Today, Western governments spend billions trying to stop the illegal drugs trade. However, in the 19th century, Britain not only encouraged the flow of hard drugs but also went to war twice to prevent China’s government from stopping it.
At the time, China made it almost impossible for traders to sell British and other Western goods locally. The sole exception was tea from India. But tea merchants found they could boost profits by smuggling opium with their cargo.
Due to its addictive nature (it contains morphine), demand exploded, with smuggling networks springing up around the Chinese coast. Selling opium was officially discouraged. But smugglers simply bribed local officials – many of them addicts themselves – to look the other way.
By the late 1830s, political pressure on China’s Emperor was growing. Not only was there concern at the social and economic costs of the trade, but gold and silver was flowing out of China to pay for opium imports.
A direct appeal to Queen Victoria failed. So a hard-line trade commissioner, Lin Zexu, was appointed. He cracked down, confiscating British traders’ opium supplies and forcing them to pledge their goods (and lives) against a return to the trade.
The British government backed the measures – until it realised it would have to compensate traders. It launched a military blockade of China.
Within two years Peking had been forced into signing the Treaty of Nanking legalising the trade and removing restrictions on other British goods.
While Chinese historians consider this as a national humiliation, there is also agreement that it opened China up to the rest of the world.