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Significant events have shaped the history of the world and specific regions. The episodes have shaped relationships between states and territories. Some of the incidents were characterized by peace, while others were marred by violence and conflicts. One such event is the Opium Wars which emanated from the business relationship between Great Britain and China. The battles resulted from the trade in opium between the two countries. The commodity was vital for the two states during the period (McAleavy, 1967). Opium trade was growing in China, creating an increase in business in Great Britain. The factor was important and consequently leading to the conflict with the trading partner. Historians have focused on the conditions in China that precipitated the wars and the eventual effects of the conflicts. Although different scholars explain the opium wars differently, they trace it to underlying conditions in China associated with the opium production and trade.

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The Opium Wars

Two wars were fought in the mid-19th century between China and the British Empire, known as the Opium Wars. The leading cause of the war was the trade in opium and the sovereignty of China. The First Opium War was fought between 1839 and 1842, while the Second Opium War occurred between 1856 and 1860 (Kissinger & Hormann, 2011). The trade imbalance between the two countries instigated the First Opium War. Diplomatic status and financial reparations were other important factors behind the war. In 1839, the British Empire initiated efforts in China to legalize opium to increase its trade in the country. However, the proposal, together with the idea of taxing the commodity, was rejected by the Daoguang Emperor (Pletcher, 2018). Furthermore, led by Viceroy Lin Zexu, a complete ban on the opium trade was imposed in China. The country further imposed brocade on all foreign trade in the product and even confiscated some of it within its borders. Although Britain was not opposed to the imposition of the ban in the country, it has issues with the procedure through which the goal was achieved.

The British authority opposed the treatment of its traders and suppliers in China following the ban. China made efforts to suppress the opium trade since British traders had been illegally importing the commodity since the 18th century. Besides, the opium trade had increased from around 1920. The consequences of the drug trade, including addiction were creating economic and social effects on China (Kissinger & Hormann, 2011). The Chinese government decided to reverse the effects by confiscating and destroying the opium that was brought into the country by British traders. In spring 1839, they captured more than 20,000 chests in Canton. The actions caused considerable antagonism between the two countries, especially after the murder of a Chinese villager by drunken British sailors. The British government opposed any trial of its citizens in China (Pletcher, 2018). As a result, they protected the accused from the Chinese authority. The two countries could no longer agree on diplomatic or trade relations, a problem that created the war.

The conflicts started when the British sailors reacted by destroying the brocade. In early 1840, the British government sent a fleet to Canton up the Pearl River estuary. They engaged in negotiations for some time before attacking and occupying the city. The British forces won the battles against the weaker Qing forces. The Chinese counterparts were determined, especially in 1842, but failed against the superior powers. In late August 1842, the British troops carried out an offensive attack and captured Nanjing (Kissinger & Hormann, 2011). The event led to the end of the battle following fast peace negotiations, leading to the Treaty of Nanjing. The requirements of the agreement required the Chinese government to pay Britain a considerable indemnity and surrender Hong Kong Island (Holt, 1964). The terms of the treaty increased the number of regions where Great Britain could trade and even reside. Initially, they only held authority over Canton, but the towns increased to five.

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Factors Behind the Second Opium War

Treaty of Nanjing led to the end of the First Opium War in 1842. Nonetheless, while it was a ceasefire in the initial conflict, the agreement was not well received by the Chinese people who considered it unfair. At the same time, Great Britain felt that it did not get sufficient gains from the trade since the Chinese government was not enforcing the terms of the treaty. China was one of the most important markets of opium from Great Britain (Chesneaux, Bastid & Bergere, 1976). Despite the failure to implement the agreement, opium was still sold in China through smuggling. As a result, the Chinese government resented foreigners, and the local environment became hostile while relationships with other states worsened (Gray, 2002). The antipathy boiled up to the level of the battle that became the Second Opium War. The British authority was determined to maintain the business in the country.

In the wake of the Second Opium War, the Chinese government was facing a different challenge, the efforts to quell the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64). The country was facing a new problem involving the revolt targeted at the Manchu law, influence under the Qing dynasty (Twitchett, Fairbank, & Feuerwerker, 1978). The Taiping Rebellion became a significant distraction for the Chinese government when the British troops arrived in the country to launch the war. The rebellion resulted in the deaths of many Chinese, which led to the intervention of many western powers (McAleavy, 1967). The revolt has significant implications in the country in the wake of the opium wars. For instance, the event weakened China such that it would be ineffective in repelling the foreign threat from British and French troops. Furthermore, the rebellion opposed opium trade and use, making it highly relevant in the ensuing battle between Great Britain and China (Waley, 2013). The foreign troops took advantage of the rebellion to launch attacks against the country.

The British troops had a vital goal to perpetuate the attacks in the country, which opposed the opium trade and use. The British traders were seeking more trading rights in China and would benefit from renewed hostilities (Twitchett, Fairbank, & Feuerwerker, 1978). The second battle occurred from Canton where the British traders had initially established their trading grounds. British troops sailed up the Pearl River estuary and initiated a fight against Chinese forces. The stalemate caused all business activities to stop. Violence increased when the Chinese troops burned down foreign factories and trading warehouses in Canton (Pletcher, 2018). While the first war involved British troops against the Chinese, the second battle has an additional participant, French who joined the struggle supposedly fighting against the killing of a French missionary in China. As a result, the second battle was more violent than the first one.

The Second Opium was more aggressive than the first one since it involved more troops and the foreigners were determined to gain greater trading ground in China. The allies hurriedly captured Canton, deposed the intransigent governor of the city. They placed a more-compliant official in place of the governor since they required greater support to expand their reach. The troops reached Tianjin (Tientsin) in May 1858 and pressurized the Chinese government to negotiate. Foreign envoys were allowed residence in Beijing by the treaties of Tianjin (Kissinger & Hormann, 2011). As a result, they opened up many new ports to the traders and residence. It also gave greater rights to the foreigners to travel into the interior of the country as well as the freedom of movement. The British authority desired to engage in new negotiations to expand their power over China even further. They were focused on reversing the efforts of the Chinese government to prevent opium trade in China.

The adversaries engaged in new negotiations in Shanghai later in 1858. One of the main goals of the talks was the legalization of the importation of opium in China. In the summer of 1858, the British withdrew from Tianjin. However, they returned to the region in June 1859 through Beijing. The primary goal of their return accompanied by diplomats from France was to ratify the treaties. However, the Chinese authority hindered them from entering the region through Dagu forts at the Hai River’s mouth (Twitchett, Fairbank, & Feuerwerker, 1978). Instead, they suggested that the parties enter Beijing through an alternative route. The British-led forces opposed the alternative route and decided to force their way past Dagu. They faced considerable opposition resulting in many casualties. The Chinese government was still unwilling to ratify the treaties, which created further hostilities from the allies. The Dagu batteries were destroyed in August 1860 by a significantly larger force of French and British troops (Waley, 2013). The new attacks resulted in considerable damages perpetrated by the soldiers.

China had resisted the requirements of the treaties, especially legalization of opium and expansion of trade in the country. Xianfeng, the Chinese emperor did not support the agreement and refused its ratification. When the British and France troops returned in 1859 for the ratification, they were opposed and even attacked. As a result, more than 400 of them were killed, which led to the 1860 attacks. The British and French troops came back to revenge and they quickly captured some of the most critical parts of the country, including Beijing (Gray, 2002). However, the treaty was later ratified after the death of Emperor Xianfeng. Evidently, the new governor was more sympathetic to the west and supported the terms of the agreement. The western-led force successfully crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1864. The success in ending the revolt resulted in a complete end to any opposition in the country. As a result, the west gained more significant influence in the country.

The Outcome of the Opium Wars

One of the significant effects of the war was the weakening of the Qing dynasty in China. Indeed, the battle brought success for Great Britain. Consequently, the country effectively induced an opioid crisis in the rival state, undermining the Chinese society.  In the period before the war, China was performing well economically (Pletcher, 2018). In fact, according to a British economist Angus Maddison, China was the leading economy in the world in 1920. However, due to the war, China’s share of global GDP dropped drastically revealing severe adverse effects on the economy. The economic performance of many centuries before the war was devastated by the conflict with Great Britain. Hence, the era between 1839 and 1949 came to be known as the Century of Humiliation (Twitchett, Fairbank, & Feuerwerker, 1978). One of the reasons for the economic disgrace in China was the Treaty of Nanjing’s settlements, including the ceding of significant training regimes. The decisions were detrimental to the Chinese government and the country’s economic well-being.

China was forced to trade with other countries in the world as a result of the conflicts. The state performed poorly because of the commodities that the foreigners brought into the country, including the opium from Great Britain. At the same time, the country was experiencing a massive burden of reparation payments (Waley, 2013). The two battles resulted in higher trading by the foreigners after acquiring greater trading grounds in the country. Besides, the negotiations during the two battles had resulted in increased rights for the Western traders to do business and reside in China. Beginning with Britain and China, more foreigners were increasing their hold on China as a trading ground for various commodities. The battle gave them the necessary power, firstly, by occupying Guangzhou, and secondly, seizing the forts close to Tianjin in 1858 (Chesneaux, Bastid & Bergere, 1976). Furthermore, the battles had forced ratification of the Treaties of Tianjin that involved western powers, including Britain and France, as well as the United States and Russia. As a result, China was under the real influence of the Western elites.

Both wars also made China to be more open to foreign embassies to protect the interests of the western powers. Apart from the indemnities, China was forced to pay Britain and France. On the other hand, they were also expected to reduce trade tariffs as well as permit other nations to establish embassies in its land. Consequently, the war had opened the once conservative China to accept the interference by other countries. The government experienced significant changes, including the legalization of opium that increased the trade in China despite opposition from Christians. The rebellion to oppose its trade and use were later ineffective due to the development of a government that supported the west and allowed them to trade. The opposition ended with the involvement of the western powers in China (Twitchett, Fairbank, & Feuerwerker, 1978). As a result, the country became a vital trading region for various western commodities, including opium.

Scholars have various views regarding the genesis of the opium wars in China. For instance, some believe that the battle was initiated by British sellers to gain greater trading grounds for opium in the vibrant Chinese market (Hanes III. & Sanello, 2004). Others suggest that the western powers supported the wars to establish the principle of free trade in China (Waley, 2013). The country was historically opposed to the western ideologies, including the eradication or reduction of trade tariffs to increase international trade. Arguably, the British government was not necessarily interested in the opium business, but to uphold its place as the leading supporter of free trade in the world. It was important for the country to gain ground in China to maintain the reputation and honor.

The western support for the wars led to the success and the requirements for China to open up its borders to foreign traders. The opium trade was used to achieve the goals of the more significant relationship, trade and diplomatic between China and the rest of the world. The outcome reveals the actual intentions of the British and French authorities in engaging in the destructive battles (Waley, 2013). Firstly, the troops forced China to participate in the negotiations that were biased toward the west. Secondly, failure to ratify the treaties resulted in more violence. Finally, China ratified the treaties that led to its economic detriment by opening up its borders to foreign trade. Clearly, the interests of China were ignored in the battle and its outcome.


The Opium Wars were crucial events in shaping the history of China. The episodes played an essential role in influencing the relationship between the country and western powers, including Britain, France and later the U.S. The genesis of the wars was opium trade in China, which was a critical destination for the commodity, especially for Great Britain traders. China was greatly divided about the marketing and use of opium. Some supported a ban on the trade to protect the people from addiction. As a result, the war was also associated with the Taiping Rebellion that sought to end the western influence. The effort to continue the impact led to the outbreak of the fights conducted by Britain and France. The conflicts and violence had significant effects on China, including weakening it economically and increasing the influence of the west. China became more open to foreign countries through trade and establishment of embassies to protect their interests.

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