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The First Opium War was a series of military engagements fought between Britain and the Qing dynasty of China between 1839 and 1842. Its impact was dramatic with consequences still seen today ‒ as the conflict saw Hong Kong ceded to the British Empire, making the island a cultural anomaly within modern-day China. Conflict broke out when Chinese officials seized opium stocks at Canton to stop the banned opium trade, threatening the death penalty for future offenders.
But the British Government insisted on the principles of free trade, equal diplomatic recognition among nations, and backed the merchants’ demands.
As Jeremy Paxman pointed out: “From boats moored on the Chinese mainland, the British sold industrial quantities of opium to be trafficked into China.
“At the time, selling opium wasn’t illegal in Britain ‒ nor did it cause them any moral qualms.
“In 1839 the Chinese emperor decided he’d had enough.
“He ordered more than 1,000 tonnes of British-supplied opium to be seized and destroyed.
“The British Government was outraged.
“It invoked a sacred and very convenient principle ‒ the principle of free trade.”
Mr Paxman, speaking on BBC documentary ‘Empire’ in 2012, explained that opium was “making Britain rich”.
Indeed, at the time it accounted for over a fifth of the income of the government of India.
He concluded: “Two mighty empires ‒ each convinced of their own superiority ‒ were now set on a collision course.”
The Royal Navy defeated the Chinese using technologically superior ships and weapons.
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Mr Paxman discussed the Second Battle of Chuenpi ‒ which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the British.
China’s losses were horrifying ‒ 277 killed, 467 wounded, 100 captured, 11 ships destroyed and 191 guns captured.
Just 38 British troops were wounded.
Mr Paxman explained: “Britain’s first ocean-going iron warship the Nemesis, built in Liverpool, was sent out to take on the Chinese emperor’s navy.
“It helped destroy much of it in a single afternoon.
“This was the modern world confronting an ancient one ‒ sailing junks against steam-driven gun boats.
“The Chinese had no choice but to surrender and to open five ports to British trade.
“China had been forced to enter the modern global economy.”
To this day, Chinese school pupils are taught about the Opium Wars ‒ and the year 1839 is considered the beginning of modern Chinese history.
The tactics employed by the British, inflicting naval and gunnery power to devastating effect, was later dubbed “gunboat diplomacy”.
In 1842, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking ‒ the first of what the Chinese later called the unequal treaties ‒ which granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to British subjects in China, opened five treaty ports to British merchants, and ceded Hong Kong Island to the British Empire.
The failure of the treaty to satisfy British goals of improved trade and diplomatic relations led to the Second Opium War ‒ fought between 1856 and 1860.
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