The 1830s came as a rude shock for China. For centuries, the Chinese empire had been the preeminent power in the region, where it boasted the best bureaucracy, and the latest technology. It had got used to being revered.
So when a band of ‘uncivilised’ Westerners came knocking on the palace gates, the Chinese could be forgiven for thinking all was as it should be. The problem was the Chinese world view was badly out of date.
By the 19th century, China’s glory days had long since passed. By contrast, Europe was revelling in the industrial revolution, and Britain was busy carving out a global empire. To do that, Britain needed China – or rather, what it had to offer.
True to the stereotype, the British had developed a sweet spot for tea. So much so, in fact, that tea imports accounted for 16% of customs revenue. It’s been said that 83% of the Royal Navy’s running costs could be met by levying taxes on tea alone.
Britain felt it had to address this unequal balance of trade. So, it searched its new territories in India and came up with just the export – opium.
Opium was no big deal in Britain, where it was ingested as medicine. But the Chinese took a dim view of the narcotic. In China the drug was smoked and took a devastating toll on the health of the nation. The trade also consumed valuable reserves of silver – used as currency, and of which China was running short.
None of this stopped British traders from unloading the drug at Canton, modern-day Guangzhou. In March 1839, the Chinese ordered the traders to surrender the cargo worth £2m, which at the last moment was guaranteed by the British government.
The Chinese seized and destroyed 20,283 chests containing opium, outraging the government in London (who would have had to pick up the bill) and public opinion.
Faced with a modern army and navy, China found itself outmatched in the fighting that followed. On 20 January 1841, Hong Kong island was ceded to Britain at the Chuenpi Convention – along with a resumption of the opium trade.