Opium trade

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A lucrative opium trade existed between China and Britain in the 19th century. British sales of opium in large amounts began in 1781 and between 1821 and 1837 sales increased fivefold. Two 'Opium Wars' punctuated the period, their outcomes redefining the trade.


The East India Company held the monopoly of the opium trade in Bengal and supplied large quantities of the drug to China. One of the main commodities that Britain had wanted from China was tea as this had become a fashionable drink in Europe and although there was some tea grown in India, tea planting was not yet on a large scale. As demand for tea increased, the East India Company realised that a good revenue could be obtained if it was able to entice China to supply directly to them . The inducement was to be the Indian grown opium.

It was not until the 1820s that the potential of an Indian tea trade was considered and, therefore, continuing trade with China, which operated via Canton, was important to the EIC. When the Chinese government became worried about the effects of opium addiction and took steps to prevent the importation of opium, the EIC agreed not to carry the drugs on their ships but, in reality deals were done with the owners of Country Ships who continued to smuggle the drug into China on their vessels. As the country ships were under licence to the East India Company this meant the company still had control of the sale of opium. This practice continued until 1833 when the trading monopoly of the East India company was abolished - but by then the first Tea Plantation in Assam had been established.

Opium Wars

Opium addiction in China had become such a problem that to prevent imports the Qing Dynasty closed the waterway up to Canton and seized over 1 million kilograms of opium, requiring merchants to enter into a bond not to deal in the drug. The Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China tried to negotiate with the Chinese but was continually rebuffed. Naval confrontations took place and Britain sent an expeditionary force from Singapore, capturing Canton and Shanghai. The war ended in August 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking which opened five treaty ports to trade, ceded Hong Kong and granted an indemnity to Britain.

The Western Powers sought to renegotiate their commercial treaties with China. The British wanted all of China open to merchants, legalization of the opium trade and exemption of import tariffs. The Qing Government refused and relations deteriorated. The French, Russians and Americans also became involved. In the First Campaign British and French forces captured Canton and took the Taku Forts outside Tianjin. There was a temporary end to hostilities with the Treaty of Tianjin (giving extensive rights to the Western Powers) but the Qing Government rejected the treaty and this led to a Second Campaign. In June 1859 Anglo-French forces failed to take the Taku Forts but later captured Tianjin. In September the Chinese were defeated and the Summer Palace in Peking destroyed. The Convention of Peking ratified the Treaty of Tianjin, the opium trade was legalized, China was opened to western merchants and Britain and France were paid a huge indemnity.

FIBIS resources

  • Review by Peter Bailey of the book Indigo and Opium: Two Remarkable Families and Fortunes Won and Lost by Miles Macnair (2013). The review is in FIBIS Journal Number 32 (Autumn 2014), pages 50-51. For details of how to access the review, see FIBIS Journals.

External links

Historical books online