3 June 1839 – Lin Zexu, an imperial commissioner of Qing China, orders the destruction of illegal opium imports which was being shipped by British traders.  China had banned the import of opium in 1800 but until 1839, traders had been able to purchase supplies from the British East India Company managed auction market at Calcutta and then ship it to Chinese ports without any effective interference.  As a consequence the number of opium addicts in China soared and may have reached as many as twelve million by the late 1830s.

As the London Evening Mail commented in 1839 on the state of addiction in China

“There is no slavery on earth to name with the bondage into which opium casts its victim. There is scarcely one known instance of escape from its toils, when once they have fairly enveloped a man,” adding that “there is in opium once indulged in, a fatal fascination, which needs almost superhuman powers of self-denial, and also capacity for the endurance of pain, to overcome.”(1)

With the full backing of the Daoguang Emperor who ruled China, Lin seized over twenty thousand chests of Opium from British traders. The quantity was so huge, amounting to over one million kilos, that it took 23 days to dispose of it all by adding lime and salt into the opium and then flooding the mixture with sea water.  The British press now deemed that it was the Chinese who were the “barbarians” for seizing the merchants’ property without compensation and detaining British merchants. The Yorkshire Gazette commented

“Suddenly the whole British trade had an arrest placed on it; vessels containing unimpeachable cargoes were detained; and ruinous injury was done to many un-offending victims. Nay, more, a number of British merchants are now held in detention, held responsible, even with their lives…. Such conduct cannot be palliated, and these barbarians should be taught to respect the rights and property of those who trade with them.”(2)

A reader of the Manchester Courier wrote in to remind the paper’s readers that

“They (the Chinese) have committed a barefaced robbery. The government of this country will, it is to be hoped, call them to account in a summary manner,” and he recommended that “such signal punishment be now inflicted upon them as shall teach them a lesson for the future.”(3)

The Taunton Courier concurred

“Either our merchants must reside at Canton holding their heads at the will of every mandarin who walks up and down the streets, or else these miserable Asiatics must be taught that if they touch the hair of an Englishman’s head, they do it with the certainty of an English broadside rattling among their crockery houses within half an hour afterwards… If our government do their duty, as we expect they will, they will send a few frigates up the river… All the armies which the emperor could bring into the field would not stand for a quarter of an hour against the crews of a couple of English frigates.”(4)

The British opium smugglers, encouraged by such press support, demanded compensation from the British government, but the British parliament determined that it was the Chinese government who should pay for the loss and in the spring of 1840 dispatched an expeditionary force of sixteen warships.

An Irish commentator, writing in the Dublin Weekly Herald, expressed his astonishment as the ruthlessness of the British response.

“For half a century the English merchants have been gradually feeding the steadily increasing taste for opium in China, as if their object was to poison the population and to get possession of their land; and terrible as such an idea is, it is borne out by…. the threat to blockade the Chinese ports, and to declare war against the Emperor unless the smugglers be compensated – compensated by the very government whose laws, and most just laws, they have most disgracefully violated.”(5)


3 June 1832 – William Gladstone,  later to become one of Britain’s longest serving prime ministers, declares in his maiden speech to the House of Commons that although he “deprecated slavery; it was abhorrent to the nature of Englishmen; but conceding all these things were not Englishmen to retain a right to their own honestly and legally acquired property.”(6)



  1. “Opium Trade,” The Evening Mail,  21 August 1839, p3
  2. “The Opium Trade,” The Yorkshire Gazette, 23 November 1839, p7
  3. “Correspondence,” The Manchester Courier and Lancashire Advertiser, 12 October 1839, p5.
  4. “Recent Events in China,” The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 28 August 1839, p3
  5. “The Opium Traffic: Rumoured Blocakde of the Chinese Ports,” The Dublin Weekly Herald quoted in The Freeman’s Journal, 17 December 1839, p4.
  6.  Hansard, 3 June 1834, p335.



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