Transcript: “For King, Country, and… Opium?: Thinking About Causality, Empire, and Historiography in the First Opium War, 1839-1842

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Marissa C. Rhodes, PhD

Averill: According to the website of Britain’s National Army Museum, the first Opium War started when, “In May 1839, Chinese officials demanded that Charles Elliot, the British Chief Superintendent of Trade in China, hand over their stocks of opium at Canton for destruction. This outraged the British, and was the incident that sparked conflict.” In popular culture, and especially among European and American historians, the “Opium Wars” have long been framed as a conflict between the powerful/domineering British and the weak/insular Chinese, in which the British exploited China by getting the Chinese people addicted to opium and then went to war when the Chinese government finally tried to stop them, and the British used their military might to then extract punishing and unequal trade relationships with the Chinese for the next 100 years. Certainly elements of this framework, of this cause and effect, are true. There was a confrontation in May of 1839, and the Nanking Treaty absolutely created an exploitative and unequal trade relationship between the British and Chinese. And yet, unsurprisingly, this is far from the whole story – and far from the only way historians have interpreted the “Opium Wars”. Today we’re going to discuss the causes of the first Opium War, and the different – sometimes problematic – ways historians have framed the 1839-42 Anglo-Sino conflict.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Marissa: Can you believe it’s been six years since we announced the launch of Dig?! We wouldn’t have come this far or kept at it if it wasn’t for you all, our listeners. We’re thankful for all of our listeners, new and returning, overseas and domestic, student in college or student of life. We’re especially thankful for the Patrons of this show, who’ve funded our presentations at conferences, the new equipment we’re recording on right now, and our endless book needs for research. A big thanks to our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Karl, Hanna, Lauren, Colin, Edward, Iris, Susan, Denise, Agnes, Jessy, Karen, Maria, and Audrey! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to to learn more

Averill: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. On the recommendation of my Sinologist colleagues, I turned to Stephen Platt’s excellent 2017 book, Imperial Twilight for the bulk of this episode. Platt in particular does a really fantastic job of debunking and complicating some of the flattened, Euro-centric narratives of this history, and since my colleagues are historians of China, I take their endorsement of Platt’s book as a guiding light. The historiography on the Opium Wars, in English and Chinese, is immense, and I was in no way prepared to spend a lifetime studying it just to be able to write one podcast episode, so I am thankful for accessible and thoughtful works like Platt’s, and for the guidance of generous colleagues. I wanted to use this episode for teaching as well, so in an effort to engage some of that historiography, I am also indebted to the significant historiographical revisions offered by Henrietta Harrison to conversations about the Macartney mission, and in the course of my own research on the Opium Wars, I’ve also consulted on the works of Harry Gelber, Paul French, Song-Chuan Chen, and Michael Keevak, among others. You can find a full bibliography, plus footnotes and links, for every episode on our website,  And don’t forget, if you’re interested in something you heard today, please check out these excellent books and articles!

Marissa: In this series, we’re thinking about causality. According to historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “Historians use context, change over time, and causality to form arguments explaining past change. … historians ….base their arguments upon the interpretation of partial primary sources that frequently offer multiple explanations for a single event. Historians have long argued over the causes of the Protestant Reformation or World War I, for example, without achieving consensus.” We could add any number of movements and episodes to this list: the motivations of Irish immigrants in the 19th century; the most significant cause of the Great Depression; why the NSDAP came to power in 1930s Germany. I bet you could come up with a simplified cause for each of those – the Great Famine! The Stock Market Crash! The failure of the Versailles Treaty! – but of course, the minute you dig a little deeper, you’ll find yourself mired in a far more complex, unclear, and multifactor explanation. And whether you’re digging through primary sources that give you firsthand insights into these moments, or through the secondary literature in which scholars have painstakingly pieced those firsthand insights together for you, you’ll find a wide range of “causes.” Frequently when we talk about causality, we are acknowledging that History – as in the work that historians do – is contested. Historians can look at the same fragments or tapestry of primary sources and come to different interpretative conclusions about the cause and consequence of any particular historical episode. And often when we expand the scope of the perspectives we include in the written history, we shift the narrative of ‘cause’ significantly.  Today we’re focusing on the Opium Wars, but these concepts of causality and the contested nature of history are useful for thinking critically about all histories!

Averill: The way the British National Army Museum frames the start of the Opium War is deeply oversimplified and, according to historian Stephen Platt’s timeline, inaccurate! It also paints the British as a monolithic drug-dealing entity, and the Chinese as resistant to British incursions, but also weak. Of course the reality was much more complex. As Platt argues, the majority of the British – the Prime Minister and members of parliament, the public, and even some of the British citizens living in China – opposed the British navy’s involvement in protecting the British and Indian opium smugglers. Further, early in 1839, Charles Elliot actually tried to turn over all of the opium on British ships to the Chinese and end the opium trade in China. On the Chinese side, while opium was outlawed, there were many Chinese officials and merchants who facilitated and benefitted from the smuggling and sale of opium. Significantly, the Chinese government was well aware that their opium problem originated with the British and American firms that imported opium from Bengal, but Chinese policy had always been to leave the foreigners alone. Other than capital crimes, Europeans and Americans were almost never arrested and tried under Chinese law, because the Qing government believed it was unfair to hold foreigners to Chinese standards. But, when the Daoguang emperor ordered one of his bureaucrats to deal once and for all with the opium problem at its source – Canton – he set in motion the conflict that would be dubbed by contemporaries as the “Opium War” of 1839-42.

Marissa: Right up through the early nineteenth century, China was arguably the richest and most powerful empire on the planet. The first thing historian Stephen Platt debunks in his book, Imperial Twilight, is the idea that, on the eve of the Opium Wars, China was weak and Britain strong, and those relativities shaped their decisions. Though Europeans each thought their nation was superior to all other nations, most Europeans acknowledged that China was the epitome of civilization, government, and of course, riches. From the outside, for example, the Chinese civil service exam seemed like a meritocratic utopia, one that the British hoped to emulate. The East India Company replicated the civil service exam starting in 1806 for its service in India, based on what they’d learned about the Chinese system, which in turn became the basis for the all-UK civil service in the mid-19th century.[1] What the British couldn’t see, of course (but would undoubtedly learn in their own trial and error) was that the Chinese civil service exam was wildly corrupt by the end of the 18th century. There were more qualified individuals than positions available, and the best positions were secured through exorbitant bribes.

Averill: Despite internal challenges, throughout the eighteenth century, China was still prosperous and projected strength to the outside world. Europeans saw China as an equal, if not a better. As Platt notes, occasional British politicians’ calls for naval invasion of China were quickly struck down. To threaten China was to threaten the considerable tariff income and flow of commodities on which Europeans depended.[2]

Marissa: European perceptions of China were shaped, in part, by China’s careful employment of ritual and ceremony, and control of information. It was illegal in the eighteenth century, for example, to teach foreigners Chinese languages. A bold few did, of course, but sometimes at great expense. British and other European writings about China from the time demonstrate their respect and value for China as a world power and untouchable force. At least from the outside, the Chinese dynasties seemed to have stronger foundations and more stability than many of their contemporaries.

Averill: Now if you’re like me, you may be sitting there thinking back to your high school – maybe even your college! – classes and saying to yourself, WTF? I’ve always been taught that China was weak, divided, stuck in the past, and the British saw them as just ripe for the plucking. Well, that’s how the British (and Americans) have framed the Opium Wars after the fact. After the Opium Wars, and British occupation of Hong Kong, British historians and politicians rewrote their predecessor’s world view to align it with the Orientalist ideology that shapes much of modern Anglo and American views of China. That’s the dominant narrative in general world history and British Empire history courses, and aligns more with a modern Anglo/American policy-oriented view of China than any sort of factually-based reality.

Marissa: What did the Chinese think of Europeans? Well, some historians, like Michael Keevak, argue that China was insular and rejected all things foreign, and their strict culture was incompatible with European “democratic” self-perceptions. In this interpretation of history, the Chinese emperor did not send envoys to other nations, near or far, because the Qing were a conquest-based empire and only recognized tribute-bearing states. Indeed, the Koreans, Vietnamese, Thai, and other Asian states did send envoys to Beijing, and observed the strict rules of how to show respect to the emperor.[3] The allegedly more “democratic” Europeans, who could only fathom treating another imperial power as an equal, not a better, did not bend to the ceremony of the Chinese courts.

Averill: But Keevak’s assessment is misleading. Several historians, including Catherine Jami and Catherine Pagani, have demonstrated both the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors’ interest in and engagement with European ideas, technologies, and sciences. When I was collecting sources for this episode, my historians-of-China colleagues, Steph Montgomery (co-host of the podcast East Asia for All) and Eric Becklin, warned me to be careful with a few scholars. Some I was already wary of, particularly Henry Gelber, who was an apologist for British drug dealers (don’t worry, we’ll get to him in a bit). But also because my colleagues noticed some sources in my bibliography written by scholars who may not even read and write Chinese themselves, which means that they worked exclusively from English-language (aka, British or American-written) sources and/or translated sources. It’s important to note that a lot of the earliest translations of archival material was undertaken by individuals who worked for the government and did their work to drive policy. This can be hugely problematic. Further, whether only working from the British or American perspective, or using only readily available translated sources, you’re going to have perspective issues. For the last few decades, historians like Ann Stoler, Michel-Ralph Trouillot, and Kirsten Weld have raised questions about archives, especially about the silences, violences, and colonialisms that they harbor and foster.[4] Archives are created by people – often people with power, and certainly people with biases. When you add translation to the mix – which requires the labor of qualified individuals, who come with their own power and biases – you add yet another layer of silences, violences, and colonialisms. Notably, the Chinese archive was shaped throughout the 20th century by a government with a vested interest in presenting a particular narrative of the Qing empire, the “west,” and modern China. Further, there were a few individuals who shaped Chinese studies in the United States – like John Fairbanks, who is a fascinating fellow, but whom we won’t get into here for time’s sake – and whose translations of Chinese sources were equally driven by ideological goals. Throughout the 20th century, the US government was worried about revolutionary China, and scholars like Fairbanks helped – through their scholarship and shaping of the English translations of Chinese sources – shape US policy.[5]

Marissa: Just as an example, historian Michael Keevak says that “The Chinese, however, assumed an equally haughty self-conception that placed themselves at the center of the world and rendered everyone else a barbarian outsider.”[6] If you read that, would you question this expert, or would you then go around assuming that the emperor and bureaucrats referred to all Europeans and Americans as “barbarians”?

Averill: Kudos to those of you who would have looked at that askance; fortunately for all of us, I ran that sentence by my personal Chinese translator, who wishes to remain nameless, but no, it wasn’t Google, and he said that’s a gross exaggeration, especially for the 18th century. Typically official Chinese documents referred to foreigners as “westerners” 洋人, “merchants” 商人, or “sea peoples.” Keevak’s generalization is likely drawn from the famous 1793 edict/letter from the Qianlong emperor, a letter addressed to King George III after George’s envoy to China behaved (by Chinese imperial standards) inappropriately. In that letter, which has been reproduced all over the internet, the emperor does use one of the Chinese words for barbarians repeatedly – 夷 yi. That edict/letter has become outsized in popular culture representations of Chinese perceptions of Europeans, but as historian Henrietta Harrison has shown, the edict was strategic rather than arrogant.[7]

Marissa: As Harrison points out, this one letter has – since the early 20th century – become the stand-in for all popular and a lot of academic scholarship about Chinese perceptions about Europeans. It’s been analyzed to death by high school and college students, and even forms the basis of on-going discussions of modern China’s political and global aspirations.[8] Even Platt includes the Macartney mission (which prompted the Qianlong edict/letter) in his analysis of the origins of the first Opium War. Platt, though, also includes for comparison the letter from King George III to Qianlong that preceded the emperor’s edict, and doesn’t base his interpretations of Qing imperial policy or perceptions of Europeans from that singular source. Yet Europeans and Americans (including historians) have repeated this mantra that the Chinese thought of the foreigners as “barbarians” and devils. In reality, as Stephen Platt notes, the Qianlong emperor was fascinated by European technologies, kept Portuguese priests at court to learn from and to access the art and artifacts produced by Europeans, and was initially excited that the British had sent a diplomatic envoy.

Averill: We’ll get back to Harrison’s critique of the Macartney mission later, but for now, hopefully this helps to disrupt some of the contested ideas – and historiography – that we have to grapple with when talking about things like the Chinese perceptions of Europeans, the European perceptions of the Chinese, and the causes of the Opium Wars.

In China, the Qing emperors restricted Europeans movement.

Of the Europeans, only the Portuguese, who’d helped the Qing defeat pirates in the 16th century, were given their own permanent place in Chinese territory – on the island of Macau. (Notably, the Portuguese were in part responsible for the pirate scourge that plagued China’s coastlines, but if the emperor was aware of Portuguese involvement, he chose not to bear out that grudge.) Macau would ultimately be an essential part of European access to and presence in the South China Sea.

Marissa: Undoubtedly one thing we all remember from “World History” classes is that one of the reasons the Europeans launched their sea-based explorations was to find a new route to China and the east Indies, because they wanted access to the Chinese goods – silk, porcelain, spices, later tea. And it wasn’t a one-way beneficial model by any means. While we can argue about whether the Qianlong emperor wanted or did not want European goods and trinkets, we know for sure that the Chinese did want the influx of cold, hard silver that foreigners brought to their markets. From the 1600s until the 1820s, China was the largest net importer of silver in the world. Europeans wanted Chinese goods, and China maintained the upper hand in trade until the nineteenth century.[9]

Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress, Royal Academy of Arts

Averill: Some Qing emperors were more open to foreigners than others. After taking Taiwan and solidifying his imperial rule, Shengzu, the Kangxi emperor, issued an edict in 1684 reopening trade along the sea ports, stating that:

Now the whole country is unified, everywhere there is peace and quiet, Manchu-Han relations are fully integrated so I command you to go abroad and trade to show the populous and affluent nature of our rule. By imperial decree I open the seas to trade.[10]

The emperor had customs stations built in Canton, Macau, Shanghai, Ningbo, Fuzhou, and several other port cities. Foreign traders were given permission to enter Chinese ports, and came slowly at first, sending just a few ships a year on the long voyage from Europe to China. The Kangxi emperor believed that the livelihoods of his people living along China’s coasts relied on foreign trade, and sought to renew those revenue streams as quickly as possible.

The Qianlong Emperor in court dress. Palace Museum, Beijing

Marissa: Shengzu’s grandson, Hongli, ascended the throne in 1735, after his father’s death. Though he was just 24 years old, the reign of the Qianlong emperor would prove to be one of the empire’s most prosperous. He was known for being a good negotiator, his skill in calligraphy and poetry, and his enormous collection of European clocks.[11] China experienced relative peace and prosperity during Qianlong’s reign. Thanks to the Kangxi emperor’s renewed trade with Europeans, China started growing new crops like sweet potatoes and corn from the Americas. Under the Qianlong emperor’s reign, these new crops proved their worth; Chinese farmers were able to cultivate in fallow fields, creating a food surplus that allowed the population to double during the Qianlong emperor’s reign. By 1794, China had a population of between 300-400 million people (⅓ of the world’s population).[12]

Averill: Hongli was strategic in his relations with the European and American merchants. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Qianlong emperor elected to narrow the point of contact between the merchants of western Europe and the Chinese to Guangzhou, aka Canton. In 1757, the Qianlong emperor was concerned that having the four ports accessible to westerners was allowing Christian missionaries to sneak inland. To better manage the flow of foreigners in and out of the country, he closed three of the ports and concentrated all foreigner trade through Canton. As Dan Bays notes, this measure was not successful in stopping missionaries from getting into China, and if anything, it encouraged rampant corruption in the remaining port of Canton.

Marissa: Located on the Pearl River, about 75 miles northwest of Hong Kong and 90 miles north of Macau, Canton was the carefully controlled point of contact between foreigners and Chinese for over a century. The Chinese established thirteen “factories” for foreigners. In China, as in India, factories were not sites of production, but rather buildings dedicated to the work and living of traders. In Canton, the Thirteen Factories contained living quarters, warehouses, and offices for the foreign merchants who established trade relations with the Chinese. The Thirteen Factories of Canton were contained in a neighborhood in southwestern Canton, along the Pearl River, where the foreigner’s ships could dock to load and unload cargo and personnel. Only foreign firms that received approval from the Chinese government were allowed to reside in Canton, and all trading between the firms went through Chinese intermediaries. The emperor appointed a Customs Administrator to oversee all Canton business, who became known as the “Hoppo.” Historian Jacques Down called the Thirteen Factories of Canton the “golden ghettos”, because they were both isolated and extremely lucrative.[13] Like so many key civil service positions in the empire, however, the Hoppo of Canton quickly took advantage of his job, demanding bribes, raising prices, and selling the other positions in Canton to equally problematic individuals.

Averill: By 1760, all Canton business was overseen by the Hoppo and the “Hongs” – Chinese intermediaries who guaranteed the good behavior of the European, Thai, and American merchants who traded through Canton, and managed all trade into and out of Canton. The Hongs collectively were known as the Cohong. In addition to limiting the western merchants to Canton, the Qing court set out strict rules to limit opportunities for the foreigners to invade or build networks that would allow them secret and unfettered access to inland China. The five most important rules included that: 1) Trade by foreigners in Canton was prohibited during the winter. 2) Foreigners coming to the city had to reside in the foreign factories under the supervision and control of the Cohong. 3) Chinese citizens were barred from borrowing capital from foreigners and from employment by them. 4) Chinese citizens were not allowed to gain information on the current market situation from foreigners  5) Inbound foreign vessels had to anchor in the Whampoa Roads and await inspection by the Chinese authorities.[14]

Marissa: Under both the Qianlong emperor and his successor, Jiaqing, the rules about foreign merchants were strictly enforced. Europeans were only allowed to reside in Canton during the trade months; they lived in Macau in winter. Foreign women were not allowed in Canton, because the Qing did not want the Europeans to get too comfortable in Canton, so merchants who brought their families left them in Macao. Unless it carried an official diplomatic envoy with advanced notice, foreign ships were not permitted to travel up any of China’s river systems. Most foreigners in China obeyed the rules, because it was more lucrative to follow the rules than make trouble.

Averill: Beyond Canton and Macao, there were few Europeans anywhere in China. Other than the illegal Christian missionaries who slipped past the coastline defenses and went inland to evangelize, the only persistent European presence in China were a handful of Catholic, mostly Portuguese, priests in Beijing. The Kangxi emperor had responded to the pompous 1704 Rites Controversy by requiring that Catholic priests take an exam, and only those who agreed “with the policies of Matteo Ricci” – who’d set the precedent to get converts through accommodation and adaptation to Chinese culture – were allowed to stay in China. Many priests were deported in 1707 as a result. Though ultimately Kangxi (a reasonable ruler by most measures) was pretty lax in enforcing his own rules, especially at the end of life, his son (the Yongzheng emperor) and grandson (Qianlong) were much firmer in trying to restrict Christian missionaries to Beijing, where they could be watched. Though there were as many as 80 foreign priests in China in the mid-18th century, by 1773 – when the Pope dissolved the Jesuit order – that number steadily declined, and a crackdown on foreign Christians meant that by 1785, there were fewer than 25 in the country.[15]

Marissa: For any number of reasons – such as the control of outgoing strategic information, preventing the spates of violence that was regularly prompted by anti-foreign sentiment, or protection of state trade revenues – the Qing emperors went to great lengths to try to keep tabs on any and all foreigners in China. For most of the Europeans and Americans in China seeking profits – and not souls – it was better to work within the system than against it.

Averill: Most Europeans were willing to abide by the rules of Canton – and extortionist prices facilitated by Hoppo and Cohong corruption – if it meant continued access to Chinese goods. Tea was growing in popularity in Britain and the Americas, and even with heavy taxes imposed at both ends, merchants could make enormous profits. But the restrictions were sometimes frustrating, and occasionally individuals – usually British – tried to alter the circumstances to better the British position in China. Further, East India Companymen who came from India were used to a different model of business. In India, they were used to a “divide and conquer, dominate and exploit” model of business, and were certainly not content with such a narrow port of access. But unfettered exploitation simply wasn’t how things were done in China. The emperor set out restrictive but generally fair avenues for Europeans to gain access to Chinese markets, through Canton. Though the actions of individuals, like a corrupt hoppo, could make life difficult for Europeans, it was still a lucrative business all around. The East India Company men who’d made their careers in Canton were mostly unwilling to rock the boat, lest they endanger their profits. And for most of the 18th century, the East India Company had a monopoly on all trade out of Canton, so the Companymen who’d established themselves in the Chinese system had a vested interest in making sure their business in China was amenable to both the Chinese and the British governments.[16]

Marissa: But in addition to the India-based Companymen, who got into fights with local Chinese and made trouble for the EIC, there were occasional go-getters who thought they could grab more for Britain in China. James Flint was abandoned in Canton as a teen, and seeking to better his circumstances, he managed to find a tutor willing to teach him Chinese – even though it was illegal. Most Europeans used the pidgin language of Canton – a little bit Chinese, a little bit English, some Portuguese and Dutch mixed in – to communicate with their Chinese intermediaries. Few aspired to learn the court language, because they had little to no hope of ever interacting with any Chinese officials outside of Canton. But Flint saw an opportunity, and after working his way up in the East India Company with his Chinese fluency, he convinced his bosses to let him sail north, and try to get to Beijing to appeal directly to the emperor. In 1759 he made it to Ningbo, where the official guarding the mouth of the Hai River told him to return to Canton. When Flint appealed, the official said he could maybe help, but only for 5,000 Chinese taels – which would be about $200,000 in today’s currency.[17] Flint didn’t have that much, but offered the official 2,000 taels, which the official accepted.

Averill: Flint made it to Tianjin, where the official there  gave him a polite reception. The ordinary citizens were outraged by the arrival of a foreign ship, however, and soldiers had to clear out the gathering mob before it got out of hand. Flint’s message was carried to Beijing, and the Qianlong emperor responded within a week. Hongli sent a commissioner to investigate the Canton hoppo – and ordered Flint to leave his ship (and crew) and travel overland with the investigator.

Marissa: Flint provided the evidence of the hoppo’s corruption as requested, and indeed, the conditions for foreign merchants improved in Canton. But unfortunately for James Flint, in sailing his ship illegally to Tianjin, and writing a letter in Chinese to the emperor without the status required of official channels, he’d broken too many rules. The Chinese arrested Flint, and held him in a prison on the edge of Macao. He languished there for three years, during which time, Stephen Platt notes, the governor of Canton wrote to King George to laud the emperor’s generosity in “merely” imprisoning Flint, calling his punishment “such amazingly gracious treatment that he should think of it with tears…. [as the British who had come to China for trade] have been so drenched with the waves of the imperial favour that they should leap for joy and turn towards us for civilization!”[18] No Englishmen or women were able to negotiate on Flint’s behalf – nor did the British government bother to even threaten action on behalf of their citizen in Chinese custody – and so Flint languished for three years in prison. When he was finally released, he was forbidden from staying in China, and went back to Britain to live out the remainder of his life. Significantly, the Chinese man who’d taught Flint the language was executed, his head removed and placed on a pike as a warning to any one else who might think to teach Chinese to foreigners.  

Marissa: For about 30 years after Flint’s partial failure and ultimate expulsion from Canton, the East India Company enjoyed their monopoly on trade to and from China. By 1805, the EIC was moving over 24 million pounds of tea a year from China to Britain. In 1784, the British government passed a law requiring the EIC to have a year’s supply in reserve at all times to ensure the flow of tea was consistent – and the government reduced the tea tax from just under 100% to a flat 12.5% across the board.[19] Working in Canton for a few years could set up a well-positioned Company man for life. The EIC, then, was not particularly interested in disrupting the status quo. The announcement, then, that Britain was sending a diplomatic expedition in 1792 with the goal of establishing a permanent British embassy in Beijing did not come as welcome news to the directors of the East India Company.

Averill: Historian Stephen Platt introduces both the James Flint and the Macartney diplomatic expedition of 1792-3 as important background to understanding the causes of the Opium Wars. If you want a really rich recounting of the Macartney expedition, I highly recommend picking up Platt’s book – it is a great read. For our purposes today, I just want to hit the highlights, and the historiographical significance of the Macartney expedition in thinking about Anglo-Sino relations going into the 19th century. The British framed their visit as an envoy to celebrate the Qianlong emperor’s birthday. They brought all kinds of British inventions and products demonstrating the advances in industrialization and technology, as well as some gifts of precious goods. The visit was going fine, until the British delivered the letter from King George laying out his demands. The British wanted a permanent ambassador in Beijing – circumventing the Canton system entirely – as well as the right to trade at all ports along the Chinese coast and in Beijing; they also demanded to receive tax reductions, and to be given one of the Chousan Islands near Ningbo, and a base near Canton.[20]

Marissa: How was the Qing emperor supposed to interpret these demands? Many historians – including Platt – have interpreted the failure of the Macartney mission as a failure of cultural communication, emphasizing the British ambassador’s refusal to kowtow to the emperor. But as Henrietta Harrison points out, that interpretation – which dominates the historiography – has been shaped more by current European and American perceptions of China than a broad and close-reading of the available archival material. The first Chinese interpretations of the Macartney mission using Qing sources were formulated in the 1920s, when the scholars involved were often working against a bureaucracy that privileged a narrative of history that denigrated the Qing dynasty and justified the revolution.[21] The famous Qianlong emperor’s letter, then, dominates that narrative, and without the deeper Chinese archival record (which was opened in the 1990s), historians have framed this encounter as a hard-nosed Chinese emperor more concerned with custom than trade who rejected western technology and modernity in favor of backward traditions.

Averill: After issuing his response, the emperor had his officials hurry the British out of Beijing and on their way back to England as quickly as possible. Again, previous historians have associated this unceremonious expulsion of the British as evidence of the emperor’s anger that Macartney didn’t bend before the emperor, or, as Platt notes, that perhaps the sudden deaths of several of the Macartney mission’s crew from undiagnosed illnesses prompted the Chinese to want the British out of their capital. But Harrison points out that the flurry of letters among the Chinese following the expulsion of the British was about the aggressive British demands, and how the Chinese were going best to respond without starting a war. In a surviving letter from the emperor’s Grand Council to the governors of the coastal provinces, the emperor orders his governors to be prepared, because “England is stronger and fiercer than the other countries in the Western Ocean. Since things have not gone according to their wishes, it may cause them to stir up trouble.”[22]

Marissa: Hongli goes on to warn his coastal cities to prepare, in the event the British respond with naval force.

Now that country speaks of wanting us to give them a place near the sea for their trade, so the forts along the coast should not only organize a show of military force but also make defensive preparations. So, for example, you should consider and estimate the situations of each of the islands of Chousan and the surrounding area and islands of any size near Macao, and make advance plans so as not to let the English foreigners infiltrate and occupy them… Next, the Guangong Customs Superintendent who takes the taxes on the foreign merchants should in any case levy them according to the rules, and should firmly ban his clerks from extorting money. The English trading ships that come to Guangong are greater in number than those from other countries, so in future when their goods ships come and go, it will certainly not be convenient to suddenly reduce the duty on them, but you should also not make the smallest increase that would give the foreign merchants an excuse.[23]

As Harrison notes, correspondence between the emperor and his officials reveals a deep anxiety about the impending military threat from the British. After all, Macartney led an expedition with five massive ships, including his flag warship the HMS Lion, all of which were docked at Chousan – the very island the British King had demanded in his letter. This was not, as Harrison rightly points out, a situation created by crossed cultural wires, but by a sovereign nation feeling the threat of a powerful naval entity at their doors.

Averill: The emperor instructed his governor general in Canton to keep the British happy without giving into any of the actual demands, and according to Macartney’s letters to the home secretary, the Canton governor general was successful. Thus, as Harrison argues, the Chinese archives reveals that the Chinese were far more concerned about the military threat the Macartney embassy posed than anything else. Further, both the personal correspondence of the emperor and numerous other Chinese accounts reflecting on this encounter emphasize China’s need for an “effective military and diplomatic response to the British demands.”[24] 

Marissa: Reflecting back on the failed mission – for Macartney was rushed out, and left China with none of his king’s demands met – the British assumed the failure was a cultural misstep. The kowtow in particular loomed large in the minds of the British, because it represented a sticking point of hierarchies and a convenient scapegoat for failed British diplomacy in China. Indeed, the British and Chinese would struggle again with protocol and the kowtow in 1816 when Lord Amherst’s diplomatic envoy failed, as had Macartney’s before him. This narrative – of cultural incompatibility – was repeated in English-language sources throughout the nineteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth – and twentieth – centuries, the British framed all these failed “diplomatic” missions, and especially the Macartney mission, as justification for British power in China. As Harrison argues, “the demands presented by Macartney were summarized as being for diplomatic relations and free trade (rather than tax reductions and territorial bases). Morse called them a ‘modest Charter of Rights for the English trade put forward in 1793 and won by force of arms in 1842’” with the conclusion of the first Opium War.

Averill: And then, with the fall of the Qing empire, a 1914 translation of Qianlong’s famous letter was published by two British writers living in China – and revolutionary Chinese scholars picked up the letter and held it up as proof that the Qing was backwards and had held China back for centuries. For most of the twentieth-century, then, the famous Qianlong letter – which belied a much deeper Chinese concern with British overreach and military threat – paired nicely with the long-standing British and other English-language interpretations of the Macartney mission.[25]

Marissa: Stephen Platt situates the Macartney mission as broader context that we, as students (at least for today) of the Opium Wars need to understand. We share this historiographical debate less because we think you can draw a line between the actual events of the Macartney mission and the Opium Wars, and more because of these issues that Harrison points out – that the British framed the failed Macartney mission as justification for British gunboat diplomacy. In 1918, when Hosea Ballou Morse wrote International Relations of the Chinese Emperor, he drew a line between Macartney and the Opium Wars — and Morse represents, in some ways, over a century of British thinking on the subject. As we’ll discuss, the “Opium Wars” is as much about its legacy, in China and Britain, as its actual geo-spatial consequences. After all, we call it the Opium Wars, which was a name given to the 1839-42 Anglo-Sino conflict by its contemporaries, forever associating British military action in China in 1840 with drug dealers and a clearly unjust war.

Averill: Opium had long been used in China and much of the world as a medicine to ease pain and aid sleep. The best product, according to contemporaries, came from Bengal, where endless fields of poppies grew and were harvested by Indian farmers. The East India Company started building its influence and power in Bengal in 1633; they controlled all trade out of Bengal – and most of India – until 1813, when the Charter Act abolished the EIC monopoly.

Marissa: In China, opium proved a nuisance to managing internal unrest. In 1794, the White Lotus – a group of apocalypse-focused Buddhists – started fomenting rebellion in the Han River Highlands.[26] Remember how we mentioned the deep corruption in the Chinese civil service? Well, one of the top ministers in the Qianlong government, Heshen, was in charge of project managing the war with the White Lotus and spin-off rebellions in the region. He hired a bunch of mercenaries to fill in the gaps of the undisciplined official army, and more often than not the mercenaries took their government-issued weapons and changed sides. Heshen falsified reports of the army’s successes against the rebels, prolonging the efforts and dumping more and more silver into the conflict. At Qianlong’s death, 1799, they’d spent 100,000 taels of silver, which equaled about two years of tax revenue, and decimated the pre-war surplus.[27] The Jiaqing emperor, who ascended in 1796, outlawed the production and importation of opium in 1800, and also made significant cuts to the Chinese military, citing the evident abuse of both in the failures against White Lotus . Opium use was on the rise in China at the turn of the century, and coupled with a five-year-long rural war with religious radicals, the emperor sought to restore balance to China.[28]

Averill: China’s concerns about a British military threat were warranted. In 1801, when Britain was engaged in war with Napoleon’s France, Portugal signed a treaty with France to close Macao to Britain. Without Macao, the British would not be able to effectively stage its trade with China, which would have been economically destabilizing – and particularly so for the East India Company and its interests, since China was the primary destination of both British manufactured goods and India-produced opium. So Lord Wellesley, governor of Bengal, authorized a fleet of naval war ships to head to china.[29] The fleet only stopped because the British signed the Treaty of Amiens, which temporarily halted hostilities between France and Britain. In 1806, with Napoleon’s victories over most of the European continent, including Russia, the British were even more concerned – especially because, at that point, commodities from China accounted for ⅔ of all East India Company sales income in London.[30] Chinese tea, silk, and other goods were highly profitable for the East India Company, even though the British government had, by 1806, raised the tax rate on tea to an astronomical 96% – because the government needed revenue to fund the war with France, and tea did the job.

Marissa: Until about 1832, corrupt bureaucrats and a willing local population of smugglers meant that the opium trade was effectively legal — it was technically illegal, yes, but the people who would or should have been enforcing illegality were collaborating with British and American opium importers. The flow of opium from India to China through the East India Company and their collaborators increased in the 1820s, and persisted despite the Emperor and Canton Governor General’s efforts to see the law enforced. Per Qing customs, only Chinese collaborators were punished for facilitating the smuggling and dealing of opium. Even though everyone knew that the opium arrived in the cargo holds of foreign ships, anchored out in the South China Sea, the British, American, and other European merchants were never punished for their part in the illegal drug trade.

Averill: The Daoguang emperor, who took the throne in 1820, was increasingly concerned about the ramifications of foreign opium in China. For one, the flow of silver into the country had all but stopped, as foreigners were able to exchange their opium for Chinese silver, and then use that silver to buy Chinese tea. And for another, from a moral standpoint, the sudden increase in opium quantities was matched by the growth in an addicted population. He instructed the Governor-General of Canton, Deng Tingzhen, to do more, and Deng did his best. In the 1830s, he arrested and executed Chinese opium den proprietors, smugglers, and anyone else he could link to the drug trade. He seized and destroyed chests of opium – from Chinese boats, of course, not the originating foreigners’ boats – but only slowed the flow, never stopped it.

Marissa: In 1834, the British government ended the East India Company’s monopoly over trade with China. All kinds of “free traders” flooded the market, and these fortune-seeking, sometimes reckless men proved even harder to control than the EIC men. When Canton’s English-language papers called for the British Superintendent of Canton or the British government to do something about the British drug smugglers, the pleas were useless. The Superintendent had no real authority over the free traders. When the EIC was in charge, EIC directors could deal directly with unruly employees; after 1834, the Superintendent was a toothless paper pusher. Tension between the local Canton government and the free traders escalated quickly at the end of the 1830s. Foreigners shipped up to 30 thousand chests of opium to China each year.[31] The vast majority arrived on British or British Indian ships. In 1838, Charles Elliot, the Superintendent, wrote to the Prime Minister asking for the government’s intercession – for the British citizens in Canton’s own good, because surely the Qing government would not be so tolerant forever? But the British government refused to take responsibility for the British smugglers in Canton and along China’s coasts, even though the Superintendent was growing increasingly concerned about British behavior in and around Canton.[32]

Averill: Charles Elliot also looked to his Chinese counterparts for help in mitigating the opium problem. His contacts in the Canton administration told him that the court was debating the relegalization of opium – a change that was proposed in 1837, but was then in a holding pattern for years. Legalization and local production would end smuggling and help with silver drain, because then the Chinese could produce their own and not spend Chinese silver on foreign products. But, of course, legalization would not address the opium use problem. Some politicians wanted to just legalize opium, and then kill all opium users after one year to force the end of addiction in the country, but that was a pretty unpopular solution. Opium was both a moral problem and a silver drain problem, so from 1837-38, Canton Governor General Deng Tingzhen led a heavy crack down: his soldiers chased Chinese smugglers up and down rivers, and meted out harsh punishments. After a while, Chinese smugglers didn’t want to be involved, and the British started doing the dirty work themselves.

Marissa: By October 1838, though, the guy who was pushing for legalization was demoted. Daoguang Emperor invited another civil servant, Lin Zexu, to Beijing for an audience. Lin Zexu was known for innovative measures to eradicate opium use in his province, and the emperor charged Lin with dealing with opium at its source: Canton. What that would entail wasn’t necessarily a crack-down on foreign smugglers, however. With very few exceptions (ie, James Flint), the Chinese still did not interfere with the foreigners unless they committed capital crimes. Even when Governor-General of Canton, Deng Tingzhen, was cracking down on opium, his shows of force were exclusively towards native drug dealers and runners. As Stephen Platt notes, on the few occasions when gunshots were exchanged between foreign ships and the Chinese military, those encounters were isolated and instigated by the Europeans involved.[33]

Averill: In December 1838, after a Chinese opium den operator was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging, a riot broke out among the Europeans and  British of Canton. The Chinese officials built gallows in front of the European factories, a clear communication that while the Chinese would not arrest foreigners in connection with opium dealing, everyone knew who was responsible for the opium crisis in China.[34] The foreigners, including some British sailors, took offense at the gallows, and tore them down, and then started attacking Chinese people who gathered to watch. The Chinese numbers swelled, and they threw stones and bricks at the Americans and British, chasing them back to their factories. Eventually Chinese soldiers arrived to clear out the rioters, long before Charles Elliot and his contingent of 120 armed sailors showed up.[35] Responding to the incident, one correspondent for the English-language Canton Press wrote “The quicker the Foreign Community abandons the opium trade, the fewer executions they may be obliged to witness at their doors.”[36]

Marissa: Again and again, the British government insisted that the British were guests in Canton and should behave – should not smuggle opium, should not interfere with Chinese executions of justice, should not riot in the streets. The Prime Minister repeated these mantras again and again – though the bill he proposed, which would have given the British Superintendent in Canton power to stop this kind of bad behavior, failed. Like the East India Company men who’d spent their careers in Canton, and knew that working with the local government was more effective than flagrant disregard for the local customs and laws, British officials did not want to disrupt the flow of tea (and money) from China to Europe.

Averill: On December 18, 1838, Superintendent Charles Elliot issued a decree (even though he didn’t have the authority to do so) that he would personally turn over any foreign vessels carrying opium to the Chinese authorities. He declared that “Her Majesty’s Government will in no way interpose if the Chinese Government shall think fit to seize and confiscate the same.” Then he wrote to the governor of Canton, pledging that “The Government of the British nation will regard these evil practices with no feelings of leniency, but on the contrary with severity and continual anxiety.”[37]

Marissa: The British ( opium smugglers) of Canton were furious, and accused Elliot of dereliction of his duty to British citizens, and of being a lackey for the Chinese. The Americans in Canton were actually relieved. Russell & Co, the biggest American firm based in Canton, had already shifted its focus away from importing opium and back to exporting tea and silk when the Chinese government started cracking down on local smugglers. Profits were strong enough from the sale of Chinese goods that it was too dangerous to risk their business by staying in the drug trade. In February 1839, after witnessing another Chinese opium dealer’s execution in front of the foreigner’s factories, Russell & Co. announced publicly and finally that they were out of the opium trade.[38]

Averill: After meeting with the emperor in late 1838, Lin Zexu made his way to Canton to take up his new position with the goal of eradicating the opium business at its source. Some colleagues advised him not to start a war with the foreigners, others advised caution but also firmness. All were aware that Britain and the other Europeans–who’d been sharpening their spears in wars amongst themselves for much of a century–would be formidable military foes, particularly in naval power. Though the Chinese considered themselves morally, economically, and culturally superior to the foreigners, none of China’s bureaucrats were fools. They recognized the many risks of engaging the foreigners in war.[39]

Marissa: Lin Zexu distilled the advice of his colleagues down into two policies: first, he planned to arrest all the Canton government officials who had violated the ban on opium, and then he would stop the flow of drugs into Canton. As Stephen Platt notes, Lin acted “on behalf of the Daoguang and held authority over all civil and military officials in the region.”[40] In 3 months, Lin executed five times as many arrests as Deng Tingzhen had in two years of his crack down.[41] Then, after dealing with all the locals invested in opium, Lin went for the foreigners.

Averill: On March 18, 1839, Lin demanded that all foreigners surrender their opium stock, and gave them three days to comply, during which they’d be confined to their factories. If the foreigners refused, Lin said he would execute a bunch of Hong merchants (the Chinese intermediaries between the Canton foreigners and China’s goods and buyers). The British and Americans were motivated enough to offer 1,000 chests of opium, which the Hong merchants thought would be enough. Lin came back and demanded 4,000 chests, and started trying to call individual European and American merchants into Canton’s walled city for questioning. The individuals he called refused to go. He again threatened to kill the Hong merchants – but, significantly, didn’t follow through.

Marissa: Superintendent Charles Elliot rushed to Canton from Macao, certain that this was the great calamity he’d believed was coming all along. He pledged to protect all the foreigners, and wanted them all to evacuate the factories and head to Macao for safety.

Averill: Lin responded by cutting the factories off – from everything: their Chinese servants and workers, fresh food, their boats, and even the ability to leave the factories. The soldiers Lin stationed around the factory were ordered not to harm the foreigners, only to intimidate them. Elliot perceived this order as a great danger to the life and vitality of the foreigners of Canton. In reality, the food blockade was easily side-stepped by the foreigners’ friends among the Hong merchants, who snuck all kinds of European favorites into the compound.

Marissa: The foreigners were in no real danger, except from their own inept attempts at cooking. (According to Stephen Platt, Robert Forbes’ first “attempt at ham and eggs came out a hard black mass approximating the sole of a shoe.”[42]) But, Platt argues, Charles Elliot did not see the circumstances as benign – he was in crisis mode. His plan was to bend completely to Lin’s demands: He announced that, by decree of the Queen, every British and Parsi merchant was to surrender every bit of opium they had on their ships to Elliot, so that he could turn it over to the Chinese. In return for their compliance, Elliot told the merchants that the British government would compensate them for their losses. He had no authority to make such promises, of course, but all of the British and Parsis, plus a few Americans, showed up to get their “opium scrips.” Despite having absolutely no power to intervene – and in fact, the Prime Minister had explicitly instructed him to let the British merchants suffer the consequences if the Chinese seized their opium – Elliot collected ownership of 20,283 chests of opium, a market value of £2 million.[43]

Averill: So obviously this was a big win for Lin. In two years, Deng Tingzhen had only captured 600 chests of opium. In a matter of weeks, Lin’s tactics (or, at least, his tactics’ effect on Charles Elliot) netted literally all of the opium on the ships around Canton. He wrote to the emperor of his success, and suggested that the emperor compensate the foreigners with a gift for their compliance – a few pounds of tea per surrendered opium chest, a loss for the foreigners at about a  penny per dollar.

Marissa: By mid-April, the foreigners were still in lockdown in the factories; Lin wanted to keep them there until at least three quarters of the opium was collected. This, apparently, was the straw that broke Charles Elliot’s back. On April 3, Elliot wrote to the foreign secretary Palmerston, calling for a naval blockade of Canton and the Yangzi River, the capture of Chusan, and to force the Chinese emperor to apologize and pay an indemnity.[44]

Averill: Lin Zexu held the foreigners for six weeks in total, until the end of May, when finally enough of the 20,000 pledged opium chests were confiscated by the Chinese government. Lin spent three weeks in June destroying the product, and dumping the sludge into the ocean.

Marissa: News of the pledges got to Palmerston before Elliot’s letter calling in reinforcements. He was not happy with Elliott’s overreach. 

Averill: As news of the confrontation in Canton reached the UK, British firms were more concerned that the opium holdup had resulted in a halting of ALL trade. No British cotton or wool textiles were allowed into Canton to be off-loaded and sold, and no tea was leaving China to get back to the UK. With the British economy so firmly entangled in Chinese imports and exports, many firms insisted that the British government do something to resume the trade with China.[45]

Marissa: But “many firms” by no means represented the majority of Britain. Just six years after abolishing slavery across the empire (though, honestly, only a couple years after freedom actually reached all corners of the empire), Britain was in the throes of its mid-century “humane empire.” Politicians and commoners alike saw the British empire as a force for good and civilization, and certain practices just did not align with this new world view.

Averill: Platt argues that Elliott was actually channeling this ethos when he seized all the opium and offered its merchants writs of promise for reimbursement – this was effectively the solution to slavery in the Caribbean. All enslavers were compensated for the “loss” of their “property” when the enslaved were emancipated by law. Tellingly, of course, none of the enslaved were compensated for their generations of trauma and unpaid labor, but that’s a story for another day. In Elliott’s case, Platt suggests that the Superintendent may have been operating on that same wavelength, channeling compensation as a means for abolishing the immoral opium trade.

Marissa: When news of a possible war with China reached Britain, there was an immediate and loud public outcry. Newspapers like the Leeds Mercury lambasted the opium smugglers for disrupting legitimate trade and for draining the pockets of Chinese people who might otherwise be buying real British manufactured goods.[46] They called on the British government to outlaw the growth of poppies in India, in “vindication of our national morality…[and] the security of our interests and the safety of our commerce.”[47] Antislavery activists like Quaker George Thompson rallied working class audiences on an anti-opium speaking circuit. The Chartists, who sought universal manhood suffrage, saw parallels between the opium-addled Chinese peasant and the gin-poisoned working class Briton.[48] Even The Times excoriated the government for entertaining war with China, threatening Britain’s tea source and millions of potential customers for Britain’s manufactured goods.

Averill: The British government tried to spin the confrontation in Canton as a separate issue from the opium smuggling, but by 1840, the two were inextricably linked in the public imagination. The British press defaulted to calling it the “Opium Wars,” and the name stuck. The moral campaigners didn’t even need to work very hard to make the connection; the conflict in Canton was about opium, and Parliament was actively considering sending a naval fleet to defend drug smugglers and dealers. As the Electric Review put it, the moment would “stand out in memory as the blackest stain on the character of Britain… do what they can–gloss it over as they may–THE OPIUM WAR is the name by which history will hand it down.”[49]

Marissa: If we return briefly to the narrative of the Opium War that the British National War Museum summarizes on their website, we can pick apart just about every element of that version of events. Lin demanded the foreigners’ opium in February.

Averill: In April, not May, 1839, Charles Elliott turned over 20,000 chests of opium, acting without authorization and beyond any demands the Qing government was likely to actually follow through on.

Marissa: When the Chinese required the foreigners to stay put while the drugs were collected, Elliott got angry and demanded the British send in the navy to punish the Chinese. The “British” weren’t outraged that the Chinese tried to end the opium trade in Canton – in fact, as Platt demonstrates, the vast majority of Britons were outraged that the British government was even considering backing up immoral drug dealers on the other side of the world. Politicians, newspapers, and plebs from both ends of the political spectrum opposed going to war with China over opium. The first broaching of the war in Parliament was a censure of Palmerston for not empowering Elliott with the authority to deal with the British smugglers directly and before the escalation to war.

Averill: On April 7. 1840, James Graham – a Whig turned Conservative – made a rousing speech on the Parliament floor opposing the proposed resolution to go to war with China.

[China is] inhabited by 350,000,000 of human beings, all directed by the will of one man, all speaking one language, all governed by one code of laws, all professing one religion, all actuated by the same feelings of national pride and prejudice, tracing their history back not by centuries but by tens of centuries, transmitted to them in regular succession under a patriarchal government without interruption.[50]

As Platt argues, Graham spoke with the reverence and awe that characterized British perceptions of China before the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain’s victory seemed to outsize their self aggrandizing. China was civilized, “boasting of their education, of their civilization, of their arts, all the conveniences and the luxuries of life existing there, when Europe was still sunk in barbarism, and when the light of knowledge was obscure in the western hemisphere.”[51]

Marissa: But more than echoing those 18th century ideas about China, Graham – like the Times just months before – extolled what was at stake financially: at least £3.7 million in annual revenue came from trade with China. And that didn’t even include the percentage of India revenue that came from trade with China as well – another £2 million.

Averill: Palmerston, pressured by those merchants tied up in China, pressed for war. Citing 30 London merchant houses – whom he falsely claimed supported the opposition – he told Parliament that “the [legitimate] trade with China can no longer be conducted with security to life and property, or with credit or advantage to the British nation,” and that only the pressure of military intervention would secure British interests in China.

Marissa: Parliament debated heatedly for three nights. The dynamic William Gladstone gave another moving speech, affirming once again that the British politicians, like the people, understood exactly what this proposed war was about: protecting the opium traders who dealt their drugs illegally and in contradiction to the Qing government’s laws and express wishes. Gladstone rejected the baseless claims of those in favor of war that the Daoguang emperor and Lin Zexu’s actions were unwarranted or unexpected in dealing with the foreign drug smugglers. The British were well aware of a multitude of the emperor’s edicts regarding opium, and that suppression of the opium smuggling had begun in earnest in 1837 under Deng Tingzhen. To send in the navy was to start “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know, and have not heard of.”[52]

Marissa: In the final vote, taken at 4am on April 10, those pushing for war won by a majority of just nine votes: 271 to 262. Prime Minister Melbourne’s government – which had already dispatched their fleet – avoided censure and Palmerston’s war in China was sanctioned. The press and British public were understandably outraged.

Averill: As Platt notes, while the war itself was controversial and broadly unsupported, there were those in the British government who may have been genuinely swayed by Elliott’s exaggerated reports of British merchants “under siege” in Canton. The Duke of Wellington, for example, hero of the Napoleonic Wars, declared in 1840 that the situation in China had changed significantly in six years. Wellington had been opposed to war with China just 6 years earlier, when another Superintendent of Canton had pressed for the navy to force a better trade position in China. In 1840, though, Wellington genuinely believed that the British merchants were in danger and needed British military intervention.

Marissa: Wellington’s military perspective seems to be the basis upon which some Euro-centric reinterpretations of the Opium Wars are based. Scholar Henry Gelber, for example, argued in the early 2000s that “The 1840-42 Anglo-Chinese war (the so-called “Opium War”) is almost universally believed to have been triggered by British imperial rapacity and determination to sell more and more opium into China. That belief is mistaken. The British went to war because of Chinese military threats to defenseless British civilians, including women and children; because China refused to negotiate on terms of diplomatic equality and because China refused to open more ports than Canton to trade, not just with Britain but with everybody.”[53] In his monograph, Gelber argues that the cause of the “Anglo-Chinese War of 1840-42” was a “gulf between British and Chinese views of international order and the rules of trade.”[54] This is not particularly unique – and falls in line with the inaccuracies that Henrietta Harrison has worked to correct regarding the Macartney mission, and which Stephen Platt resists in Imperial Twilight. Gelber, too, is not alone – several other scholars echo this interpretation in their own way, and use “cultural difference” and China’s resistance to British trade demands as explanation for Britain’s military action in China.

Averill: Returning to the contested nature of history, obviously Henry Gelber and Stephen Platt disagree on just about all aspects of how to interpret the causes of the Opium Wars. Platt demonstrates convincingly, consulting all manner of both Chinese, British, American, and other sources, that the British were not in real danger in Canton, that Elliott was known for exaggeration – that Palmerston knew that Elliott was prone to exaggeration – and that the war was widely unpopular among British folks from every walk of life and political persuasion. Gelber’s interpretation is not only dangerously incorrect, but fits neatly into the kinds of “history wars” that reject critical narratives of British imperial history. Gelber’s monograph, published in 2004, replicates these kinds of narratives, and notably only uses English-language primary sources.[55]

Marissa: The British sent a formidable force to the South China Sea. Sixteen warships, four steamers, and four thousand British and Indian troops on 27 transport vessels.[56] China’s navy was insignificant in comparison – and had barely been able to deal with the pirates that had plagued the coastline for the last several decades – and the army was in even worse shape. Jiaqing’s cuts to military spending after he discovered the corruption and cowardice of his army during the White Lotus conflict meant the Chinese forces were few in number and poorly equipped.

Averill: Palmerston instructed Charles Elliott to demand all the concessions from the Chinese that the free traders, firms, and embassy missions had demanded over the years.[57] By Elliott’s estimation, the demands were unreasonable, and far exceeded the conflict at hand. But Palmerston intended to force China to accept terms that would upend the balance of power so that Britain would not have to worry about the flow of trade to and from China again. Palmerston wanted the Qing emperor to pay for all the destroyed opium, give British citizens “extraterritoriality” privileges (meaning they would not be subject to Chinese law while in China, only British law), a permanent British colony on Chinese soil, and more. Elliott refused to make these demands.

Marissa: Instead, Elliott negotiated a $6 million payment to cover some of the destroyed opium, and the British would be able to establish a residence in Hong Kong, with the same kind of arrangement as they had in Canton but on their own. Trade was reopened, and both Elliott and his Chinese counterpart, Qishan, were satisfied.[58]

Averill: Palmerston was furious.[59] In early 1841, Palmerston removed Elliott from his position, and replaced him with Henry Pottinger, whom Platt describes as “more aggressive” and with “none of Elliott’s respect or affection for the Chinese people” and who would be “determined to drive the war in China to its fullest and most profitable end.”[60] Which he did.

Marissa: Once again, Chinese ministers send conflicting and fabricated reports to the emperor, so that in the year of fighting, Daoguang was never quite fully informed on the actual progression of the war. By Platt’s estimation, the emperor was so misinformed that he never realized just how bad the war was for China, and so did not make any tactical decisions – like drawing the British forces inland, away from the advantage of their obviously superior naval force – that would have turned the tide. The war dragged into 1842, with short decisive battles won by the British followed by long periods of waiting for further instructions from London.[61] The British soldiers wrought destruction and carnage upon the Chinese in the coastal cities they invaded. As Charles Elliott wrote in 1842, it was “a war in which there was little room for military glory…[just] the slaughter of an almost defenceless and helpless people, and a people which, in a large portion of the theatre of war, was friendly to the British nation.”[62]

Averill: Though Platt notes that the anti-war sentiment in Britain waned as news of British and Indian deaths on the front – though due mostly to illness rather than battle – rolled in. The Conservative government that had launched the war fell in late 1841, replaced by Whigs who decided the war should be won quickly and with force. They sent more supplies and troops, and in August 1842, Pottinger led his fleet – by force – up the Yangzi River and threatened to destroy Nanjing. The Qing government surrendered, and the “Treaty of Nanjing” – widely considered the first unequal trade treaty imposed by the British – was drawn up. Ratifications were exchanged in Hong Kong in June 1843.

Marissa: The Treaty forced China to pay a huge indemnity – $21 million – and to open five cities to British trade and residence. The British also took Hong Kong as a permanent colony, and ended the monopoly of the Hong merchants in Canton, giving the British access to any and all Chinese vendors and merchants, with no more middle men. The only thing the Treaty of Nanjing did not do was force legalization of opium. Notably, however, anti-opium activists in Britain failed to end or even curb the cultivation and export of opium from India. Opium exports from India increased between 1842 and 1855. Though internal struggles with the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom required the Qing government to once again consider – and implement – the legalization of opium purely for tax revenue. This would be formalized after the second Opium War – but that’s a story for another day.

Averill: The causes, consequences, memory, and legacy of the Opium Wars are still very much hotly contested histories. We’ve only introduced you to a fraction of the debates that surround this history, and undoubtedly my over-reliance on Platt means that there are issues, important tangents, and historiographical conversations that I’ve completely overlooked or missed. I think all of China’s 19th century wars must be like the American Civil War – there always seems to be something new to focus on, a new debate raging, and a division between the “kinds” of historians who study the topic (in Civil War history you have the “War Studies” people and the “Military Historians”, and I get the sense that in the Opium Wars history there are the Sinologists and the people like Gelder, who rely primarily on
| English sources or the limited translated sources.) So if you enjoyed this episode and want to learn more, scroll through the bibliography, and then go to the bibliographies of the really good works we’ve mentioned here – Platt’s Imperial Twilight, Harrison’s essay in the American Historical Review, and Song-Chuan Chen, Merchants of War and Peace – and keep digging.

Marissa: Thanks for joining us today! We invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad – for all kinds of memes and historian hijinks. If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at

Averill: Thanks for listening! Byeeee

Marissa: Byeeee


Transcribed Qianlong emperor’s letter to King George III – in Chinese, and in English

Daniel H Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

Wu Boya, “Western Cultural Policies of the Qing Court in the Qian and Jia Dynasties,” Qing History

Song-Chuan Chen, Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Paul Evans, John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China, (Basil Blackwell, 1988).

John Fairbank and SY Teng, “On The Ch’ing Tributary System,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Jun., 1941), pp. 135-246

Paul French, Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao (Hong Kong University Press, 2009).

Harry Gelber, “China as ‘Victim’? The Opium War That Wasn’t,” Center for European Studies Working Paper Series #136 (Date Unknown, Harvard University Working Paper Series)

Harry Gelber, The Battle for Beijing, 1858-1860 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Harry Gelber, Opium, Soldiers, and Evangelicals: England’s 1840-42 War with China, and its Aftermath (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Henrietta Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of IDeas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations,” American Historical Association (2017).

James Hevia, Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1798 (Duke University Press, 1995).

Michael Keevak, Embassies to China:  Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters Before the Opium Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drug, Dreams and the Making of China (Pan Macmillan, 2011).

Stephen Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War And The End Of China’s Last Golden Age (Penguin, 2019)

John Wong, “Global Positioning: Houqua and His China Trade Partners in the Nineteenth Century,” Doctoral Dissertation, Harvard University (2012)

[1] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 53.

[2] Platt, Imperial Twilight, xxv.

[3] Michael Keevak, Embassies to China:  Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters Before the Opium Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) 1.

[4] Ann Laura Stolher, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, 2009), Michel-Ralph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995); Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (University of NC Press, 2014).

[5] Check out the really interesting biography of Fairbanks by Paul Evans, John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China.

[6] Keevak, Embassies to China, 2.

[7] Henrietta Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of IDeas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations,” American Historical Association (2017).

[8] Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of IDeas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations,” 682.

[9] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 52.

[10] Qtd. in John Wong, “Global Positioning: Houqua and His China Trade Partners in the Nineteenth Century,” Doctoral Dissertation Harvard University, (2012) 23.

[11] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 49-52; and Catherine Pagani, Eastern Magnificence and European Ingenuity: Clocks of Imperial China (University of Michigan Press, 2004).

[12] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 52.

[13] Jacques M. Downs, The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844 (Lehigh University Press, 1997).

[14] Wu Boya, “Western Cultural Policies of the Qing Court in the Qian and Jia Dynasties,” Qing History

[15] Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (John Wiley & Sons, 2011) 37-40.

[16] Platt, Imperial Twilight.

[17] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 6.

[18] Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 7-8.

[19] Platt, Imperiali Twilight, 12-18.

[20] Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations“, 684.

[21] Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations“, 693.

[22] Qtd. in Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations,” 684.

[23] Qtd. in Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations,” 685.

[24] Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations,” 685-688.

[25] Harrison, “The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations,” 685-688.

[26] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 57.

[27] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 69.

[28] Platt, 56-70.

[29] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 76.

[30] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 95.

[31] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 353.

[32] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 344.

[33] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 358.

[34] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 358.

[35] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 359.

[36] Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 359.

[37] Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 360.

[38] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 362.

[39] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 364.

[40] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 366.

[41] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 367.

[42] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 371.

[43] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 371-73.

[44] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 378-79.

[45] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 384-85.

[46] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 391.

[47] Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 391.

[48] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 392.

[49] Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 394.

[50] Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 394-5.

[51] Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 394-5.

[52] Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 398.

[53] Harry Gelber, “China as ‘Victim’? The Opium War That Wasn’t,” Center for European Studies Working Paper Series #136 (Date Unknown, Harvard University Working Paper Series)

[54] This is how Professor Lord William Wallace of the LSE blurbed Gelber’s book… ‘nuff said.

[55] Harry Gelber, Opium, Soldiers, and Evangelicals: England’s 1840-42 War with China, and its Aftermath (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

[56] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 411.

[57] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 411-413.

[58] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 415-16.

[59] Platt, Imperial Twilight, 415-16.

[60]  Platt, Imperial Twilight, 418.

[61]  Platt, Imperial Twilight, 420-22.

[62]  Qtd. in Platt, Imperial Twilight, 422.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.