During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, China, and by extension, India acted as critical trading destinations for Europeans, mainly the British. China predominantly supplied the British with tea whereas the British traded in opium (though illegally), coffee and manufactured goods with the Chinese under the banner of the British East India Company (BEIC). The British's aggressive quest for trading opportunities in Southeast Asia created tensions in the region, resulting in war and subjugation of the Chinese. Although England's search for control of trade in tea, coffee and opium was an essential catalyst for the war, it was the ruthlessness of BEIC's activities, Europeans' lack of respect for Chinese laws, and attempts to abolish opium trade in China that led to the opium war.
The ruthlessness of the BEIC in establishing a trade hub played a pivotal role in the outbreak of the opium war in the 19th century China. Since there were no official ties between Western countries and China at the time, the company's presence in China acted as the representative of the Victorian government in matters relating to trade in Southeast Asia. For instance, it negotiated trading terms with the Qing Dynasty officials and kingdoms such as the Mughal Empire in the east of India (Perdue 3; Wilson 74). However, it was not the ability to negotiate with the Chinese rulers that placed the company right in the middle of the war. Rather, it was the decision to adopt a bullying approach to trade that created animosity between China and England. In this respect, Huw Bowen argues that it was the realization that peaceful means would not offer adequate trading opportunities for the English that BEIC resorted to force. According to Bowen, the company maintained a private army that operated alongside the regular British Army and established schools in England where recruits were trained in preparation for conquest activities in China. The army conquered ports, harbors, trade routes, and resource areas for the benefit of the British (Bowen 3-12). Squeezed out of economic opportunities and independence, the Chinese resorted to armed campaigns to reclaim their trading rights.
Disrespect for the laws created discomfort among the ruling elite in the Qing Empire who, in turn, resorted to armed conflict against the British. Way before the BEIC began conquering trade routes in China, the British and the Chinese merchants bribed local administration officials to allow trade of opium, especially in the interior parts of China. These acts of corruption violated the laws of the Qing Dynasty (Perdue 1-3, 12). However, it is the brazen disregard of the rule of law and the dignity of Qing Empire subjects that created tensions between the Europeans and the Chinese. In his essay, Coffee, Tea or Opium?, Samuel Wilson explores how lawlessness among the British(and other Western merchants) created tensions between the Qing Dynasty and England. Wilson reveals that British sailors murdered Chinese citizens during their trade expeditions but their leaders could not turn them in for prosecution in the Chinese courts. Interestingly, China's commissioner of foreign trade at the time, Lin Zexu, found that obedience to the law was observed in England (76-79). This double standards and lack of respect for Chinese laws created resentment among the Chinese and belief spread that peaceful means would not secure China's position in the trade. Thus, armed struggle against the Europeans seemed a viable option.
Another compelling reason for the outbreak of the opium wars Zexu's efforts of abolishing opium trade in China. Opium demand was created in China by the Western powers, and the demand increased exponentially after the discovery of the New World which acted as the constant supplier of the drug in the country (Wilson 74). According to Wilson, the dense population of China created a huge market for opium. Between 1837 and 1838, 35, 000 of 150-pound chests of opium were imported into China. This demand far outstripped the paltry 4600 of 150-pound chests that entered China during the trading season of 1816-17. The phenomenal increase in consumption of opium, Wilson observes, created a health crisis resulting from addiction hence the attempts by commissioner Zexu to abolish the importation and widespread use of the drug (Wilson 76-79). On the other hand, however, the British relied heavily on the opium market to generate revenue back home. Consequently, they expressed blatant unwillingness to end the illegal trade. The standoff created tension as Chinese leaders adamantly sought to solve the addiction crisis. Since it was characteristic of BEIC and the Europeans to use force in procuring trade deals, the tensions boiled over, resulting in the opium wars. As rightly noted by Perdue, opium wars were caused by the unshakeable desire by Western powers for unrestricted trade in the drug in China and not control of legal trade as widely believed (3).
In conclusion, the quest for unrestricted trade in opium in China was the primary reason for the outbreak of the opium war in 1839-1842. Efforts made by the Chinese authorities to eliminate the importation and use of opium in China created further created tensions. The brazen disrespect of laws by Western powers compounded the hostile relationship between the two parties. However, activities of the British East India Company escalated the tensions between the Qing Dynasty leaders and the Western powers led by the British. The company conducted military conquests that enabled the British to control trade to much displeasure of the Chinese leaders and their people.
Bowen, Huw V. "400 Years of the East India Company." History Today, 2000, www.historytoday.com/huw-v-bowen/400-years-east-india-company.
Perdue, Peter C. "The First Opium War:The Anglo-Chinese War of 1839-1842." MIT:Visualizing Cultures, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011, ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/opium_wars_01/ow1_essay01.html.
Wilson, Samuel M. "Coffee, Tea or Opium?" Natural History, American Museum of Natural History, 1993, pp. 74-79.
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