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The First and Second Opium Wars


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The Opium Wars
These 19th century Opium War army uniforms stand side-by-side in a Chinese museum today.

British East India Company and Qing Chinese army uniforms from the Opium Wars in China.

Chrysaora on Flickr.com

First Opium War: March 18, 1839 - August 29, 1842.

Also called the First Anglo-Chinese War.

British victory

Casualties: 69 British troops, approximately 18,000 Chinese soldiers.

Results: Britain gets trade rights, access to five treaty ports, and Hong Kong.


Second Opium War: October 23, 1856 - October 18, 1860.

Also known as the Arrow War or the Second Anglo-Chinese War, although France joined in.

Anglo-French victory

Casualties: Western powers, approximately 2,900 killed or wounded. China, 12,000 - 30,000 killed or wounded.

Results: Britain gets southern Kowloon. Western powers get extraterritorial rights, trade privileges. China's Summer Palaces looted and burned.


Background to the Opium Wars:

In the 1700s, European nations such as Britain, the Netherlands, and France sought to expand their Asian trade networks by connecting with one of the major sources of desirable finished products - the powerful Qing Empire in China. For well over a thousand years, China had been the eastern end point of the Silk Road, and source of fabulous luxury items. European joint-stock trading companies, such as the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company (VOC), were eager to elbow their way in on this ancient exchange system.

The European traders had a couple of problems, however. China limited them to the commercial port of Canton, did not allow them to learn Chinese, and also threatened harsh penalties for any European who tried to leave the port city and enter China proper. Worst of all, European consumers were crazy for Chinese silks, porcelain, and tea, but China wanted nothing to do with any European manufactured goods. The Qing required payment in cold, hard cash - in this case, silver.

Britain soon faced a serious trade deficit with China, as it had no domestic silver supply and had to buy all of its silver from Mexico or from European powers with colonial silver mines. The growing British thirst for tea, in particular, made the trade imbalance increasingly desperate. By the end of the 18th century, the UK imported more than 6 tons of Chinese tea annually. In half a century, Britain managed to sell just £9m worth of British goods to the Chinese, in exchange for £27m in Chinese imports. The difference was paid for in silver.

However, early in the 19th century, the British East India Company hit upon a second form of payment that was illegal, yet acceptable to the Chinese traders: opium from British India. This opium, primarily produced in Bengal, was stronger than the type traditionally used in Chinese medicine; in addition, Chinese users began to smoke the opium rather than eating the resin, which produced a more powerful high. As usage and addiction increased, the Qing government grew ever more concerned. By some estimates, as many as 90% of the young males along China's east coast were addicted to smoking opium by the 1830s. The trade balance swung in Britain's favor, on the back of illegal opium smuggling.

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