalty of death, no more would be brought in. Thus was set in train the series of events that led to the opium war between China and Britain.

ITEM A: Capt. Elliot to the opium traders, March 27, 1839

I, Charles Elliot, Chief Superintendent of the trade of British subjects to China, presently forcibly detained by the provincial government, together with all the merchants of my own and the other foreign nations settled here, without supplies of food, deprived of our servants, and cut off from all intercourse with our respective countries . . . have now received the commands of the High Commissioner [Lin Tse-hsu] . . . to deliver into his hand all the opium held by the people of my own country.

Now I . . . do hereby, in the name and on the behalf of Her Britannic Majesty's Government, enjoin and require all Her Majesty's subjects now present in Canton, forthwith to make a surrender to me for the service of Her said Majesty's Government, to be delivered over to the Government of China, of all the opium under their respective control: and to hold the British ships and vessels engaged in the opium trade subject to my immediate direction: and to forward me without delay a sealed list of all the British owned opium in their respective possession. And I . . do now in the most full and unreserved manner, hold myself responsible for, and on the behalf of Her Britannic Majesty's Government, to all and each of Her Majesty's subjects surrendering the said British owned opium into my hands, to be delivered over to the Chinese Government. And I . . .do further caution all Her Majesty's subjects here present in Canton, owners of or charged with the management of opium the property of British subjects, that failing the surrender of the said opium into my hands at or before six o'clock this day, I, . . hereby declare Her Majesty's Government wholly free of all manner of responsibility in respect of the said British owned opium.

And it is specially to be understood that proof of British property and value of all British owned opium, surrendered to me agreeable to this notice, shall be determined upon principles, and in a manner hereafter to be defined by Her Majesty's Government.

[Ref: British Parliamentary Papers, 1840, XXXVI (223), p. 374]