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Friday, September 22, 2023

First Opium War (1839-1842)

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We have an in depth article about the background of this war and how the whole situation started. Follow this link: https://about-history.com/?p=4876&preview=true

The immediate cause of the outbreak of hostilities was the work of the Chinese imperial emergency commissioner, Lin Zexu, who in March 1839 demanded that the British and Americans in Guangzhou surrender all opium, and when they refused to obey, he blocked the territory of foreign factories with troops and recalled Chinese personnel from them. Opium traders and superintendent of British trade Charles Elliot were forced to hand over the entire stock of the drug , and were destroyed by order of Lin Zexu. When the “offended” English moved to Macao, Lin Zexu allowed to trade in Guangzhou only to those who gave a subscription about the refusal to transport opium. Since the British defiantly ignored the Chinese laws, Lin Zexu in August blocked offenders in Macao and forced them to move to their ships. The obstinacy of British rivals was used by Americans to expand their commerce to the detriment of English. Many Englishmen tried to give the required obligations.

To prevent this, Charles Elliot, at his own peril and risk, provoked several attacks of British ships on Chinese military junks. When this did not help, the British agreed to sign a subscription for non-participation in drug smuggling and ceased armed clashes at the mouth of Zhujiang . Eventually, Lin Zexu succeeded in splitting the ranks of British and American businessmen and resuming foreign trade, sharply reducing opium sales on the coast of Guangdong. The first successes turned the emperor’s head, and he decided to put the “barbarians” on his knees, declaring China from December 1839, “closed” to all merchants from England and India. All British businessmen, their goods and ships in January 1840 were removed from Guangzhou. In London, the “closure” of the Chinese market was considered a good reason for the war with China.

Course of War

The first military clash occurred on November 3, 1839 – shelling the British fleet of Chinese ships at the mouth of the Xigang River. The actual start of the war was delayed until July 1840.

The basis for the tactics of the British side was the maneuvering of the fleet along the coast of the East China Sea, the bombing of fortifications by battleships and the subsequent rapid landing, as well as the blockade of the Imperial Canal. All land operations of the English did not move away from the sea or rivers and were conducted with the support of the fleet. The basis of the tactics of the Chinese army was the defense of fortified fortresses, equipped with numerous, albeit obsolete artillery, the construction of obstacles on the rivers and attacks of the British fleet by the branders.

During the war, British troops demonstrated a significant superiority of their fleet and artillery, high maneuverability and organization. Chinese troops, including elite Manchurian detachments, were not able to exert serious resistance, which was due to the lack of possession of artillery, the weakness of combined arms training and the low morale of the army. Most of the major battles in the war took place with relatively small losses from the British in regards to combat, but more significant losses were borne from the hot climate and tropical diseases. The losses of the Chinese army were much larger.

In June 1840, the squadron of Admiral George Elliott with the expeditionary body aboard arrived at the mouth of the Pearl River and blocked it. In July, the British seized the Zhoushan archipelago off the coast of Zhejiang province, inflicting robbery and violence there. Only after that, in Beijing, the military danger was realized and measures were taken to defend the coast.

Leaving most of the ships and garrison in the Zhoushan archipelago, the English squadron sailed northward to the Yellow Sea, alternately blocking the Chinese ports. In August, they crossed the Bohai Bay, entered the mouth of the Baihe River and anchored at the Dagh forts covering the approaches to Tianjin. The Emperor, frightened by the appearance of the “barbarians” so close to Beijing, went on negotiations with Elliot. They were led by Qishan, the governor of the capital Zhili province. Palmerston’s note transmitted to him contained the following requirements: reimbursement of the cost of the destroyed opium, the repayment of Gunkhan’s debts to English merchants, the apology of C. Elliott, the transfer of one or two islands from the coast of England, and the reimbursement of military expenses to London. Seeking to remove the “barbarians” as soon as possible from Beijing, Qishan promised the admiral to accept most of the requirements if negotiations were moved to Guangdong . Believing these promises, J. Elliot led the squadron to the south.


By order of the emperor, trade with the British was resumed, the struggle against opium was stopped, and Lin Zexu, who was made a scapegoat, was removed from his posts, and later sent into exile. In December 1840, the Anglo-Chinese talks resumed in Guangzhou. They accepted all the demands of Palmerston, except for one official transfer of England to the island of Hong Kong. He forbade the payment of the destroyed opium, and for the “barbarians” of the island he sent large reinforcements to Guangdong. Then the British at the beginning of January 1841 stormed the Chuangbi forts covering the road to Guangzhou on the Pearl River and led the offensive to Fort Huemen. Learning of this, the emperor on January 29 declared war on England and moved additional troops to Guangdong.

The war resumed, and in February 1841, British troops stormed Fort Humen, while evacuating the garrison from the Zhoushan archipelago. Three months later, the nephew of Emperor Yishan, appointed commander of the Guandong troops, pulled the army forces from the neighboring provinces, and began in May an offensive against the British, which ended in the defeat of the Chinese fleet. The British went on the offensive, seized the forts north of Guangzhou and forced Ishan’s troops to hastily hide behind his fortress walls. British artillery shelled the city, where there was not enough water and food. Yishan on May 26 asked for an armistice, after which both sides signed the “Agreement on the redemption of Guangzhou.” It provided for the withdrawal of troops from the city, the payment of indemnities to the British and the return of forts by the Chinese. Upon fulfillment of all the terms of the Agreement, the fighting ceased.

In Beijing, it was decided that the war was over, and the withdraw troops from the coastal areas and the resumption of Anglo-Chinese trade continued. Meanwhile, London has not ratified the Chuanbi Convention, having revised its strategy towards China. It was decided to transfer the main blow to the lower reaches of the Yangtze and cut the Great Canal, thereby isolating Beijing and Zhili from the central provinces, that is, from the granaries of China.

In August 1841, the expeditionary forces arrived to the coast of Fujian, stormed the forts of Gulangyu Island from Xiamen and for the time took possession of the city itself. In September, the British approached the Zhoushan archipelago and after six days of persistent fighting again took possession of it. Landed in Zhejiang Province, British troops in October without a fight occupied the cities of Zhenhai and Ningbo, where they settled in the winter apartments. By order of the emperor in Zhejiang, large forces were stolen under the command of Ijin, the imperial nephew. However, their attack on the position of the “barbarians” in March 1842 ended in complete failure and demoralized the Qing army. The situation was complicated by the appearance in the Chinese waters of military squadrons of the USA and France, as well as the aggravation of the internal crisis of the Qing Empire. In Beijing, they decided to go for “appeasement of the barbarians,” but Pottinger sought not to negotiate, but to dictate the will of London after mastering the junction of the Yangtze and the Grand Canal.

In May, the British, after a seven-month stay in Zhejiang Province, left the winter quarters and, having broken the resistance of the garrison of the Zhapu fortress, transferred the fighting to the province of Jiangsu. In June, during the persistent fighting, they took Usun, and Baoshan and Shanghai surrendered to them without a single shot. Having met the staunch defenses of Sunjiang, the expeditionary corps moved up the Yangtze. In mid-July, he went to the crossing of the Yangtze River with the Grand Canal, and without a fight seized Guangzhou, cutting the main way to deliver food to the capital. Then, after two days of bloody battles and heavy losses, a large city of Zhenjiang was taken at the entrance from the Yangtze to the southern part of the canal. Abolishing the persistent requests of the Qing dignitaries about the negotiations, the British in the beginning of August approached Nanking, threatening him with an assault. August 29, 1842 on board the English military ship “Cornwells” was signed the so-called “Nanking Treaty.”

Result of the war

The result of the war was the victory of Great Britain, as enshrined in the Nanjing Treaty of August 29, 1842, the payment of an amount of 15,000,000 silver loans (21,000,000 dollars) to the Qing Empire, the transfer of the Hong Kong Island to the British and the opening of Chinese ports for English trade.

The first opium war was the beginning of a long period of weakening of the state and civil unrest in the Qing empire, which led to the opening of access to the internal market of China to European powers, in particular, to legalize the import of opium through Chinese ports. The flow of opium, sold by the British to China, very significant even before the war, increased, which led to a huge spread of drug addiction among the Chinese, degradation and mass extinction of the Chinese population.


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