18 September 2015

Opium wars

The first in a two part blog looking at how tea and opium changed the history of China forever, proving the power of plants can never be underestimated.

By Andrew Butterworth

Sketch showing workers in a field gathering opium from the plant's capsules

The cost of tea

"Britain created the largest, most successful and most lucrative drug cartel the world had ever seen." - Saunders, Nicholas J., The Poppy: A Cultural History from Ancient Egypt to Flanders Fields to Afghanistan. (London, 2013), p. 43.

Britain’s love for tea started to develop after Catherine of Braganza’s (1638–1705) marriage to Charles II (1630–1685). It was Catherine's taste for tea that eventually created a fad for the drink at the royal court. As tea became increasingly fashionable, the East India Company gained extensively from its tea trade with China, due to their ongoing monopoly of trade with the ‘Indies’. However, England’s passion for tea was creating an "immense debt of silver" to China, and with the price of silver rising, traders saw a need to change how Britain traded with the country.

Joseph Banks, the unofficial director of Kew before it opened to the public, requested that George Macartney (first envoy of Great Britain to China) organise a mission there in 1793. Banks asked David Stronach and John Haxton to join the mission as botanical gardeners, and to gather as many tea plants as possible while gaining more knowledge about the plants themselves. Unfortunately, Banks botanical plans failed badly. Stronach and Haxton failed to provide detailed notes on the plants in their growing habitat, which according to Banks “rendered the dried specimens virtually useless.” Also, in connection with the tea issue, the mission's goal had been to persuade Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799) to ease restrictions on trade between the two countries. Sadly though, this also failed as Emperor Qianlong ultimately dismissed the notion of increasing trade with the West.

"Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce." - Qianlong Emperor, Second Edict to King George III of England, 1792.

The growth in opium sales

After Macartney, when exporting opium to China emerged as an effective way of returning the vast amounts of silver bullion that had been spent in purchasing its tea, the Company had no longer an urgent incentive to develop an alternative Indian source of tea while its monopoly of the China trade lasted." - Peter J. Kitson, Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Exchange 1760–1840 - Cambridge Studies in Romanticism. (December 30, 2013), p. 142.

During the Middle Ages it was Arab and Turkish traders who first took opium to both India and China, where it was originally used for medicinal purposes. However, in 19th-century China the practice of mixing opium with tobacco for smoking began, significantly increasing demand for this highly addictive drug.

"The smoker assumes a comfortable attitude (lying down of course) at a proper distance from the lamp. He now puts the stem to his lips and holds the bowl over the lamp. The heat causes the opium to fizzle, and the smoker take three or four long inhalations. All the time using the dipper to bring every particle of the opium to the orifice as it burns away, but not taking his lips from the end of the stem or the opium pellet from the lamp, till it is all finished." - Theo Sampson, Canton 24 September 1879, MR/91 - China - Foods Medicines and Woods 1869–1914 - Kew Archive.

The cost of opium

"Ironically, it was opium that in the end forced her unwillingly to open her ports to free trade with the world." - Rahn, John Elma, Plants that changed History. (New York, 1985), p. 101.

The incredible increase in the practice of smoking opium began to have serious social and economic consequences for China. Emperor Daoguang (1782–1850) placed Lin Zexu as special Imperial Commissioner to tackle the problem. Lin attempted to eradicate the opium trade with police raids and the destruction of 20,000 chests of opium. He even wrote a letter to Queen Victoria stating: “Your Majesty has not before been thus officially notified, and you may plead ignorance of the severity of our laws, but I now give my assurance that we mean to cut this harmful drug forever." Queen Victoria never received this letter and tensions rose from Lin Zexu's actions. However, when war broke out over the issue following a Chinese blockade of the River Pearl, Britain’s ‘gunboat diplomacy’ won the day.

The legacy of these wars was extensive. Five ports where opened to trade and Britain was given ‘most-favoured nation’ status after seizing Hong Kong. In the Second Opium War, Britain also acquired the Kowloon Peninsula. However, the opium issue was never formally discussed when treaties were signed to end the wars, and therefore demand simply continued to increase. The Chinese Communist party have since described this as a ‘Century of Humiliation.’

A moral question

"A war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know, and I have not read of..." - William Gladstone in Samuel S Mander, Our Opium Trade with China. (London, 1877), p. 12 - MR/91 - China - Foods Medicines and Woods 1869–1914 p. 478 - Kew Archive.

The moral question of continuing to export opium to China became a theme in British newspapers and the Anglo-Oriental Society for the suppression of the Opium Trade (1874–1917) was created by the Quakers. William Gladstone, like others, may have loved tea, but he was clearly angry at what opium was doing to China. The Society disbanded in 1917 having achieved its goal, with the British ending opium trade between India and China in 1913.

"If one thousand or two thousand person only had been injured by it, this would have been a small thing; but it has injured a whole Empire." - Samuel S Mander, Our Opium Trade with China. (London, 1877), p. 4 - MR/91  China - Foods Medicines and Woods 1869–1914 p. 474 - Kew Archive.

"Opium is a poisonous drug brought from foreign countries; the poison takes effect; the habit becomes fixed; the sleeping smokers are like corpses, lean and haggard as demons; it throws families into ruin; it dissipates every kind of property; it destroys man himself. There cannot be a greater evil." - Kin-Shan in Samuel S Mander, Our Opium Trade with China. (London, 1877), p. 4 - MR/91 - China - Foods Medicines and Woods 1869–1914 p. 474 - Kew Archive.

- Andrew Butterworth - 

Library Graduate Trainee

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