1800-1859 | Opium

Chinese destroy British opium leading to the First Opium War

“Opium Smokers”, China – Wellcome Library – J.A. Staunton – Our opportunity in China – 1912

3 June 1839

On 3 June 1839, Lin Zexu, an imperial commissioner of Qing China, ordered the destruction of illegal opium imports, which were being smuggled in increasing quantities 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’s auction market at Calcutta and then ship it to Chinese ports without any effective interference.  As a consequence, the number of addicts in China soared and, by the late 1830s, may have reached as many as twelve million. The London Evening Mail, reflecting in 1839 on the state of addiction in China, reported that ‘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 from British traders. Amounting to over one million kilos, 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 was, at least initially, almost unanimous in its fury, declaring that the ‘wretched Orientals’ were acting unlawfully by seizing the merchants’ property without compensation and detaining British merchants. Typical was an editorial in the Yorkshire Gazette insisting that ‘such conduct cannot be palliated’ and that ‘these barbarians should be taught to respect the rights and property of those who trade with them.’2 Similarly, a reader of the Manchester Courier explained in a letter to the newspaper 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…’4

The opium smugglers, encouraged by such support, demanded compensation from the British government, but parliament determined that it was the Chinese government who should pay for the loss and, in the spring of 1840, Britain dispatched an expeditionary force of sixteen warships. An Irish commentator, writing in the Dublin Weekly Herald, expressed his astonishment at the ruthlessness of the military 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


  1. ‘Opium Trade,’ The Evening Mail,  21 August 1839, p. 3.
  2. ‘The Opium Trade,’ The Yorkshire Gazette, 23 November 1839, p. 7.
  3. ‘Correspondence,’ The Manchester Courier and Lancashire Advertiser, 12 October 1839, p. 5.
  4. ‘Recent Events in China,’ The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 28 August 1839, p. 3.
  5. ‘The Opium Traffic: Rumoured Blocakde of the Chinese Ports,’ The Dublin Weekly Herald cited in The Freeman’s Journal, 17 December 1839, p. 4.

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