The Opium War in China, Nemesis, and Consequences

From the lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The Opium War in China began as a conflict between Britain and China over the import of opium, but its consequences were felt in several other nations. China had to deal with crisis after crisis until the reform that people had initially aimed at finally happened. But at what cost?

A painting of a port at Hong Kong in the early 1840s
All the imperialist forces came together against China and crushed the nation of long-held civilization. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Nemesis, the Industrial Symbol at War

China had decided to ban the opium trade. Emperor Daoguang put Commissioner Lin Zexu in charge of Canton to end the trade. Even though the British superintendent of trade in Canton, Captain Charles Elliot, was also against opium trade and helped Lin, conflict rose high, and the war began. The Opium War in China had a touch of the Industrial Revolution.

War broke out in Canton, where foreign trade was made. The British ships attacked, and they brought along Nemesis, built by the EIC: an iron steamboat, the first oceangoing steam warship, 184 feet long, weighing 660 tons, powered by two mighty engines, and heavily armed. This sea monster blew up Chinese coastal forts at the Pearl River and sank comparably smaller war junks. In1842, the emperor gave in and declared defeat, signing the Treaty of Nanjing.

Learn more about the great voyages of Admiral Zheng He.

The Treaty of Nanjing

The treaty did not mention opium, but it was mainly about the drug. As a result, more treaty ports were opened to Britain (Shanghai, Amoy, Foochow, and the island of Ningbo), the foreign traders were allowed to live in Canton, and the island of Hong Kong at the mouth of the Pearl River and its natural harbor was given to the British. Hong Kong was a massive trading and military outpost of the British, until 1997.

Statue of Lin Zexu, a Chinese scholar-official of the Qing dynasty
Commissioner Lin Zexu was in charge of Canton, where China traded with foreigners. He tried very hard to stop the opium trade. (Image: Victor Jiang/Shutterstock)

The other outcomes of the treaty were:

  • Foreigners were not subject to Chinese courts but to the jurisdiction of the imperialist powers.
  • The autonomy established increasingly through the Peace of Westphalia was to be denied to China.
  • China had to pay for the war and the 1,700 tons of opium destroyed by Lin.

The British had to celebrate. However, not all British people would take part in the celebration. Many hated the hypocrisy of celebrating British rule while denying other countries equality. The condemn rose higher when the second Opium War broke out.

Learn more about the Treaty of Westphalia.

The Second Opium War

Image of British and French fleets attacking Chinese forces in the Hai river (formerly Pei-Ho).
China did not stand a chance against the opponents, and the treaties after the Opium Wars suppressed it further. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

In 1856, as the British officials were looking for a way to revise the earlier agreements, they found The Arrow – a pirate ship formerly registered by Britain, used by the Chinese smugglers and pirates. When Chinese authorities seized it, Britain sent another expeditionary force joined by a French force. Canton was quickly occupied.

In 1858, the import of opium was legalized by a treaty, and ten more treaty ports where opened. Europeans, especially missionaries, were allowed entry to the rest of China. In 1860, an Anglo-French expedition came into Beijing, burning down Emperor Xianfeng’s Summer Palace to teach him not to think about revising the treaty.

The British looted many artworks and furnishings, along with an imperial Pekinese dog for Queen Victoria. The dog was named ‘Looty’ to show it was looted. China was paying a high price to retain peace.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Taiping Rebellion

To add another challenge for China, a religious visionary claiming to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother, started the Taiping Rebellion. It lasted from 1851 to 1864, until it was suppressed with the blood of 20 million people. It was a massive loss for Chinese society, and the young intellectuals decided to act. The problem they wanted to solve was how to fight back and throw off outside control.

Sound of Success from Japan and India

Between the two Opium Wars in China, Japan created its own modernity using Western technology and ideas. Thus, it was not treated as China was.

The next imperialism defeat sound came from the British East India Company. In 1874, the company was officially dissolved after 274 years. However, none of this promised peace to China.

In 1894, Japan defeated China in a war over Korea. The Chinese revolted in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 but were violently suppressed by a joint force from Britain, France, Japan, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the United States.

What Happened in the End?

By 1914, three-quarters of the globe were seized by European imperialist powers. The psychological effects of the suppression were devastating in countries like China, and the weaknesses of imperialism were always there but concealed.

The sense of civilization that the Chinese used to have was immediately replaced with a sense of weakness and humiliation. In the 19th century, the spark to a big change snapped: The ideas of Darwin probed the origins of the human race. It is a different story, but history connected the Opium Wars in China to the unification of all the contradictory imperialist power to the essential question of what it means to be human.

Common Questions about the Opium War in China

Q: What was Nemesis in the Opium War?

The Opium War in China was strongly affected by the Industrial Revolution. Nemesis was the name of the iron steamboat – the first oceangoing warship – and heavily armed.

Q: What was the Treaty of Nanjing?

A short while after the Opium War in China had begun, the British advanced to capture Shanghai. Thus, the emperor acknowledged defeat, and China signed the Treaty of Nanjing in1842.

Q: What was the Taiping Rebellion?

After the Opium War in China, the Taiping Rebellion raged from 1851 to 1864, to add another crisis to China. The revolt was against Manchu and led by a religious visionary who claimed he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother.

Q: When did the First War of Indian Independence happen?

In 1857, local troops recruited by the EIC in India rose in massive revolt, leading the whole country into an uprising. As a result, the 258-year British Company rule in India ended.

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