Opium war: How one man influenced China-Britain 1840s war


How one man influenced the China-Britain 1840s war. FILE PHOTO

The first Opium War in China was fought between 1840-42. The war was fought as a result of the Chinese officials' attempts to suppress the opium trade within their borders.

Opinions differ on why Britain went to war with China. Some believe that Britain wanted to preserve and expand its trading privileges there.

Others theorise that the war was the result of Britain wishing to defend its national honour after Lin Zexu, the Imperial Commissioner, destroyed 20, 000 chests of British opium.

However, while each of these theories bears some element of the truth, they ignore the role played by the man, who in the real sense, was the driving force behind the war.

William Jardine (1784-1843) was a Scottish physician, opium merchant and trader who co-founded the Hong Kong-based conglomerate Jardine, Matheson & Co. Jardine was a resident of China from 1820 to 1839.

His early success in Canton as a commercial agent for opium merchants in India led to his admission in 1825 as a partner in Magniac & Co., and by 1826 he controlled that firm’s operations in Canton.

James Matheson joined him shortly afterwards with Magniac & Co. reconstituted as Jardine, Matheson & Co. in 1832.

The two men quickly engaged in the lucrative, though illegal, opium trade and began importing the drug into Canton.

By 1830-31, when Jardine and Matheson entered the trade, the total chests shipped increased to 18,956. Jardine and Matheson alone had disposed of more than the entire import of 1821 in their first year.

In 1833, Jardine and Matheson got their wish when the British Parliament abolished the East India Company’s monopoly.

The following year, 40 percent more tea was shipped to Britain than the previous year, and as expected the sale of opium continued its meteoric rise.

Between 1830 and 1836 the number of opium chests shipped into China increased from 18,956 to 30,302. Jardine and Matheson certainly profited immensely from this growing demand for opium in China.

This huge influx of opium into China and the devastating effect the drug was having on its citizens did not escape the attention of the Chinese Emperor, and in 1836 he issued an edict banning the importation and use of opium.

That same year the governor of Canton, Deng Tingzhe, arraigned nine prominent merchants on drug trafficking charges, William Jardine among them.

However, Jardine simply ignored the order and went unpunished. A conflict between the British merchants and Chinese officials was brewing.

Jardine stoked the coals to the growing crisis with his involvement in what came to be known as “Napier’s Fizzle.”

In 1834, the British government appointed Lord William John Napier as Chief Superintendent of Trade.

When he asked to meet with Viceroy Lu Kun, he was told he could only deal with the Cohong, a group of Chinese merchants.

The Chinese viewed the British as barbarians and unworthy of communicating directly with Chinese officials.

Upon hearing of Napier’s dismissal from Canton, Jardine advised resistance, believing that an open affront to the Crown’s representative would lead to public anger and military action.

By 1837, it was clear to the Chinese government that Jardine was prominently involved in the opium trade and they took measures to expel him and other unnamed “barbarians.”

In 1839, Lin confiscated and destroyed all the opium held by British merchants and ordered them to leave Canton.

Thereafter Jardine led a spirited campaign to wage war against China in petitions to the British government, parliament, and the general public through the press.

In the end, patriotism defeated isolationism and the proponents of sending a naval force to China won with a vote of 271 to 262.

Closely following Jardine’s suggested strategies, the British effortlessly captured the port of Tin-hai in October 1841.

Other battles ensued with similar outcomes and in the end, Britain lost an estimated 500 troops while the Chinese lost over 20,000 troops.

As one British officer remarked, “The poor Chinese had two choices, either they must submit to be poisoned or must be massacred by the thousands, for supporting their own laws in their own country.”

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