What Caused the First Opium War in China?

The opium trade between Britain and China played a significant role in sparking the First Opium War, as dissatisfaction among both parties grew over the banning and smuggling of opium.

Nov 25, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
what caused first opium war china
Lithograph of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment capturing the fort of Amoy in the First Opium War by J H Lynch, 1841, via National Army Museum, London


The First Opium War was a conflict between the British and the Qing Dynasty that ensued as a result of opium. China produced goods that were highly sought after in Britain, including tea, silk, and porcelain. With few products to offer Chinese merchants in return, British merchants turned to the Indian opium business to make a profit. A widespread opium addiction crisis led Chinese officials to crack down on the importation, sale, and use of opium. Animosity between British merchants and the Chinese grew following the implementation of opium bans and the British merchants’ refusal to adhere to them, leading to the First Opium War.


Opium Production & Trade Prior to the First Opium War

indian opium ships trading route
Lithograph of a fleet of ships transporting opium down the Ganges River to the former capital of British India called Calcutta by Walter S. Sherwill, 1850, via SAGE Publications


The cause of the First Opium War between Britain and China is directly related to the illegal trading and smuggling of opium. The British East India Company (EIC) played a major role in dominating the Indian opium trade between Britain and China. The Governor and Company of Merchants of London became the British EIC following the issuance of a royal charter to conduct trade with the East Indies in 1600. The British government did not own the EIC. Instead, it was a joint-stock company owned by several private investors. However, British officials greatly influenced the monopoly’s operations.


Before the British EIC gained power over territories in India, it competed with the Dutch East India Company. Its initial focus was to become profitable off of desirable spices, such as pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. The EIC began to develop stronger trade relations with China as it sought some of China’s most lucrative goods, including tea, raw silk, and porcelain. British merchants offered a variety of metal goods in exchange for these products, but the Chinese quickly lost interest in the importation of these goods. Struggling to find goods that China desired from Western powers, the EIC turned to the opium trade.


british east india company letter patent
Letter patent issued to the East India Company by King William III and Queen Mary II England, 1693, via The British Library Board


The Chinese had already struggled with a wide-scale opium addiction crisis in some of its cities, including Amoy, in the latter half of the 17th century. Bans on the import and sale of opium were implemented throughout the 18th century to control the smuggling of opium into Chinese trading ports. The British EIC gained control of the opium market in India following their victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. As a result of the victory, the British EIC gained control over India’s most prominent opium production territories, which included Bengal and Bihar. The British EIC managed to maintain its trading rights with China by importing opium to the free trade area of Canton, or present-day Guangzhou. Chinese traders would collect the opium as it arrived on British ships and then distribute it throughout the country.

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Opium prices dropped significantly by the early 19th century as the British EIC began to lose control over its monopoly. It previously limited production to keep opium prices higher, but production increased as the monopoly weakened. The amount of opium imported into China steadily increased between 1775 and 1880. In 1839, more than five million pounds of Indian opium was imported into China.


Opium Bans in China

chinese smoking opium
Chinese opium smokers by Pun-Lun, 1870s, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The First Opium War was triggered by disagreements between British merchants and the Qing Dynasty over the opium trade. The Qing Dynasty tried to control the importation, sale, and use of opium throughout the country. A series of bans implemented in the 18th and 19th centuries attempted to put a stop to the opium addiction crisis. Opium had long been consumed by eating, but smoking the substance was a new concept in the late 17th century. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, smoking opium had greater potential to be more addictive compared to eating it.


One of the first opium bans was implemented by Emperor Yongzheng in 1729. The ban mostly targeted the illegal smuggling of opium into Chinese trading ports. Ships carrying the substance into Chinese waters were to be confiscated. In 1796, Emperor Jiaqing banned the smoking of opium in China. Four years later, a stricter ban was imposed on the importation of opium. Several other bans followed in 1814 and 1831 as the opium addiction crisis remained in full swing despite previous bans.


The Opium Problem in Southeast China 

first opium war trading port canton guangzhou
The French and United States factories at Canton (Guangzhou), c. 1841, via Australian National Maritime Museum Collection


The main source of opium smuggling came from the southeastern provinces of China, including Canton, Fujian, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Canton was a hotspot for illegal opium trade because it was the only free trading area open to Western merchants. Before China was forced to open up more trading ports to foreign merchants following the Opium Wars, it had very strict trading policies which required foreign merchants to go through Hong merchants, or the Cohong. Although the Hong merchants could control what was being traded in Canton, opium still made it into China because some Hong merchants were corrupt and didn’t adhere to the bans.


It wasn’t until the 1830s that the Qing Dynasty realized the toll the opium addiction crisis was taking on the country’s economy and people. By the start of the First Opium War, an exorbitant amount of opium was being smuggled into Chinese trading ports with the help of corrupt Chinese merchants and officials. Millions of people in China were addicted to opium, which impacted the Qing Dynasty’s economy as large amounts of silver used to pay for the drug were falling into the hands of British merchants.


The Daoguang Emperor, who reigned throughout the First Opium War, appointed Lin Zexu as imperial commissioner to stop the trafficking of opium. One of Zexu’s most successful efforts was the confiscation of 20,000 opium chests from British merchants in March 1839, which was one of the key events that sparked the war. British merchants turned to the British government to request reparations for their destroyed opium chests, but the British government officials refused by claiming the Chinese government should be responsible for the payment of their losses.


Conflicts Leading to the First Opium War

opium trade chinese warning letter british
Letter from Commander-in-Chief Chen Huacheng warning British representatives to keep British ships within their allotted territory, 1837, via The National Archives, United Kingdom


As the Qing Dynasty struggled to control the smuggling and use of opium, British merchants became more angry with Qing officials and their strict trading policies and anti-opium bans. The Chinese government issued a number of warnings to British representatives in China after observing British ships near the coast of port cities where they weren’t allowed. One of the letters sent in September 1837 reminded British representatives that British ships were prohibited from sailing near any port cities aside from Canton. The commander-in-chief of naval forces in the southeast Chinese province of Fukien threatened the British with opening fire on any British fleets that lingered near the province and signed off with “be warned.”


After the confiscation of the opium chests, several other quarrels ramped up hostilities between the British and Chinese. In the summer of 1839, a Chinese villager was killed by British sailors. The incident contributed to the tensions between the Chinese and British after the chief superintendent of British trade in China, Charles Elliot, refused to turn over the sailors to the Chinese authorities for punishment. As a result, Lin Zexu ordered a blockade in Macau, where British merchants resided, which forced them to Kowloon, Hong Kong. Zexu also prohibited the locals of Kowloon from trading food with the merchants. Elliot responded by issuing an ultimatum in September 1839, threatening the Chinese with open fire if the British merchants couldn’t trade food with the locals. This event is largely recognized as the beginning of the First Opium War, and direct fighting ensued in November.


British Victories

first opium war british ships volage hyacinth
Lithograph of British vessels HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth fighting against Chinese war junks by C Graham, 1840, via The Royal Collection Trust


The British quickly dispatched its fleets to Canton following the Chinese government’s refusal to accept the ultimatum. The HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth engaged in an attack on a fleet of 29 Chinese war junks in the First Battle of Chuenpi. Several Chinese war junks were destroyed, and the British gained their first victory in the war. British naval forces traveled north up the coast of China and successfully captured Chusan, or present-day Zhoushan, in June 1840. After capturing several Chinese forts, the British and Chinese began to negotiate terms to end the war. However, government officials on both sides failed to come to any agreement.


The British managed to capture several major Chinese port cities, including Canton, Amoy, Ningpo, Chapu, Shanghai, and Chinkiang. British naval forces had significantly fewer casualties compared to the Chinese throughout the war. Estimates of British casualties vary, but it’s believed that the British suffered about 500 casualties, while the Chinese had approximately 18,000-20,000 casualties. In fear of losing Nanking, the Chinese requested a peace agreement to end the war. The First Opium War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, also called the Treaty of Nanjing, in August 1842.


Terms of Agreement Following the First Opium War

first opium war britain china signing treaty nanking
Engraving of the signing of the Treaty of Nanking between British and Chinese officials by John Platt, 1846, via The Royal Collection Trust


The Treaty of Nanking forced the Qing Dynasty to open up more trading ports to the Western world than ever before. Foreign merchants were previously restricted to only trading with Hong merchants at the port of Canton. The Treaty of Nanking allowed Western merchants access to Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai without any restrictions. Foreign merchants were no longer required to trade with the Chinese through Hong merchants at any of the trading ports. The treaty also forced China to surrender Hong Kong, which would remain under British control for more than 150 years until 1997. The First Opium War had a grave impact on the Qing Dynasty’s economy, as China was responsible for paying millions of dollars in war reparations.


Other Western powers used Britain’s victory in the First Opium War to gain the same concessions that Britain had received. The Second Opium War would have a devastating impact on the Qing Dynasty, resulting in extreme social unrest and a crippling economy and government. The opium trade in the 18th and 19th centuries forced China to break down its trade barriers that protected the country from Western influences. Future treaties and the establishment of a new government system in China following the fall of the Qing Dynasty would afford Western powers more concessions and leniency in diplomatic relations.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.