Opium Wars: When Britain And China Clashed Over Trade And Sovereignty

May 20, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: British EmpireBritish ArmyQing DynastyOpium WarsWar

Opium Wars: When Britain And China Clashed Over Trade And Sovereignty

The Qing Dynasty become embroiled in the Second Opium War of 1860 when Britain forced open trade relations with a reluctant China.

On June 26, 1858, crowds packed the narrow streets of Tianjin to witness an awesome spectacle: A British diplomat was about to sign a treaty between his country and China. The British envoy was James Bruce, the eighth Earl of Elgin, a somewhat stocky individual with a round head, bald pate, and florid complexion. The white fringe of hair that still clung around his head was joined by an impressive set of muttonchop whiskers, as if to compensate for the baldness. Altogether this somewhat cherubic individual seemed the very personification of John Bull.

Opening Trade & Allowing The Opium To Flow

Lord Elgin was accompanied by a large retinue, as befitted a representative of Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Victoria. Red-coated Royal Marines marched in serried ranks, a military band provided music, and diplomatic staffers dripped epaulettes and gold braid. Evening was approaching, and after sweating for days in Tianjin’s oppressive heat it was hoped darkness would again provide a measure of relief. It was a vain hope, as temperatures hovered around 90 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit even in the shade.

The procession reached the Temple of Oceanic Influences, where the Treaty of Tianjin was going to be signed, and the ceremonies began. Lord Elgin and high-ranking Mandarin officials duly signed the pact, which according to Chinese reckoning occurred on the 16th day of the fifth moon in the eighth year of the Xian Feng Emperor. “Xian Feng,” which meant “Universal Plenty,” was the Emperor’s reign title, not his personal name. In the summer of 1858 similar treaties were signed with the representatives of the United States, France, and Russia.

The envoys later met in Shanghai to hammer out treaty specifics. The treaty was a far-reaching document that opened 10 new ports to foreign trade, allowed foreign travel into the interior, and permitted Catholic and Protestant missionaries to spread Christianity without interference. Although not a top agenda item, the importation and sale of opium was legalized, a provision that exposed many more Chinese to drug addiction and a lingering death.

Chinese Draw The Line At Allowing Envoys To Reside In The Capital

But the government seemed most anxious about the issue of diplomatic representation in Beijing. The Treaty of Tianjin expressly permitted the permanent British envoy to the Imperial Court to reside in the Chinese capital. Chinese representatives at Shanghai did all in their power to get Elgin to reconsider the point. The Imperial Government was just now trying to suppress the Taiping rebellion, a social and political revolution that threatened not only to topple the government but to overturn China’s ancient Confucian-based way of life. If they allowed a foreign envoy in Beijing, it would cause the Qing dynasty to lose face in the eyes of the people.

Worn down by reasoned arguments and humble entreaties, Elgin backed down. The principle of diplomatic representation in Beijing remained intact, but in practice the British envoy’s permanent abode would be in Shanghai. It was agreed by all parties that one year hence the British envoy would be received in Beijing, not to stay but to formally ratify the treaty. The other Western powers made similar arrangements.

The bitter wrangling over representation exposed deep cultural misunderstandings between the Chinese and their unwanted Western guests. The Europeans and Americans wanted the Chinese to accept the normal standards of international relations, standards that were completely alien to the Chinese mind. Simply put, if the emperor allowed foreign missions in Beijing he was openly acknowledging their equality with China.

Refusing To Acknowledge Foreigners As Equals

To the Chinese, China was Zhongguo, the “Middle Country” or “Middle Kingdom,” center of all human civilization. All else was on the periphery, and scarcely worthy of notice. Foreigners were barbarians, uncouth savages that the Chinese treated with a mixture of condescension and contempt. In the Chinese world-view the “outer barbarians” came as supplicants offering tribute, not trade. Trade implied equality, and China had no need for Western “trinkets.” Emperor Quan Long, one of the Qing dynasty’s greatest rulers, wrote Britain’s King George III in 1793 that “I set no value on objects strange and ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

If the Chinese had grown complacent and culturally arrogant, there were sound historical reasons for this frame of mind. China possessed a civilization five thousand years old, and was long accustomed to political and cultural dominance. It was easy to think in feudal terms, because China was the overlord of many Asian states. Around 1800 the Middle Kingdom’s vassals included Annam (Vietnam), Choson (Korea), and the Ryuku Islands. Sometimes the control was only nominal, yet in sending tribute to Beijing rulers acknowledged China’s pre-eminence.

China Turns A Blind Eye To Global Change

The feeling of cultural superiority and the “barbarian” mentality blinded the Chinese and their Qing dynasty overlords to the profound changes that were occurring in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Europe the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, stimulating commerce and prompting an aggressive search for new markets. Great Britain, as the leading industrial power, was busy building an overseas empire that was soon to make it the most powerful nation on earth.

Britain wanted to expand its China trade, looking on the Middle Kingdom’s four hundred million people as a vast undeveloped market for British goods. Besides, the British people had developed a taste for Chinese porcelain, silk, and especially tea. But the Chinese people were largely self-sufficient, and had little need for Western products. However, the British had found for their Indian-grown opium a ready market in China, and cynically expanded the trade in defiance of Chinese law.

When It Came to Opium, Profits Trumped Morality

Opium addiction spread like a plague, and in the 1830s it is estimated that about 1 percent of the Chinese people—about four million—were opium addicts. Some Britons were troubled by the opium trade, but by and large profits triumphed over morality. When the Chinese authorities tried to stop the opium trade the result was the First Opium War (1839-1842). China suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Great Britain. The resulting Treaty of Nanjing forced China to open five ports to Western trade. Hong Kong island was also ceded to Great Britain and was proclaimed a Crown Colony in 1843.

The First Opium War should have been a wake-up call for the Chinese, a warning that their years of relative isolation and pre-eminence were drawing to a close. Spurred on by the Industrial Revolution and their own acquisitive natures, the Western powers set out to conquer the world—if not politically, at least commercially, though the two often went hand in hand. If China failed to recognize this new aggressive West, it did so at its own peril.

British Envoy Insists On Ratifying the Treaty In Beijing

In June 1859 a British mission of one battleship, two frigates, and a number of gunboats hove to off the mouth of the Hai River in northern China. Frederick Bruce, brother of Lord Elgin and new British envoy to the Dragon Throne, was aboard HMS Magicienne ready to sail up the river to Beijing. Bruce’s instructions were clear: Although he was to have his permanent residence in Shanghai, the ratification of the Tianjin treaty was to take place in Beijing. Shortly after his arrival at Shanghai in May, Chinese officials politely suggested that the ratification take place there. Bruce would have none of it. In his mind, British prestige demanded a triumphal entry into Beijing.

The Hai River was guarded by a series of forts that clustered at its northern and southern shores where its mouth emptied into the Gulf of Bo Hai. In addition, a series of booms stretched across the river to bar the passage of any unwanted vessels. Military concerns were the province of British Rear Adm. James Hope, a pugnacious old salt with an ill-disguised contempt for Chinese fighting qualities.

When Hope sent messages ashore requesting the booms be removed, he was met with a stony silence. The Dagu forts that guarded the river mouth were there for a reason—they were the Chinese capital’s first line of defense. The Hai River was a watery finger that thrust into the north Chinese heartland and led to Beijing itself.

The Chinese Offer A Compromise

Brushing aside Chinese sensitivity, Hope grew impatient when the booms were not removed, and asked permission to break through by force. Bruce readily assented, beginning a chain of events that was to lead to disaster and another China war. The admiral decided on a frontal assault, even though he lacked adequate intelligence about the area and he was basing plans on an incomplete map. The water at the river’s mouth was shallow, precluding the use of larger ships. Hope didn’t even know where the high-tide line was, a crucial piece of information, because when the waters receded his gunboats might well find themselves literally high and dry on exposed mudflats.

About 9 am on June 25, 1859 two Chinese junks made contact with British Minister Bruce aboard the Magicienne. They brought fresh supplies and a message from a local Chinese official who suggested a compromise: Why not land at Beidang, about eight miles farther north? If the British envoy landed there, and proceeded to Beijing by land, he would be accorded all due honor and respect. But Bruce would have to leave most of his retinue behind, making a grand entrance all but impossible.