In the 18th century, Europe’s fascination for tea, silk and porcelain from China created a one-way trade between the two regions in favor of China. Insatiable demand for tea alone by England had severely depleted the British Empire's stockpile of silver dollars. To avoid a financial meltdown the responsibility was given to the British East India Company (EIC), a joint-venture trading company backed by the Monarchy, to find a solution.
The EIC’s answer was to use opium from Bengal in lieu of paying silver dollars.
After engineering the breakup of the Indian Moghul Empire, the EIC had its first major success in India by conquering Bengal in 1757 giving them monopoly over the lucrative crop – opium.
Unlike England, the importation and use of opium was not legal in China, but this was not going to stop the EIC. The company was determined to find a way to sell the banned substance to China. With a population of 300 million, more than 20 times the size of England, the sale of opium to China represented a great opportunity to address the rapidly depleting silver dollars in the British treasury.
The only way to get around the ban was resort to smuggling. To remain respectable the company outsourced this despicable activity to a network of EIC-sponsored distributors and traders; one of the largest in-country trader was Jardine.
EIC’s opium-filled cargo ships (equipped with long range cannons) would land on Lintin, a small uninhibited island south of China (just off Guangzhou or Canton). It was from this island that local in-country distributors moved the illegal substance ashore under the watchful eye of EIC's cargo warships anchored within striking distance of the mainland.
By 1831, the value of opium smuggled into China was two-and-a-half times that of tea – quickly reversing the trade imbalance between the countries. EIC became the largest government sponsored drug trafficker and smuggler in the world.
Quite apart from the financial drain, the devastating effects of opium addiction on the Chinese
The confiscated opium and cessation of smuggling activities severely affected the fortunes of the shareholders of EIC and Jardine. As a result they sent a representative to lobby the British parliament asking for British military aid to help them recoup their losses from China.
With the support of the Monarchy and her parliament, the British sent an armada of warships, 4,000 Scottish, Irish and Indian troops and bombarded a number of seaports leading up to Canton (Guangzhou) in retribution for the "wrongs" inflicted on British smugglers by the Chinese general. The first Opium War had started without a declaration of war or warning from the British armada.
The cannons that the Chinese had were only aimed at one fixed position and were no match for the flexible and long-range cannons mounted on fast moving British warships. With superior and flexible fire power, the British successfully carried out a series of attacks on a number of Chinese cities laying to ruins each one of them. British soldiers pillaged and burned towns as they moved up the eastern seaboard and demanded “protection money” in return for immunity from further bombardment. By the time the armada reached Nanking (Nanjing) – the Emperor admitted defeat.
By 1842 the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) was signed. Amongst the list of demands by the British were retribution for the cost of waging the war; compensation for the destroyed opium and ceding Hong Kong sovereignty to the British. In addition the Chinese were to legalise opium.
Having seen the destructive force of opium on its population, the Chinese agreed to all other demands except the legalization of opium. The result was the second Opium War.
But this time the British were joined by the French and together they unleashed their joint naval and military might on the royal imperial capital itself – Beijing. When the capital fell, French and British troops looted the Summer Palace and desecrated many sacred sites within the city generally creating fear and havoc among the defenseless citizens.
As a result of the relentless bombardment, looting and senseless destruction of imperial palaces, the Emperor had no choice but agree to legalize opium. With the last bastion of resistance gone large scale opium production built by the British mushroomed in the country. Parallel to this the occupying British forces gained a stronghold on the economy by controlling Chinese customs and trade. By the end of the 19th century, China’s trade with Britain had increased to more than 60% of the country’s total trade – China sold silk, tea and porcelain to the British in exchange for opium.
It was conservatively estimated that by the end of the century, 30-40 million people were addicted to opium. Starvation, poverty and social decay followed starting a 60-year period of slow and painful death for the entire nation. To add to the suffering, seven other foreign powers joined in to carve a niche for themselves. Knowing that the country was now emasculated by mass opium addiction the USA, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Japan, Russia and France used their superior military machinery to gain territorial rights within the country.
Besieged by a decaying nation the Qing dynasty finally fell and for the first time in the 2000-year dynastic history, China stood at the precipice of being broken up into pieces and distributed among the foreign powers stationed in the country.
This was the darkest moment for the country.
But the resilience of this cultural behemoth stood the test of time. The humiliation and suffering inflicted on the Chinese for almost 100 years by foreign powers gave China the all important wake up call. The call shaped an emerging nationalism that would soon set the foundation for the birth of a new country with a new political identity.
Although the drug traffickers won the war they lost a nation by providing the needed impetus for the country to finally stand up. The poppy flower indeed has woken up this 5000-year old tiger and now it is about to pounce.