Opium was at the centre of one of the great controversies of the nineteenth century. Shanghai was the main importation point for China, and the city's fortunes were founded on and bound up with drug trafficking. There was hypocrisy on the part of both Britain and China, and both shared the blame.

Chinese Imperial officials railed against the British for forcing the bitter, yellowish-brown narcotic, obtained from the juice of opium poppy pods, onto the Chinese people, but took kickbacks from the traders and smoked the drug themselves. The British justified the trade on the dubious grounds that opium was the only commodity China was willing to buy to balance Britain's purchases of tea and silk.

Opium was a huge and highly
lucrative multi-national industry for much of the nineteenth century, and was dominated by the British: poppy farms and opium processing plants in India, fast clipper ships to bring the product to the China market, and heavily-guarded opium storage hulks moored off the coast where local smugglers could pick up supplies. By 1890, it is estimated that about 10 percent of China's total population were opium smokers.

It was a well known and widely used drug in the West too, largely as a pain-reliever, and as a remedy for diarrhea. "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium," Thomas Sydenham wrote in 1680.

But in China, it was not being promoted by the British for medicinal purposes. The Chinese knew what damage the drug was doing to society, and in 1839, China's opium commissioner Lin Zexu seized and destroyed 20,000 chests of opium from British traders in the southern city of Canton. The British demanded compensation and, as an added penalty, the opening of five ports along the China coast - at that time all foreigners in China were still confined to Canton.

Thus started the first Opium War, which ended inevitably in complete defeat for the Chinese at the hands of the much superior British military forces. The Chinese were forced to open up the five ports including Shanghai which was declared open to foreign trade on November 14th, 1843.

And, as one of the results of the opening of the ports, opium usage boomed. It spread right through Chinese society from the Imperial Palace to lowly labourers. It was a means of escape from reality - as understandable for the ruling Manchus as their empire slowly collapsed around them, as for the poor coolies trying to forget their nightmarish lives amidst clouds of opium smoke. In Shanghai, the trade prospered and huge fortunes were made, financing profligate lifestyles and magnificent castles back home in Scotland.

Chinese officials continued to pay lip-service to the orders from the Imperial Court to wipe out the drug, but no one took the task seriously. "Edicts are still issued against the use of opium," wrote Australian journalist G.E. Morrison in 1895. "They are drawn up by Chinese philanthropists over a quiet pipe of opium, signed by opium-smoking officials, whose revenues are derived from the poppy, and posted near fields of poppy by the opium-smoking magistrates who own them."

In 1870, opium accounted for 43 percent of China's total imports, with cotton goods a distant second at 28 percent. Huge hulks were moored off the Bund to store the opium which was used in the city's opium dens or sent on along the Yangtze River. Inevitably but gradually, the days of quick opium profits were coming to an end. The trading house of Jardines, the Noble House, had basically pulled out of the trade by 1870 due to the fierce competition, and was instead pouring its drug-based fortunes into new ventures such as banking, mining and railways. The anti-opium lobby, meanwhile, was gaining ground and the Shanghai Municipal Council stopped issuing licences for opium dens in 1907. The last legal opium shop in the city closed in 1917.

This in no way stopped the opium trade: it just pushed it into the hands of the underworld.

The sale and consumption of opium in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s was controlled by 'Pock-marked' Huang Jinrong, the senior Chinese officer in the French gendarmerie, and 'Big Ears' Du Yuesheng, head of the Green Gang triad. Du was the city's top gangster and, as Shanghai's Who's Who of 1933 described him, 'well-known public welfare worker'.

Huang and Du controlled the opium smuggling and taxed opium dens in the city a certain sum per pipe per day. The French saw nothing wrong in having a police chief keeping criminal activity under control with everybody, including the French expatriates, benefiting handsomely. Du, in recognition of his role in maintaining law and order -- in at least keeping crime organised -- became a member of the Board of the Opium Suppression Bureau.

Opium was available to Europeans in the old Shanghai who wished to partake, and many did so. The conclusion appears to be that opium smoking was not addictive except with extended use, and was a pleasant experience. In the words of British writer Peter Quennell, who visited Shanghai in 1931: "Opium smoking is the staidest form of indulgence, the most sedentary and least uncivilised of all the vices."

The smoker lay in a gloomy opium den cubicle, with the smoking apparatus laid out on a low table to one side. In establishments for the well-to-do, comely wenches tended to the opium pipes and to the sensual needs of customers. The dark, sticky raw opium was twisted around a pin and cooked over a lamp until it hardened amidst much bubbling and crackling. It was then placed in the bowl of the pipe, which was then turned towards the flame. A pipe was completed in just a couple of minutes. Aficionados would have half a dozen or more pipes at one go, the pupils of their eyes shrinking to needle-points in the process.

The smoking technique required some practice. "Imagine that you are a child that sucks its mother's breast," was the advice Quennell was given. It was important to draw continuously, allowing the rich flavours and vegetable smells to seep through your being. The effect on the mind, according to tradition, was deep psychedelic dreams. But the reality was more a seductive stupor of calm and feelings of well-being.

The end of the international opium trade, speeded by an international conference on the problem held in Shanghai in 1909, was more than compensated for by the growth of domestic Chinese production. In 1904, opium accounted for about 13 percent of total crop acreage in China; by 1930, it was occupying 20 percent of the country's arable land.

Opium was finally driven from Shanghai in 1949 when the Communists marched in, closed down the opium dens, and forced all the addicts into rehabilitation. Huang Jinrong died in the city in the early 1950s, but 'Big Ears' Du escaped to Hong Kong and died there in 1952.

In the early 1990s, opium returned to Shanghai, this time in the form of heroin, and this time as an all-Chinese business.
The British and Indian drug traders were long gone.

Viscount Palmerston's instructions to Sir Henry Pottinger with regard to opium, on his departure for China on 31st May 1841:

"It is of great importance, with a view to the maintenance of a permanent good understanding between the two countries, that the Chinese government should place the opium trade upon some regular and legalised footing. Experience has shown that it is entirely beyond the power of the Chinese Government to prevent the introduction of opium into China; and many reasons render it impossible that the British Government can give the Chinese Government any effectual aid towards the accomplishment of that purpose. But while the opium trade is forbidden by law it must inevitably be carried on by fraud and violence; and hence must arise frequent conflicts and collisions between the Chinese preventive service and the parties who are engaged in carrying on the opium trade. These parties are generally British subjects; and it is impossible to suppose that this private war can be carried on between British opium smugglers and the Chinese authorities, without events happening which must tend to put in jeopardy the good understanding between the Chinese and British Governments.

H.M. Government makes no demand in this matter; for they have no right to do so. The Chinese Government is fully entitled to prohibit the importation of opium, if it pleases; and British subjects who engage in a contraband trade must take the consequences of doing so. But it is desirable that you should avail yourself of every favourable opportunity to strongly impress upon the Chinese Plenipotentiary, and through him the Chinese Government, how much it would be for the interest of the Chinese Government itself to alter the law of China on this matter, and to legalise, by a regular duty, a trade which they cannot prevent."

An Opium Transit Certificate

Jardine, Matheson Co, in a statement on the opium question, made the following comment:

"The use of opium is not a curse but a comfort to the hard-working Chinese; to many scores of thousands it as been productive of healthful sustention and enjoyment."

Another statement from Jardine, Matheson Co on the economic implications of the opium trade for England, presented to parliament in 1857:

"Instead of tending to restrict what is called the legitimate trade, the traffic in Opium has enormously extended the export of tea and silk from China to the British market, and enabled these articles to be supplied to consumers at a lower price than could otherwise have been the case. Indeed, but for it, they could not have been shipped but for a limited extent during the past two years, owing to the absolute want of the means to pay for them. Being ourselves large importers of British manufactures into China, nothing would afford us greater satisfaction than to see this branch of trade extended, but the demand for such goods is dependent upon other considerations and it is in no way affected by the Opium Trade."

The British consul at Kiung Chow in 1879:

"No one can maintain that a mild indulgence results in physical or mental disability. A pipe of opium is to the Chinese workman what a glass of beer is to the English labourer, a climatic necessity."

The directors of the East India Company, who started the opium to trade to China in the first place, said in a report to the Governor in consul in Bengal in 1831:

"We wish it to be clearly understood that our sanction is given to this measures (for supplying a quantity of opium for the internal consumption of the country ) not with a view to the revenue which they may yield, but in the hope that they will tend to restrain the use of this pernicious drug ... the prevent its introduction into districts where it is not used, and to limit its consumption in other places as nearly as possible to what may be absolutely necessary. were it possible to prevent the use of the drug altogether we would gladly do so in compassion to mankind."

In a Memorial to the Chinese emperor in 1836, a senior Mandarin commented:

"In introducing opium into this country, the purpose of the English has been to weaken and enfeeble the Central Empire. If not early aroused to a sense of our danger, we shall find ourselves, ere long, on the last step to ruin ..."

Edward LeFevour in Western Enterprise in Late Ch'ing China on the impact of the opium trade on western companies, particularly Jardine's, operating on the China coast:

"Opium had provided the capital reserve essential to survival and growth in a precarious economic environment., lubricated the export trade, stimulated the improvement of communications., and probably provided China firms with a surplus to invest in world markets. Decades of concentration upon the trade had conditioned the whole nature of Western enterprise in China.

Although the whole of the firm's early investment in the service of trade had turned upon the pivot of opium and commercial growth within the treaty ports was undoubtedly stimulated by this constant investment in structure, trade in drug also had the effect of channeling a major part of the commercial enterprise of several large Western and Indian firms in China into the sale and servicing of one commodity for several decades. There was no practical alternative before the 1870's. It was not until the firm had been forced from the trade as a major participant that it began proposing the use of capital and techniques for many alternative investments in the treaty ports and in the domestic Chinese economy. Opium had been the indispensable commodity. When it became a trade of declining importance and diminishing profits, the firm withdrew easily, focusing its enterprise upon new opportunities in the changing China trade of the 1870's."

An excerpt from A History of Shanghai, by F. Potts, published in 1924:

"Opium receiving ships were moored at Woosung, 12 miles from Shanghai at the mouth of the river. Up to 1854 there were ten; four for opium consigned to British firms, four to Jewish or Parsee firms, and two to American firms. In 1854 the two American ships were withdrawn from service. The following figures show the rapid increase in this illegal traffic in Shanghai. In 1847, 16,500 chests were disposed of and in 1857, 31,907 chests.

For Shanghai, the legalization of the trade meant the appearance of the opium hulks moored along The Bund. Old sailing ships were converted into receiving stations for opium, which was stored on them until it could obtain a market. The last of these ships did not disappear until after the cessation of the importation of opium from India in 1917.

To its credit the Municipality, contrary to its financial interests, co-operated with the Chinese Government in the suppression of the sale of opium. In 1904, a distinction was drawn between an opium shop and an opium house. In the former the sale was permitted but not its consumption on the premises, in the latter both were allowed. After 1907 no further licences were granted to opium houses and those in existence at that time were closed in 1909. The year 1917 saw the last of the opium shops in Shanghai. A resolution passed at the Ratepayers' meeting in 1915 required the withdrawal of one quarter of the licences of these shops every six months by a process of ballot. The first drawing took place in June, 1915, the second in December, 1915, and the third in June, 1916, leaving the remaining quarter to be withdrawn on March 31st, 1917. The opium shops did a roaring trade to the last, as habitues were anxious to lay in a good stock of the drug."

An excerpt from Sin City, by Ralph Shaw, a British journalist in Shanghai from 1937 to 1949:

"There were few old-established British firms which at one time or another had not had a stake in bringing Indian opium into China. The Indian drug was considered to be superior to the native-grown product.

The day had to come, of course, when the export of Indian opium to China had to be banned by international agreement, but this was of little importance to the British firms which had built vast trading empires on the drug. They had made their money. Opium had enabled them to diversify their trading activities into shipping, textiles, mining, railways, finance and so on. Opium-smoking was made illegal in foreign-controlled Shanghai but it could never be stamped out. Fortunes were still made smuggling the drug into China and. the gangsters took over the nefarious trade - the gangsters and the Japanese."

A comment by British military officer and adventurer Harry Flashman, in his book Flashman and the Dragon, as edited by George MacDonald Fraser:

"I don't know who ran the first chest of opium into China, but he was a great man in his way. It was as though some imaginary trader had put into the Forth with a cargo of Glenlivet to discover that the Scots had never heard of whisky. There was a natural appetite, as you may say. And while the Chinks had been puffing themselves half-witted long before the first foreign trader put his nose into the Pearl River, there no doubt that our own John Company had developed their taste for the drug, back in the earlies, and before long they couldn't get enough of it."





England and China: The Opium Wars, 1839-60

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario

[Victorian Web Home > Victorian Political History > Victorian Social History > The British Empire > Opium Wars]


The Opium Trade, Seventh through Nineteenth Centuries

decorated initial 'A'he Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars were the direct result of China's isolationalist and exclusionary trade policy with the West. Confucian China's attempts to exclude pernicious foreign ideas resulted in highly restricted trade. Prior to the 1830s, there was but one port open to Western merchants, Guangzhou (Canton) and but one commodity that the Chinese would accept in trade, silver. British and American merchants, anxious to address what they perceived as a trade imbalance, determined to import the one product that the Chinese did not themselves have but which an ever-increasing number of them wanted: opium. Before 1828, large quantities of the Spanish silver coin, the Carolus, flowed into China in payment for the exotic commodities that Europeans craved; in contrast, in the decade of the 1830s, despite an imperial decree outlawing the export of yellow gold and white silver, "only $7,303,841 worth of silver was imported, whereas the silver exported was estimated at $26,618, 815 in the foreign silver coin, $25,548,205 in sycee, and $3,616,996 in gold" (Kuo, p. 51). although the Chinese imperial governed had long prohibited the drug except for medicinal use, the "British Hong" (companies such as Dent, Jardine, and Matheson authorized to operate in Canton) bought cheaply produced opium in the Begal and Malwa (princely) districts under the auspices of the British East India Company, the number 150 lb. chests of the narcotic being imported rising from 9,708 in 1820 to 35,445 in 1835. With the British government's 1833 cancellation of the trade monopoly enjoyed by the East India Company, cheap opium flooded the market, and China's net outflow of silver amounted to some 34 million Mexican silver dollars over the course of the 1830s.

As the habit of smoking opium spread from the idle rich to ninety per cent of all Chinese males under the age of forty in the country's coastal regions, business activity was much reduced, the civil service ground to a halt, and the standard of living fell. The Emperor Dao guang's special anti-opium commissioner Lin Ze-xu (1785-1850), modestly estimated the number of his countrymen addicted to the drug to be 4 million, but a British physician practising in Canton set the figure at 12 million. Equally disturbing for the imperial government was the imbalance of trade with the West: whereas prior to 1810 Western nations had been spending 350 million Mexican silver dollars on porcelain, cotton, silks, brocades, and various grades of tea, by 1837 opium represented 57 per cent of Chinese imports, and for fiscal 1835-36 alone China exported 4.5 million silver dollars. The official sent in 1838 by the Emperor Dao guang (1821-1850) of the Qing Dynasty to confiscate and destroy all imports of opium, Lin Ze-xu, calculated that in fiscal 1839 Chinese opium smokers consumed 100 million taels' worth of the drug while the entire spending by the imperial government that year spent 40 million taels. He reportedly concluded, "If we continue to allow this trade to flourish, in a few dozen years we will find ourselves not only with no soldiers to resist the enemy, but also with no money to equip the army" quoted by Chesneaux et al., p. 55). By the late 1830s, foreign merchant vessels, notably those of Britain and the United States, were landing over 30,000 chests annually. Meantime, corrupt officials in the hoppo (customs office) and ruthless merchants in the port cities were accumulating wealth beyond "all the tea in China" by defying imperial interdictions that had existed in principle since 1796. The standard rate for an official's turning a blind eye to the importation of a single crate of opium was 80 taels. Between 1821 and 1837 the illegal importation of opium (theoretically a capital offence) increased five fold. A hotbed of vice, bribery, and disloyalty to the Emperor's authority, the opium port of Canton would be the flashpoint for the inevitable clash between the governments of China and Great Britain.

The Outbreak of the First Opium War

This war with China . . . really seems to me so wicked as to be a national sin of the greatest possible magnitude, and it distresses me very deeply. Cannot any thing be done by petition or otherwise to awaken men's minds to the dreadful guilt we are incurring? I really do not remember, in any history, of a war undertaken with such combined injustice and baseness. Ordinary wars of conquest are to me far less wicked, than to go to war in order to maintain smuggling, and that smuggling consisting in the introduction of a demoralizing drug, which the government of China wishes to keep out, and which we, for the lucre of gain, want to introduce by force; and in this quarrel are going to burn and slay in the pride of our supposed superiority. Thomas Arnold to W. W. Hull, March 18, 1840

ritish merchants were frustrated by Chinese trade laws and refused to cooperate with Chinese legal officials because of their routine use of torture. Upon his arrival in Canton in March, 1839, the Emperor's special emissary, Lin Ze-xu, took swift action against the foreign merchants and their Chinese accomplices, making some 1,600 arrests and confiscating 11,000 pounds of opium. Despite attempts by the British superintendent of trade, Charles Elliot, to negotiate a compromise, in June Lin ordered the seizure another 20,00 crates of opium from foreign-controlled factories, holding all foreign merchants under arrest until they surrendered nine million dollars worth of opium, which he then had burned publicly. Finally, he ordered the port of Canton closed to all foreign merchants. Elliot in turn ordered a blockade of the Pearl River. In an ensuing naval battle, described as a victory by Chinese propagandists, in November 1839 the Royal Navy sank a number of Chinese vessels near Guangzhou. By January 1841, the British had captured the Bogue forts at the Pearl's mouth and controlled the high ground above the port of Canton. Subsequently, British forces scored victories on land at Ningbo and Chinhai, crushing the ill-equipped and poorly trained imperial forces with ease. Viewed as too moderate back at home, in August 1841 Elliot was replaced by Sir Henry Pottinger to launch a major offensive against Ningbo and Tiajin. By the end of June British forces occupied Zhenjiang and controlled the vast rice-growing lands of southern China.

The key to British victory was Her Majesty's Navy, which used the broadside with equal effect against wooden-hulled vessels, fortifications are river mouths, and city walls. The steel-hulled Nemesis, a shallow-draft armed paddle-wheeler loaned to the campaign by the British East India Company, quickly controlled the river basins and the Pearl River between Hong Kong and Canton, regardless of winds or tides that limited the effectiveness of Chinese junks. On land, Chinese bows and primitive firelocks proved no match for British muskets and artillery. For leading the Royal Marines to victory General Anthony Blaxland Stransham was knighted by Queen Victoria. His forces utterly defeated on land and sea, Lin Ze-xu in September 1840 had been recalled to Peking in disgrace, and Qi-shan, a Manchu aristocrat related to the Emperor, installed in Lin's place to deal with the foreign devils whose decisive victories were undermining the authority of the Qing Dynasty, which gradually lost control of a population of 300 million.

The Cost of Peace

decorated initial 'Q'i-shan's first major concession was to ransom Canton in the spring of 1841 from the British for six million silver dollars rather than try to defend it. By the middle of 1842, the British controlled the mouth of the Yangtze and Shanghai, and forced the Chinese to sign the first of a series of "unequal" treaties that turned control of much of the coast over to the West. While Chinese officials earnestly entreated Sir Henry Pottinger to cut the problem off at its source by recommending that the British government ban the cultivation of the poppy in India, Sir Henry argued that, as long as there remained substantial numbers of opium-addicts and corrupt customs officers in China, prohibiting the cultivation of opium in India "would merely throw the market into other hands" (cited by Ssu-Yu Teng, p. 70). Under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking (29 August 1842), signed as seems fitting now aboard a British warship at the mouth of the Yangtze, and a further "supplementary" treaty in 1843, China ceded the island of Hong Kong to Great Britain, opened five "Treaty" ports (Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai, and Ningbo) to Western trade and residence, granted Great Britain most-favoured nation status for trade, and paid nine million dollars in reparations to the merchants whose 20,000 chests of opium Lin Ze-xu had destroyed. China was compelled to abolish trading monopolies and limit tariffs to five per cent. Finally, and perhaps most important to China's loss of nationhood, the Manchu signatories accepted the principle of "extraterritoriality," whereby Western merchants were no longer accountable to China's laws, but rather to those of their mother countries. (In 1844, the United States and France extracted similar concessions from the imperial government, and the stage was set for the partition of the world's most populous nation by the numerically inferior but technologically superior Western powers.) No sooner had peace been negotiated than merchants began to hawk opium at fire-sale prices, and the conclusion of the Second Opium War (1856-58) removed all residual restraints on the trafficking of the drug as the Chinese themselves began poppy cultivation: by 1880, China was still importing 6,500 tons annually, but by 1900 it was producing some 22,000 tons itself.

The Second Opium War

decorated initial 'T'he outbreak of fresh hostilities under such circumstances was almost inevitable because Chinese officials were extremely reluctant to enact the terms of the treaties of 1842-44. Since the French and Americans had extracted additional concessions since the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, including clauses about renegotiation after twelve years, Great Britain insisted upon exercising its "most-favoured nation status" in 1854. This time, the British demanded that China open all her ports to foreign trade, legalise the importation of opium from British possessions in India and Burma, exempt British goods from all import duties, and permit the establishment of a full embassy in Peking. For two years Qing court officials stalled, trying to buy time. However, events ran out of their control when on 8 October 1856 officials boarded the Chinese-registered but Hong Kong-based merchant vessel Arrow, which they suspected of involvement in both smuggling and piracy. The British trade officials naturally argued that as a foreign vessel the Arrow's activities did not fall under Chinese legal jurisdiction, and that therefore the sailors who had been arrested should be released under the extraterritoriality clause of the Treaty of Nanking.

Having dealt with the temporary distraction of the Sepoy Mutiny in India, in 1857 Great Britain dispatched forces to Canton in a coordinated operation with American warships. France, seething over the recent Chinese execution of a missionary, Father August Chapdelaine, joined Russia, the U. S. A., and Great Britain against China. However, a joint Anglo-French force, without other military assistance, under the command of Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, Lord Elgin, and Marshall Gros seized Canton late in 1857 after valiant but futile resistance by the city's citizens and Chinese soldiers. In May 1858, the Anglo-French naval taskforce captured the Taku forts near Tiensin (Tianjin), effectively ending hostilities. France, Russia, the United States, and Great Britain then forced China to agree to open eleven more major ports to Western trade under the terms of the Treaty of Tientsin (June 1858). When the Chinese once again proved slow to enact the terms of the treaty, Britain order Admiral Sir James Hope to shell the Chinese forts at the mouth of the Peiho River in 1859. The Chinese capitulated, permitting all foreigners with passports to travel freely in China, and granting Chinese who converted to Christianity full property rights.

Since Chinese officials once again refused to enact a treaty provision, namely the establishment of Western embassies in Peking, an Anglo-French force launched a fresh offensive from Hong Kong in 1860, ultimately destroying the Emperor Xianfeng's Summer Palace in Chengde, and the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace in Peking amidst wide-spread looting by both troops and civilians.

Under the terms of the Convention of Peking, signed by Prince Gong, brother of the Emperor Xianfeng, on 18 October 1860, the ports of Hankou, Niuzhuang, Danshui, and Nanjing were opened to foreign vessels, as were the waters of the Yangtze, and foreign missionaries were free to proselytize. China had to pay further reparations, this time ten million taels, to each of France and Britain, and another two million taels to British merchants for destruction of property. Finally, China ceded the port of Kowloon to Great Britain, and agreed to permit the export of indentured Chinese labourers to the Americas. Arguably, without such a massive injection of cheap labour the transcontinental railways of the United States and Canada would not have been completed so quickly and economically. On the other hand, China's humiliation led directly to the fall of the Manchu Dynasty and the social upheavals that precipitated the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

What had begun as a conflict of interests between English desire for profits from the trade in silk, porcelain, and tea and the Confucian ideal of self-sufficiency and exclusion of corrupting influences resulted in the partitioning of China by the Western powers (including the ceding of Hong Kong to Great Britain), humiliating defeats on land and sea by technologically and logistically superior Western forces, and the traditional values of an entire culture undermined by Christian missionaries and rampant trading in Turkish and Indian opium. No wonder the Boxer rebels' chief goal was to purify and reinvigorate their nation by the utter annihilation of all "foreign devils."


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