The First Anglo-Chinese War as an Opium War

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The First Anglo-Chinese War as an Opium War

The Chinese customarily calls the Anglo-Chinese War 1839-1842 the

Opium War because from their point of view, the opium trade was the

main cause of the war. From the British standpoint, the motive for the

war was not opium prohibition but rather the repeated insults and

humiliation; the British had received from the Chinese government.

They claimed that the conflict between China and Britain had been

brewing for many decades. Even without opium, it would still have been

erupted as a result of their differing conceptions of international

relations, trade and jurisdiction. According to their view, the opium

prohibition was merely its precipitating, immediate cause, but not the

importance of opium in contributing to the war. It was opium that

strained the Sino-British relationship, deepened their quarrels and

finally acted as a spark that led to war. Of course, besides opium,

there were other underlying causes too; the cultural conflict claimed

by the British, may also be one of these causes.


Opium trade was important to both Chinese and the British. For the

Chinese, since opium smoking for pleasure was known, there was a

growing demand for this drug. This led to increased foreign

importation and to native cultivation in Szechuan, Fukien as well as

other provinces. After the abolition of the East India Company’s

monopoly of the China trade, there was a further extension of opium

traffic in China. It was estimated that the total number of smokers

was somewhere between 2 and 10 million – more than 1% of the Chinese


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... the surrender of the guilty. The

discontent engendered by the Canton System could not be expressed to

the Peking authorities for these was the absence of diplomatic

representation between the two countries and the improvement of the

system on a peaceful basis was totally impossible.

Attempts had been made to ameliorate unsatisfactory Canton System of

trade. The Macartney Mission1793, the Amherst Mission 1816 and the

Napier Mission 1834, however, all these attempts ended in failure. It

seemed that peaceful negotiation was impossible to heal up the wound.

The only one alternative left was by force. Therefore, even though

opium suppression was to some extent important to the contribution of

outbreak of war, the ultimate cause of the war was not this drug, but

rather the cultural conflicts between the East and the West.