Feature History – Opium Wars


Trade deficits, political pussy-footing, and hardcore drugs. Welcome to the Opium Wars. (♪) Hi, and welcome to Feature History, featuring the Opium Wars. In this video we’re going to be detailing the causes of these wars, explaining the aftermath of the wars, and describing how it impacts us today. So if that’s what your school assignment requires, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for a more detailed analysis of the battles and tactics, then I’m afraid you will not find that here. So as always, let’s begin with some background. In the beginning of the 19th century, a new era of interconnectedness had swept the globe, and the term ‘international’ was born. Merchants and travellers navigated the globe, searching for resource-rich lands and gladly alleviating the natives of their abundances, splaying the rapidly industrializing west. Great Britain, the focal point of this era, was lacking financially due to wars such as the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars. The colonial dream in North America had been crushed by heroic freedom fighters, or gun-toting maniacs, depending on your point of view. The Brits would have to find themselves a new land of opportunity: an untapped Valhalla of resources, a bountiful kingdom of knockoff iPads and cheap Ray-Bans. They needed China. China, in fashion with other Oriental nations of the period, remained self-isolated. Demands for their resources like silk, porcelain and tea went through the roof, and this created a large trade imbalance, since the Chinese had no wish for any western goods. The Qing Dynasty, which had ruled from 1644, viewed foreigners as destabilizing to their empire and placed many restrictions on their trading. Foreign trade was limited to the ports of Canton, and all transactions were run through a group of merchants known as the Cohong, who could tax and regulate trade as they saw fit. This was known as the Canton System. European traders, of course, after hauling ass across thousands of miles to get to China, despised these rules as they were perceived to be too strict, and as a result, piracy and smuggling was common amongst the foreigners. Those do-gooders who stuck to official means of trade only really received a massive middle finger from the Cohong. Due to a dispute between the Qing and members of the Honorable– yes, Honorables are part of their official name– East Indian Trading Company, trade was restrained even further. But European demand for Chinese goods, specifically English demands for tea, continued to rise. Tea at this point made up 10% of the British government’s revenue, and 10% of the average household income went directly to tea. But to put this in simple terms, SHIT WAS CRAZY Y’ALL. Under these circumstances, you could see while the Canton system was as hated as… a sandwich full of not good things, a massive trade deficit stood at Britain’s expense. Accompanying this was raging conflicts causing the British to be barred from South American silver and foreign wars leeching every penny they could from the treasury, everyone was broke. Well actually that’s a lie. Everyone 𝘉𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘩 was broke. The British knew if this continued, they would not have the money to continue funding their tea habit. They embarked upon a diplomatic mission to China, sending George Macartney to open a dialogue with the Daoguang Emperor. Now this went about as well as my last date, having several unwanted advances followed by a disingenuous ‘thank you’ and never talking again. The British needed to find something the Chinese wanted to offset this trade deficit. And then they did. Opium. The Honorable East India Trading Company had conquered parts of India and they had intended to grow cotton upon these lands. But due to the highly competitive status of the cotton market, it was unfeasible. This was when it was discovered poppies grew incredibly well upon the land, and it produced rich opium, which the Chinese highly desired. The plan was simple: Grow poppies, convert it to opium, trade it to the Chinese for tea, and sell that back in England for a profit. There was only one little issue… Opium was… technically illegal in China. To avoid any kind of large-scale conflict, they set up shop at the border and allowed smugglers to do the work for them. This, of course, went swimmingly and no wars were ever caused by anything from those drugs– oh wait no, that’s exactly what 𝘥𝘪𝘥𝘯’𝘵 happen. Opium sales were highly successful, and the drugs were being pushed into China on a ridiculous scale. Sales only hightened when the British government dissolved the Honorable East India Trading Company and took over operations directly. Opium flowed into China completely unregulated. The Daoguang Emperor refused to stand by idly and watch his country become corrupted so easily. So he employed Lin Zexu. Zexu was an incorruptible and uncompromising man, and he would make it his sole objective to completely remove opium from China. Now in 1839, we see a record sales of 1839 calendars, and also in 1839, we see Zexu reach Canton and begin arresting thousands of traders and addicts, confiscating myriads of opium paraphernalia, and closing every drug den he found. Zexu sent an open letter to the young Queen Victoria. Contained within it, he wrote: This letter didn’t reach the queen. The reason why is not entirely known. With no reply, Zexu’s patience had worn thin, and he demanded the Europeans surrender the opium. When they refused, he seized the opium himself and captured 21,000 chests of opium. This amount of opium was worth an awful lot of money. Like, a lot. Oodles. All of it was promptly burnt. The bankrupted merchants were furious and demanded compensation. The local superintendent of trade, Charles “I really don’t want a war” Elliot, promised the merchants the British government would compensate them, given they leave. These claims were unsubstantiated, of course, and he was attempting to deescalate the scenario. So already the situation was tense. Everyone was upset, and then to make matters worse, two drunken British sailors decided it would be a great idea to kingpin some Chinese guy. Zexu wasn’t humored, and demanded a British sailor be executed as atonement. Elliot tried the men responsible on his ship, and sentenced them to hard labor back in England. Might be worth mentioning they never did actually serve the sentence. Zexu was upset. He felt Chinese law had been completely disregarded by the foreigners, and so, rationally, he cut off all food supplies being delivered to the merchants. The British merchants were forced to retreat to the desolate island of Hong Kong off the coast. After their retreat, Elliot sent a message for food trade to continue, but any response was delayed. Men were sent to shore to purchase food, but on their return, the Chinese attempted to seize their supplies, and so a naval battle broke out, beginning the first Opium War, September 4th, 1839. The British set up a blockade on the Pearl River, leading to Canton. Their demands were to be reimbursed for their opium, the Cohong monopoly to be disbanded, and that Hong Kong ceded to Great Britain. Through these blockades and the conquering of islands, it became clear the Chinese army was no match for the modernized British. Predominately equipped with bows, spears, and swords, matchlock rifles were a rare sight amongst their numbers. Few also wanted to be the bringer of bad news to the Daoguang Emperor. So his understanding of the war’s happenings were at best limited, and at worst, completely the opposite. The Daoguang Emperor dismissed Lin Zexu, whom he had once commended, and replaced him with Qishan, who had been empowered with the ability to negotiate with the British. Immediately, Qishan and Charles Elliot began to negotiate how to end this war. The figure of compensation was worked out to £6 million, but Qishan refused to cede any part of sovereign territory to the British, and so the negotiations fell apart. In 1841, the British launched an attack on two forts guarding the mouth of the Pearl River. The Chinese had the belief that the British were barbarians that killed any men they captured, so most of the Qing soldiers fought to their death. The battle lasted less than an hour, and ended in over 500 Chinese dead and 38 British soldiers wounded. And that was predominantly from the artillery shells overheating and blowing up. After these battles, a Chinese physician approached Elliot speaking of a truce. The soldiers thought the best idea was to lop off the physician’s head and go replace Canton with a crater. But Elliot, truly wishing this war would end here, heard him out. Elliot was brought to negotiate once again with Qishan. They stuck with the £6 million figure, but the idea was that the British would then 𝘣𝘶𝘺 Hong Kong for £6 million. And in addition to that, certain trade restrictions would be lifted. So both Elliot and Qishan returned to their superiors speaking of how they’d received good terms. Lord Palmerston, Elliot’s boss, showed his gratitude by firing Elliot and continuing the war. And the Daoguang Emperor responded to Qishan by arresting him and having him ordered to be executed. By the end of May, the British were in a position to bombard Canton. But luckily for the inhabitants, the British were paid off by local officials to withdraw. The fleet continued up north and in 1842 had captured Zapu[?] and Shanghai. The final large-scale offensive of the war resulted in the British taking of the city of Zheijang and opening the road to Nanking. The Chinese finally realized they were defeated, and the new peace terms were laid out and agreed upon. The Chinese would pay the British £20 million as compensation, they would end the Cohong monopoly, and had to fix custom duties, open five ports, and cede Hong Kong to Great Britain. With the end of the first Opium War began a series of ‘unequal treaties’ humiliating the Chinese. China rapidly became very unstable, and was forced to fight off several uprisings in this time. On top of this, Britain still wanted more from China, such as the legalization of opium, and the opening of the entire empire to foreign merchants. The 1850s saw the rapid growth of western imperialism. All European empires had a shared interest in bringing civilization and democracy to savages. Or as we in the trade call it, expanding their overseas markets. In 1856, the Chinese crew of the Arrow, a ship that had once belonged to pirates but had been sold to the British, were arrested on belief of being said pirates. Negotiations promptly began between the British council and Canton, Harry Parks and the imperial commissioner Ye Mingchen, to discuss the release of these prisoners. All but three were released, and so the prudent thing to do would be invade China. And they did. The war began with the British besieging forts in the Pearl River. When the Chinese retaliated, they made things worse for themselves by attacking U.S. ships, prompting the U.S. to strike back, albeit briefly. All western powers saw this as an opportunity to get more off the Chinese. The French joined Britain, citing the execution of a French missionary as their casus belli. Russia also sent an envoy, but nothing really came of that. In 1857, British and French forces sieged and captured Canton, even taking Ye Mingchen as prisoner. With this success in Canton, the new Xianfeng Emperor, son of the Daoguang Emperor, was forced to the negotiation table. The Treaty of Tianjin was signed, opening more ports and allowing foreigners access to inland China and giving Britain, Russia, France, and the U.S. the right to establish legations, and this time, a British, Russian, French, and American allegiance was also realized. A year after signing this treaty, western powers were informed that the Xianfeng Emperor was going to, as the kids say, ‘bitch out,’ and deny them access to Beijing to set up their legations. So hostilities resumed. The western forces launched the Battle of Taku Forts, and heroically, failed completely. They picked themselves up and attacked again, and this time won. In 1860 the allies pushed on to Beijing, forcing their way into the city and burning down the Emperor’s summer palace. The Xianfeng Emperor had fled, and so his brother, Prince Gong, decided to ratify the Treaty of Tianjin in October, 1860, bringing the second Opium War to a close. The Opium Wars were the beginning of a century of humiliation for the Chinese which lasted roughly from 1840 to 1940. The age of a China that had been isolated from the foreign affairs of the world had ended in a blaze of violent fury and disgrace. The need to modernize became a pressing concern for the middle kingdom, and the people’s faith in the Qing Dynasty had been severely shaken. Revolutions and small-scale wars tore the Qing Empire apart piece by piece, finally ending in 1911 with the Wuchang uprising. China’s story, of course, did not end there, as a bloody civil war gruelled on until the People’s Republic of China took over in 1949. This new, modern China is vastly prevalent in today’s society. You’re most likely watching this video on something made in China. China is continuing to modernize and reform itself well into this century, and most likely beyond. Many predict that the near future China could fill in the void left by the Soviet Union as the second superpower. No matter which path China will take in the future, it will be heavily influenced by its history and identity, which all started with the Opium Wars. Thank you for watching this video. I highly appreciate the small but loyal following I’ve gathered, and I applaud your patience in waiting for these videos. I attempted to take more of a comedic angle with this video, so please give me your thoughts in the comments, and I also implore you guys to make your own suggestions for future video topics. We’ll cover anything, as I frankly just enjoy making these videos. And again, thanks for watching.

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