On a sultry summer evening in 1839, Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu stood on the shores of the strait known as The Tiger’s Mouth near Guangdong and watched as over 1,300 tons of opium, mixed with lime and salt water, flowed down the beach and into the Pearl River Estuary. As Commissioner Lin watched the toxic sludge flow into the bay, he said a small prayer to the Gods of the Ocean, asking their forgiveness for despoiling the purity of their water with the foreigner’s poison.
Opium had been in China for millennia. It was part of traditional Chinese medicine and was prescribed for a variety of ailments including as an aphrodisiac. It was ingested, usually as a liquor or soup, and while the dangers of excessive use were known, it was a commodity coveted by many including the court. The transformation of opium into the scourge of the China coasts begins not in the poppy fields of Bengal, but first with the incorporation of products from the American continents into world trade, notably tobacco.
As anyone who lives in Beijing can attest, people love to smoke and smoking has a history in China which dates to the 16th century. With the advent of the Trans-Pacific trade in goods, tobacco smoking quickly became popular along the coast of China, first among sailors and traders before spreading inland.
It wasn’t too long before people began looking into their pipes and asked, with all the enthusiasm of Justin Bieber’s entourage, what else can we stick in here, light on fire, and inhale? Smokers began mixing opium with tobacco and, somewhat inevitably, soon wondered why use the tobacco at all? Smoking created a new form of opium, compressed into pellets convenient for the pipe. It was easier to ship, easier to store, and easier to sell. 400 years before powdered cocaine gave way to crack, medicinal opium evolved into a highly potent and addictive new form. When combined with the demand of European and American traders for a product that could penetrate the China market and offset the bullion being spent on tea, porcelain, and silk, the opium trade was born.
As the amount of opium imports continued to climb in the late-18th and early 19th-centuries, the court issued edict after edict outlawing the sale, use, and importation of opium. But not everyone in the Qing government agreed that opium needed to be banned.
Xu Naiji was a Qing official who had served as prefect at Guangzhou. In 1836, he presented a memorial to the throne looking at the costs of interdiction and the benefits of legalizing the opium trade.
“Since the laws issued against opium are quite inoperative, the only method left is to revert to the foreign system, to permit the barbarian merchants to import opium paying duty…The barbarians finding that the amount of duties to be paid on it less than what is now spent in bribes will gladly comply therein.” [NOTE: Translation is from The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. Pei-kai Cheng and Michael Lestz Eds. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999)]
Xu’s argument against interdiction was primarily economic. The trade in opium had resulted in a net outflow of silver from China, and this silver drain was one of the reasons for the Qing court to ban the trade in the first place. Xu was addressing the ironic consequence of such a ban: silver was flowing out faster than ever.
Previously, merchants would balance their payments for opium with other goods like tea and silk. The prohibition on opium moved the trade into the shadowy world of middlemen smugglers who had no time or the cargo space to exchange their drugs for crates of tea, a carton of porcelain, or bulk shipments of silk. They wanted silver. There were additional costs too, both real and moral, of official corruption to be considered. As in any prohibition where there was money to be made, traders and smugglers used their resources to buy and bribe officials to look the other way.
Few at court agreed with Xu’s solution to the opium problem. Many officials argued for the enactment of draconian laws to wipe out the use and trade of opium. Commissioner Lin was one of the most strident advocates of stricter enforcement of existing laws against the drug while also showing compassion for those afflicted by the scourge of addiction.
As Governor-General of Hubei and Hunan, Lin confiscated nearly 12,000 pounds of opium but also had prescriptions of opium issued to addicts to help gradually wean them off of the drug.
The Daoguang Emperor [r. 1820-1850] was so impressed that, in 1839, he dispatched Lin to Guangzhou with a mandate to stamp out the trade in opium.
Once in Guangzhou, Lin continued his tireless campaign against the drug. He arrested and executed dealers and smugglers, and forced merchants to sign bonds staking their fortunes that they would not deal in the opium trade. His men seized addicts and smashed their pipes. Once arrested, the addicts were organized into groups of ten and warned that if any one of them touched the drug again, all ten would pay the price. Think of it as AA with the death penalty.
Lin’s principled stand did not endear him to the foreign traders in opium. Much less so when he ordered them confined to quarters, and threatened them with far worse if they didn’t hand over their total stock of opium. When they finally complied, they did so by first signing the opium over to the British Superintendent of Trade, Charles Elliott. This act meant that what Lin destroyed wasn’t just any old stash of opium; this was the Queen’s opium. Elliott, who had been looking for a reason to use military force against the Qing government, figured that destruction of crown property would require restitution, restitution that the Qing court would never pay.
As 1839 came to a close, these two officials both thought they had the other in a box. Lin felt that the destruction of the foreign poison was the final victory, the culmination of a long struggle against the trade in opium. The emperor had already rewarded him by naming him Governor-General of Guangdong and Guangxi.
Elliott thought that he had found the perfect causus belli which mean a war with the Qing government bringing British military might to bear against the arrogant and recalcitrant officials at Guangdong. Both would turn out to be wrong. Within two years neither would be in their respective positions and the empires of Great Britain and the Great Qing would fight a war that would dramatically change the history of both countries.
Cover image from 陈宜超