1800-1859 | Opium

Cabinet backs war with China after opium traders are held hostage

Commissioner Lin Zexu –
A Murray(1843)/Wikimedia

[ 1 October 1839 ]

On 1 October 1839, the Cabinet decided on a war with China after the Emperor’s Special Commissioner at Canton, Lin Zexu, enforced an imperial decree banning the trade in opium and took several traders and British officials hostage until the 20,000 chests of the drug on the ships anchored offshore were handed over. It was a bitter humiliation for Britain. Among the officials seized was his honour the cock hated Chief Superintendent of Trade, Charles Elliott.

The Chinese supplied their hostages with sufficient food, plenty of wine and beer and even arranged for their laundry to be cleaned, but until their servants were allowed back, they had been obliged to scrub their own floors, but the most unforgivable crime of all was forcing them to sign pledges agreeing that any further involvement in the opium trade would be sufficient grounds for their execution.1 Perhaps, not a particularly outrageous reaction by the standards of the time, when several non violent offences, including sodomy, remained a capital offence in Britain and where you could be executed merely for sheep stealing or sacrilege as late as 1832.

There was significant popular opposition in Britain to the prospect of a war to enforce the opium trade and after an initial bout of anti-Chinese hysteria, some sections of the press became increasingly sober and pacifist in tone. Several papers cited a Mr King, an American trader based at Canton, who expressed his opinion that Lin Zexu’s edicts had been ‘firm, temperate and successful’ and that he had given the opium dealers ‘abundant and reiterated warning.’2 Even the normally hot blooded Morning Post declared that ‘in demanding the surrender of opium… the Chinese disgraced not the British flag – it was disgraced before !,’ adding ‘Let us wipe away the self-incurred stain, and declare it shall never again darken the magnificence of our standard, by weakening its moral influence.’3

It was, however, not moral but rather business and financial concerns which won the argument. As the Belfast Christian Patriot observed, the East India Company, which effectively ruled the subcontinent, had ‘obliged the best land in India to be devoted to the growth of the poppy.’ It explained that ‘the wretched East India Ryot (peasant farmer) could only refuse at the peril of loosing his land, and when raised, it was taken from him at whatever price the company chose to fix (and) transported in immense quantities to the shores of China.’4

The Morning Herald was equally sceptical of the official line that Britain was merely defending the honour of its detained citizens, citing a letter asking ‘Does it not appear ridiculous that on the one hand Captain Elliott delivers up 20,000 chests to the Chinese government, while on the other hand, the Indian governments are bringing upwards of 40,000 chests to be sent to the same quarter ?’ Mistrust and dissent were widespread across the country, but the public disquiet failed to deter the government or to halt the warships already on their way to attack China which, as the Herald noted had ‘no effective means of resisting our dishonourable aggression.’5


  1. Robert Bickers, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914, Penguin Books, London, 2012 p. 81.
  2. ‘The Opium Trade,’ The Leeds Mercury, 23 November 1834, p. 7 and ‘The Opium Trade,’ The Dublin Weekly Herald, 30 November 1839, p. 3.
  3. ‘The Opium Question,’ The Morning Post, 2 December 1839, p. 6.
  4. The Belfast Christian Patriot cited in ‘The Opium Smugglers,’ The Liverpool Mercury, 27 December 1839, p. 2.
  5. The Morning Herald cited in ‘The Opium Trade,’ The (London) Standard, 26 December 1839, p. 3.

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