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Opium Trade Between British India China History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Opium use dates back to the seventh century. It was grown in Asia and used for its medicinal properties to cure diarrhoea and relieve dysentery and cholera pains. China was introduced to this drug by the Arabs in the ninth century. (Feige, 2008) Its medicinal properties were clearly known in the thirteenth century. Its consumption started changing from medicinal to recreational purposes during the seventeenth century. It became a threat when people started smoking it as a mix of tobacco and opium. This is when the first policy banning the smoking of opium was passed by the Chinese emperor.

During the same period in India, the Mughal dynasty was extensively growing opium poppy and doing profitable trade with China and East Asia. This trade was a large source of revenue for the Mughal dynasty. As the downfall of the Mughal Empire started in 1658, the British through the East India Company took over the major cultivation and production of opium.

Economics of trade

The British formally started illegal trade with China in 1673. A form of triangular trade started between British, China and India where in commodities such as silver, tea and opium were bartered between the countries. This trade strategy was a smart scheme by the British to gain personal benefits. During this trade, India was merely an instrument for the British to produce the opium that they intended to sell to china in return for tea and silver which was exported to Britain. China played a major role in this trade as it was the sole producer and consumer of tea and opium involved in the trade. The East India Company occupied the Indian states of Bihar and Bengal and expanded trade through the port of Calcutta. (Zhong,2010, 86-105)

Even though opium smoking was banned except use for medical reasons with licence in 1729 by the Chinese government, illegal smuggling continued. Despite these efforts opium use was increasing significantly and gradually spread from the coasts to the centre of the country. The Chinese officials had become corrupt and excepted bribes from the traders. The British took advantage of this situation and occupied the port of Canton and Macao. After this sudden increase in the use of opium, in 1796, the port of Canton was banned for trade. But this did not last for long as the British did not withdraw. The British started selling opium at the port of Calcutta to local merchants from China who illegally traded the opium into China. During 1830-1839, the entire southern coast of China was under the British monopoly. The Chinese emperor kept reiterating the policies regarding import of opium, smoking and illegal trade throughout the period from 1821 to 1838. During the later periods, death penalties were also imposed on the illegal drug traders. (Wakeman, 1978)

In Britain during this time, the parliament decided to control the trade with China directly through the Crown and not through the East India Company. Representatives from the crown went to convince the Chinese emperor to open trade at Canton and make opium trade legal. The emperor denied this and further in 1839, released a 39- article statute. This stipulated at banning opium at the ports and arresting the consumers to get to the illegal traders. It was a stricter edict that aimed at punishment of the smokers and the traders both locally or internationally. This plan failed as all the informers and officials were associated with the trade and weren’t ready to surrender.

After many failed attempts to control the trade, the Emperor decided to send Lin Zu-xe to control the trade in the ports of canton. Lin Zu-xe took extreme steps to stop the illegal trade by burning the British opium and trying to destroy the British ships. This led to the First Opium War which lasted from 1839 to 1842. This war resulted in the defeat of Lin’s army and the signing of the “Treaty of Nanjing”. This treaty was a successful attempt by the British to take advantage of China’s weakness and demean them further. The treaty opened various ports to the British, Chinese monopolies were removed and ultimately China was completely opened to the west. (Wakeman,1978)

By 1853, the exports from china surpassed the imports by the British. The British had to look for strategies to balance out the trade in the triangular trade. They took tea, spices, silk and silver from the Chinese and in return increased the amount of opium imported. The British stressed on promoting the use of opium to increase its demand. Slowly the relations between the Chinese government and the British became extremely coarse and this led to the Second Opium War (1856-1857). The successors of the Chinese emperor also opposed this illegal trade and fought the British but in vain. The joint army of British and French fought this war and defeated the Chinese. The Chinese, humiliated again, had to sign the “Treaty of Teintsin”. This treaty opened some more ports to the west and also asked china to pay the victory allies silver for their victory. The Chinese protested and denied this payment. The British and French forces marched into Peking and attacked the palace. The Chinese were defeated and signed the “Treaty of Peking” which finally legalized opium. (Sheng, 2007)

Worst affected victim- China

The Chinese government was incapable of protecting its country from this social menace and from the influence of the west which ultimately led to legalizing a dangerous drug. The fundamental forces that led to this include Chinas own weaknesses that worsened during this time and to the major influence from the British.

Firstly, China as a country was devastated during the 18th century. The Chinese emperors were against foreign trade from the beginning and were true supporters of Chinese culture. They opposed any kind of trade and barter of goods with the so call “western barbarians”. (Sheng, 2007) But they were unsuccessful in imposing strict state policies against opium. Even though many serious edicts were issued, the illegal trade continued till it became legal in 1860. Every time the Chinese government retaliated to this kind of illegal trade, the British fought the “opium wars” and retained its trade monopoly by forcing the Chinese government to open its ports. Also the trade was depleting China of all its resources of silver and spices. The incapacitated Chinese government was economically and financially not able to support itself and the finances of the war that they had to legalize opium to collect taxes that would help pay for the war losses. Also, the country had to deal with floods and communal unrest during the same period.

There was a vast difference between the rich and the poor in China during this time. The population on the coasts of china was getting richer due to the illegal trade as they sold the goods for trade at extremely high prices. On the other hand, labour class was extremely poor. They were morally and financially very weak to support themselves. They were the major proportion of population that resorted to opium use and became addicts. This addiction increased as opium was very cheap and easily available in the markets. This was when opium was used merely to forget the reality and not for any medical reasons. Even though there were various policies against opium, none of them actually worked because along with the locals, the government and military officials were also corrupt and part of this illegal trade. (Sheng,2007)

Secondly, the black-market trade by the British was a driving factor for the spread of this drug. Tea had become a serious commodity for the English and they wanted to increase the imports of Chinese tea. The British captured the port of Calcutta that made it easy to exchange goods between China and India. Initially, the British took tea from china in return for opium. Later their demands were silk and spices in exchange of more opium. The British bribed and bullied china to continue and strengthen their new illicit enterprise. Whenever they sensed resistance from china they fought them to sign one sided treaties. Their major motive was to increase their revenue. The British had already occupies India and wanted complete trade monopoly with China. If they could accomplish that then they would dominate East Asia.

One key ethical issue of this trade was that the British had ignored the fact that this dangerous drug was being banned in their own country even when they were illicitly trading it into China to make as much money was they could from this trade. Their visible intention was to exploit this trade in a way to gain maximum profits from it regardless of its affects on the other nation. All the opium from India was being dumped into China. Therefore, opium was a commodity for the Chinese but later it became a forced commodity which was being forced by the British.

Therefore, China was facing a severe opium problem which had to be addressed internationally. It was the responsibility of the countries that had deposited tonnes of opium into China and degraded the country’s economy and culture, to amend the mistakes made over the years. The issue deserved an international response through world-wide laws on production and consumption of opiates. International conventions were finally set and laws were formulated in a global context to finally control the narcotic drugs.

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