Addicted to Profit and Power:
The Ideological and Material Basis of British Motivation in the First Opium War
Few episodes in Britain’s 19th century better represent the Victorian ethos than the Opium Wars, a manifestation of the era’s positions on white supremacy, political economy, and international relations. The moral precariousness of this campaign is self-evident and irrefutable, predicated on racist avarice. Ostensibly, the British Empire fought not one, but two wars in defense of its right to traffic an addictive drug to a population it regarded as lesser. Such a plain motivational framing, however, is far too simple to be adequately explanatory. Britain’s motivation in the Opium Wars had both material and ideological underpinnings centered on the primacy of two key Victorian principles: free trade and imperial sovereignty, or profit and power. Supporters of the war saw it not only as philosophical advocacy for free trade or as a means of reducing a trade deficit, but also as necessary for the defense of Britain’s honor on the world stage. To be clear, this is not to say that Britain’s orientalist greed was anything short of abhorrent; rather, it insists that such abhorrence deserves critical and nuanced examination.
The First Opium War (1839–1842) ended with resounding Chinese defeat, inaugurating an era painfully known in China as “The Century of Humiliation,” which lasted until Mao Zedong’s 1949 Communist Revolution. The Qing Dynasty was forced to sign a series of so-called “Unequal Treaties” that gave Europe control of crucial port-cities and stripped China of economic and military sovereignty. British victory, on the other hand, solidified its place as Europe’s hegemon and as global patrons of trade and empire. Alongside subsequent victory against Russia in the Crimean War, the superiority of Britain’s military and technology was clear, and the empire reached its apex. Nonetheless, the pillage of East Asia did not proceed without domestic British moral and political opposition both in Parliament and in popular society.
This paper will begin with historical background on Anglo-Chinese relations and will summarize the events of the First Opium War. It will then analyze the two central motivations for British involvement — namely the material and ideological commitment to free trade and the imperial ethos. Finally, it will highlight the sizeable domestic backlash in London before concluding. Owing to the paper’s limited length, its scope will remain focused on the first of the two Opium Wars while acknowledging that together, both constitute a unique period of British and Asian history.
British trade with China began around 1635 under the auspices of the East India Trading Company, which enjoyed a royal monopoly on trade with Asia that lasted until 1834. Fearing (with prescience) foreign influence and Western domination, China’s Qing Dynasty (1636–1912) created the “Canton System” in 1757, a regulatory framework that restricted foreign trade to the crucial port city of Guangzhou (or Canton) and established strict trade barriers for European merchants. British attempts to liberalize trade through “Gunboat Diplomacy,” or the coercive threat of naval force in pursuit of interstate goals, fell short. So too did less jingoistic attempts such as the 1793 ambassadorial mission of Lord Macarthur, who refused to “kowtow” (bow humbly) to the Chinese Emperor and was evicted from the capital. Culture clash begat diplomatic disappointment as foreign merchants grew impatient.
Although trade with a protectionist China was logistically complicated and disadvantageously expensive, there was remarkably high demand in Britain for Chinese goods such as silk, porcelain, and tea. There was not, however, corresponding demand in China for British goods, and Chinese merchants insisted on accepting only silver in exchange for their much-desired products. This resulted in a stark trade deficit that left Europe at a comparative economic disadvantage. European economies could only sustain this century-long trade deficit by relying on exploitative and extractive policies in the Global South that provided cheap silver, which at the time was the international reserve currency. The regional economic status quo was not in Europe’s favor. Eventually, Britain came to realize that it could rectify the trade deficit via the illicit smuggling and sale of opium from its Indian colonies, accepting only silver as payment for the drug. By 1838, Britain was selling over 1,400 tons of highly profitable and highly addictive opium to China annually. Opium represented Britain’s best hope for economic salvation in Asia, and the gospel of free trade alongside an imperial ethos provided it the justification needed to proceed with confidence.
Opium — which can be chemically processed into drugs like Morphine or Heroin — had been used medically in China since the Tang Dynasty (618–907), where it was first introduced by Arab merchants. By the 18th century, the adverse effects of opium addiction spread to every city and every class, threatening social, economic, and political stability. The Qing government issued an edict against opium use in 1780, banned it by 1796, and sought to stifle its trade by 1799. Despite opium’s criminalization, British merchants continued and even expanded their operations, resorting to smuggling and other illicit methods. To circumvent inspection, British merchants would store opium on boats known as “floating warehouses” and would bribe local administrative customs officials known as the Hoppo. Intransigent British merchants had no intention of curtailing their profits and the British empire had even less interest in curtailing its power. The stage was therefore set for a trade-based conflict between Britain and China.
The First Opium War
Precipitating Britain’s declaration of war was the dissolution of the East India Trading Company’s trade monopoly in 1834, which exposed China to a host of excited new merchants. Private investors such as Hugh Hamilton Lindsay, William Jardine, and James Matheson (of today’s Jardine Matheson, billion-dollar investment firm) soon became ultra-powerful smuggling magnates and enjoyed the backing of well-placed allies in Parliament. One such ally was Viscount Palmerston, perhaps the greatest patron of Britain’s involvement in the Opium War. Later a two-time Prime Minister, the nationalist Palmerston dominated British foreign policy for decades, serving on and off as Foreign Minister. Jardine’s influence was prominent enough to allow him to veto the appointment of protectionist George Staunton as “chief superintendent of trade,” instead favoring the (inexperienced, ill-qualified) free-trade advocate William John Napier, who got the job despite even the protest of Whig Prime Minister Earl Grey. Throughout the 1830s, British policy towards China was rapidly changing, becoming more hawkish under the reigns of investors like Jardine, Matheson, and Lindsay, and politicians like Palmerston. Increasingly, war seemed the preferred method of trade “negotiation.”
Coinciding with the quickly shifting political economy of Britain, Qing China also had a tumultuous decade. Opium served as an all-encompassing symbol of China’s plight during the reign of the Daoguang Emperor and was the most significant strain on China’s silver reserves, already drained due to a global silver shortage. Thus by the 1830s, officials had centered opium as the single most urgent problem threatening China. One idea, supported by local governor-general Lu Kun, scholar Lanxiu, and later Xu Naiji, was to legalize opium and thereby allow for more effective regulation and taxation. Legalization was ultimately rejected, however, and instead anti-opium enforcement grew more severe. In 1838, scholar Huang Juezi proposed a massive internal crackdown on opium use. In his mind, if there was no longer a demand for opium in China, the opium trade would cease to be a problem. This policy was favored by the emperor, who tasked the revered official Lin Zexu with the mission of suppressing opium use.
Lin Zexu’s campaign against opium took many forms and quickly began to resemble a moral or religious crusade. Perhaps no other primary source better illustrates the frustration and indignation felt by Chinese officials towards the British government than Zexu’s “Letter to Queen Victoria.” In it, he excoriates British trade policy, writing: “By what principle of reason should these foreigners send… a poisonous drug, which involves in destruction those very natives of China?” He also highlights the hypocrisy displayed, writing: “We have heard that in your own country opium is prohibited with the utmost strictness and severity — this is a strong proof that you know full well how hurtful it is to mankind. Since then you do not permit it to injure your own country, you ought not to have the injurious drug transferred to another country.” Zexu distributed propaganda throughout public spaces, with posters, songs, and literature warning of the dangers of addiction. Zexu also supported medical treatment for addicts, and most dramatically, would seize and destroy opium paraphernalia such as glass pipes on a massive scale. By 1839, Lin Zexu’s crusade was picking up steam and had led to severe anxieties among British traders and politicians. In the summer of that same year, Lin Zexu and his men entered a port warehouse at Humen and destroyed the entirety of Britain’s stored opium. When one man tried to preserve even a small amount of opium, he was immediately beheaded.
Britain used Lin Zexu’s destruction of the opium at Humen to serve as casus belli for a declaration of war. The British Cabinet, guided by Palmerston, authorized the deployment of gunships meant to extract reparations for the destroyed property. A battle-by-battle recounting of the First Opium War would be impossible in a paper of this scope, but the nature of certain campaigns, and the war’s conclusion, deserve attention. The war’s inaugural battle, known as the First Battle of Chenqui, occurred before the British Declaration of War and was more the result of miscommunication than anything else. According to one Chinese account, the British mistook the red flag on Chinese ships, meant to serve as a peaceful analog to Europe’s peaceful “white flags,” as a symbol of aggression. Subsequent battles were more intentional. The major campaigns were primarily naval, focused both on port cities and on rivers such as the Pearl and Yangtze.
British success was unambiguous and Chinese forces were drained. The Qing government finally sued for peace in the summer of 1842, and the war ended aboard the HMS Cornwallis with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. The Treaty of Nanking was the first of what were later called the “unequal treaties,” and it was a starkly one-sided document. The treaty forced the opening of China to greater foreign trade, destroying the Canton System and giving Britain control of five “treaty ports.” It also demanded that the Qing government pay reparations for the destroyed opium and for the costs of war. Notably, the treaty also ceded control of Hong Kong to the British, an agreement that lasted until 1997. The Qing Dynasty would never recover from this blow to its reputation, while the British Empire was stronger than ever. Now that we have explored the events of the First Opium War, we will establish why they took place.
The Gospel of Free Trade
The British 19th century is marked by the rise and soon the supremacy of perhaps its most influential ideological product: classical liberalism. Classical liberals such as John Locke, Thomas Robert Malthus, and David Ricardo drew on ideas first espoused by Adam Smith, known by some as the “father of capitalism,” in his famous tome “The Wealth of Nations.” At the core of these treatises was the efficacy of free trade as opposed to the outdated 18th century notions of protectionism and mercantilism. Among leading scholars and officials, there was an almost religious reverence to the idea of free trade and free markets, which were seen as key components of personal liberty and economic efficiency. As British political economist Sir John Bowring once wrote, “Free Trade is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is Free Trade.” It was becoming a moral imperative. Much as the French Revolution threatened the notion of monarchy, the Free Trade Revolution threatened the economic status quo. The British saw themselves as foot-soldiers on a crusade at the behest of free markets. Since opium was a product like tea or silk, its regulation was an affront to personal liberty and economic efficiency. After all, if Chinese consumers wished to purchase opium, why should their right to do so be infringed?
No event can display this trend better than the repeal of the Corn Laws and the agitation of the anti-corn-law league. The Corn Laws were a set of protectionist tariffs on imported food that were meant to bolster domestic food producers to the detriment of consumers who were now paying artificially higher prices for grain. As the gospel of free trade spread across Britain, the Corn Laws grew unpopular, and organizations formed to promote their repeal. In a decisive shift towards free trade, they eventually succeeded in 1846, defeating agrarian elites and destroying the conservative government of Robert Peel, who supported repeal against the wishes of his party. It was the gospel of free trade, too, that dismantled the East India Trading Company’s monopoly in 1834 and set the stage for subsequent fighting. One contributor to the Edinburgh Review wrote in 1831 that the monopoly “checks the spirit of improvement, paralyzes industry, and upholds ignorance and barbarism…” Despite the company’s unrivaled power, it was no match for the idea of free trade.
Ironically, free trade was promoted at gunpoint under the banner of world peace. One of the principal free trade publications known as Anti-Corn Law Circular frequently quoted political economic theory from Baron de Montesquieu who posited that “Two nations who traffic with each other, become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling, and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.” Another publication known as The Anti-Bread-Tax Circular published a rosy poem with one stanza that reads “Free trade, like religion hath doctrines of peace, Universal and God’s vital air; And throned o’er doomed evil, he hails its increase, While his enemies only despair.”
As Britain pillaged China, it did so under the banner of free trade. Many observers at the time, in fact, argued that opium itself was but a stand-in for the true, more general economic causes of the war. Former US President John Quincy Adams wrote that opium was “a mere incident to the dispute, but no more the cause of the war than the throwing overboard of tea in Boston harbor was the cause of the American revolution.” Still, it should be noted that there is nothing “free” about promoting trade behind the barrel of a cannon or a gun. Further still, it must be noted that “free trade,” despite its citations at the time, was not the only or even the most pressing cause of the First Opium War. It is difficult to the determine the degree to which free trade ideology was genuinely motivational, or whether it served as an innocuous veneer for a more insidious mission.
Honor and the Imperial Zeitgeist
At its core, the First Opium War was a product of empire. More specifically, it was the product of an unrelenting and unrepentant imperial ethos that saw opposition to it as a challenge to its honor and viewed imposed limits as an affront to its sovereignty. For many, the First Opium War needed to be fought not to protect economic profit or promote free trade, but rather at the behest of the British flag and the for the sake of her subject’s noble character, with “the flag” of course serving as a tangible symbol for patriotism and national pride. In this regard, there were three central imperial motivations for confronting the Chinese in 1839: the protection of British subjects and their property abroad, the defense of Britain’s honor, and the dominant position of empire in the British zeitgeist.
One of the most heavily cited justifications for war was the defense of British subjects and their property. British newspapers focused on highly sensationalized stories about the mistreatment of expatriated British merchants and especially their wives and children. Reports from trade commissioner Charles Elliot warned of “imminent hazard of life and property” and complained of a total Chinese “disregard for British honor.” Readers were horrified to hear their compatriot’s accounts of expulsion from port cities and insults levied against their families. In the Victorian era, women and children were placed on a pedestal of innocence and purity, rendering affronts to them especially objectionable. As one newspaper contributor submitted in response to these reports, “In the name of the dear glory and honour of old England, where are the councils which will [cleanse them], even if it be in blood, from the stains which barbarian insolence has so deeply tarnished them? Why are there not seen and heard there, by those incredulous and vaunting barbarians, the glare and thunder of our artillery?” There was a fear among settlers in other colonies like South Africa or India that should the British Crown fail to protect subjects in China, their own safety would be called into question.
Honor was another primary citation on the eve of war. In the Victorian imagination, it was honor that served as the prerequisite to virtue. Honor in Victorian Britain was more the result of strength than magnanimity, however, marrying virtue to force. In fact, once a gentleman had pledged action, he was to follow through with it despite its potentially disastrous consequences or else risk inviting shame. Such posturing is evident on a smaller scale through behaviors such as the duel, which remained a prominent method of settling disputes during this period. Even on the international relations stage, the reluctance to fight was characterized as cowardly instead of prudent. The use of violence became mandated once it was threatened, especially given the perceived Victorian linkages between credibility and reputation. As Lord Palmerston once wrote, “These states must not forget, when facing a British frigate, the Flag of England must be respected.” Palmerston and his contemporaries believed that only through violent coercion could this respect be demanded and received. As reports poured in detailing the mistreatment of British subjects, the government now had the additional task of redressing and rectifying these injustices – it was honor at stake. Were the British to fail to respond to provocations against their subjects or disruptions to their sovereignty, warned leading proponents of war, nothing less than the national pride was at stake.
Finally, it was in defense of empire and imperial sovereignty that Britain waged war on behalf of its right to traffic drugs across the globe. British merchants saw it as inherently unfair that they be barred from operating on Chinese soil with little consideration for the hypocrisy or unfairness of such claims. One trader called the restrictions “intolerable,” and another called it “grossly unjust and oppressive.” In general, sovereignty had become synonymous with whiteness. The European powers had operated for centuries now with the (misplaced and cruel) confidence of racial superiority. Countries in Africa or Asia were excluded from the “family of [sovereign] nations” by way of “inferior standards of civilization.” Therefore, when China attempted to enforce its own laws on its own territory, this was seen as somehow offensive. Those passionately promoters of empire refused to accept even minor limits to its purview.
Domestic Opposition in Britain
The domestic reaction to war with China was hardly uniform. Both in society and in parliament, detractors took issue with the campaign’s repugnance and harped on its human cost. Many of the war’s opponents took issue, both in newspapers and in public conversation, with the idea of fighting on behalf of “drug dealers.” There was a growing chorus in Victorian society to abstain from substances like opium or alcohol, which were seen as lowly and ill-suited for respectable citizens. Some of the war’s opponents compared the plight of opium addiction to that of slavery, such as the Leeds Mercury newspaper, which published an article saying, “There is no slavery on earth to name with the bondage into which Opium casts its victims.” The Chartists, a pro-worker, anti-elitist social movement, opposed the war on the grounds that it was unjust, and even went as far as to praise China’s administrative anti-opium policies. Some opposition took a less moral form, focusing instead on unintended practical consequences. There was a concern among some traders that a British war against China would foster anti-British hostility among would-be Chinese consumers of British products, a counterintuitive threat to profit. There was also a concern that other territories would witness China’s plight and adjust their own trade and security policies.
The government’s war effort was met with significant political backlash too, as parliamentary debate from the era illustrates.  Future Prime Minister William E. Gladstone wrote in his diary, “I am in dread of the judgments of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China.” He even went as far as to publicly declare on the floor of parliament: “A war more unjust in its origins, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of.” When Lord Palmerston’s motion for war was put up for a vote, it passed only by the thinnest of margins (271–262) and against the strong objections of the Tories in the minority. Still, while the margin was thin, the effects of its passing were pervasive. While it is important to document the (sizeable) domestic opposition to Britain’s campaign against China, it is also important to note that the campaign proceeded regardless.
In a vacuum, the idea that the world’s most powerful nation would plunder a flailing and impoverished dynasty on behalf of the drug trade appears indomitably cruel and paradoxical for a nation that prided itself on honor. In context though, while indomitable cruelty remains, paradox disassembles. The British waged the First Opium War with explicable and documented motivations: the defense of power and profit. Opium from India allowed British merchants to rectify the Anglo-Chinese trade deficit and bridge the silver gap. Further, British society was overwhelmed by a quasi-religious adherence to ideas such as free trade, honor, and imperial sovereignty. Their definitions of these terms possess an inextricable Victorian character, though, and it is this distinct Victorian ethos that created the space for seminal episodes in world history like the Opium Wars.
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