First Opium War – The Righteous Minister – Extra History – #2


Last we left off the Treasury of the
British Empire was flowing into China. And the Honorable East India Company was
still reeling under the staggering debt it owed the government for underwriting
its military conquests in India. Something needed to be done. They needed to find some tradeable good,
something other than silver that the Chinese wanted to import to offset the
massive costs of the Victorian need for tea. And the answer they found was opium. By the early eighteen hundreds tea sales
in England were unimaginably high given the quantity they were importing
the average English household spent about five percent
of its income just on tea. The government itself was basically propped up by the tea trade, because the government had lent the Honorable east india company so much
money to conquer parts of India and because a huge portion of the east india
company’s revenue came from transporting tea from China the country was even more dependent on
the tea trade as that revenue was being used not only to repay the debt the
company had incurred but to pay interest on it. But even as the Tea craze
was consuming England the Honorable East India Company was also coming to the realization that
their conquests in India weren’t realizing the returns they’d hoped. Their plans to grow cotton
in india had gone awry as cotton production in the
Americas and especially in Egypt were on the rise. But it turns out that something else
grew really well on all that land that they planned to use for cotton, poppies. So the east india company
found its solution. They would grow poppies in India convert them into opium sell that
at a profit in China, use the profits to buy tea and then sell that
at a profit back in Britain. There were only
a few problems with this plan besides the fact that it meant pushing drugs
on an unheard-of scale, there was also the issue that opium was
technically illegal in China and the Honorable east india company being of
course the Honorable east india company would never do something illegal. Ok they would but they didn’t want to
risk getting kicked out of China or cut off from its tea. So they set up a market
in Calcutta, basically the part of India closest to China that they controlled and they said anybody who wants to buy opium we’re selling it right here no idea what you might want to do with
it but hey that’s not our business who wants some opium come on. And then they would let the smugglers
handle it from there. So now you’ve got a bunch of dodgy characters selling drugs
in the Middle Kingdom basically backed by the largest corporation and the largest national
economy in the world and as Indian opium
turned out to be even stronger than the domestically
grown stuff everybody wanted it. So opium sales skyrocketed and by 1835 they were moving roughly three million sixty-four thousand pounds
of opium per year into China. And that number was only going to get bigger
because in 1833 the British government decided to finally do away with the
Honorable East India Company’s monopoly on the opium trade. Now everybody wanted a piece of the
action and opium started flowing into China completely unregulated, increasing
supply driving prices down and making the substance even more accessible. By 1839 nearly five million six hundred thirty-nine thousand pounds of opium
would be pouring into China every year. But I’m getting ahead of myself because
it’s not like the Chinese were just sitting around letting this happen. As piles of money
which the government desperately needed
flowed out of the country the Emperor appointed an official named
lin zexu to address the disastrous effects of opium on the country he was brilliant incorruptible and
utterly inflexible. He saw the threat of the west and the morally corrupting
effect that opium had had on the Chinese people and decided that the only
approach to take was the complete removal of opium from china. By march of 1839 he had reached canton, it was the source
of all this opium so he planned to cut it off at its source. His actions were Swift and uncompromising, he arrested thousands of Chinese
opium traders. Forced addicts into rehabilitation programs, confiscated opium pipes
and closed opium dens. And then he took on the Western traders at first he wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria appealing to her conscience. A letter which is very likely
she never received. When he got no reply he demanded that the foreigners
surrender their stores of opium. The foreign merchants stalled and
prevaricated giving up small amounts of their opium stock but nowhere near what
lin zexu had demanded. So he marshaled the troops and put the foreign
warehouses to siege. The merchants holed up for a month and a half but in the end they gave in and were
forced to surrender 21,000 chests of opium. For the next 23 days Zexu burned the opium with lye, this was a king’s ransom
in opium the amount of money this destruction
represented is staggering. It was roughly one sixth as much as the British Empire the
largest most far-flung Empire in the world had spent on its military
the previous year. Needless to say everybody involved was
going bankrupt. Now there is some debate over whether
the Chinese offered tea in exchange for the surrendered opium but what is
certain is that the merchants never received any tea and instead the local
chief superintendent of British trade one captain Charles Elliott promised the merchants
that the British government would cover their losses
if they would leave peacefully. Which of course the British government
absolutely refused to do. The outcry over this illegal seizure of British goods
began to grow. Meanwhile back in China a reprehensible
incident occurred where some drunken British sailors beat a man to death. Lin zexu demanded the execution of a
British sailor in recompense, captain Elliott who actually disliked
the opium trade and was somewhat sympathetic to the Chinese situation put
out a reward for evidence of who had committed the murder and gave money to
the victim’s family. He then had the criminals tried on his
ship inviting Lin zexu or a representative to witness the
proceedings although none took him up
on the invitation. He sentenced the men to hard labor back in England but this wouldn’t work for lin zexu after all the whole point of his demand
was to show that foreigners couldn’t just violate Chinese law on Chinese soil. So in response he stopped all food being supplied to the British and posted signs
telling them that frothier water sources had been poisoned. Next he ordered the Portuguese to reject
all British from Macau he was going to see these pesky British
and their drugs off Chinese soil once and for all. So the British retreated to a barren
nothing island off the coast a barren nothing island that will eventually
be known as Hong Kong. Their food crisis was at a head though captain Elliott sent a request for food
sales to resume. The response was delayed, so he sent men ashore to buy food but as they were heading back these
provisions were seized by Chinese officials. Soon a firefight broke out
between the blockading Chinese junks and the British ships and thus began the
first opium war

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