The British opium trade in China started the world’s very first drug war, in the 19th century. Known as the Opium War, many people also refer to it as the Anglo-Chinese War. Opium is a preparation made from the juice of poppy seedpods, and used to produce heroin. The drug was mainly produced in and shipped from the East Indies to China by British merchants. This addictive drug had gotten many Chinese badly hooked by the early 1800s. In the 15th century, when opium was first introduced to China, it was used as medicine to treat diseases such as dysentery, cholera, as well as diarrhea. It was not until 1700 that the British introduced China to the process of mixing opium with tobacco so that it could be smoked. During the 18th century, Chinese green tea became very popular, and high in demand among Europeans and Americans. Chinese porcelain, as well as Chinese silk, were also very popular in the Western countries. . On the British side Since the eighteenth century, the Chinese government had imposed severe restrictions on foreign trade, and was both suspicious and contemptuous of foreigners. At Guangzhou (Canton), which the East India Company, under a charter from the Crown, likewise had a monopoly of trade with India and China. The E.I.C. purchased silks and tea from the Chinese but had little to offer in return except silver. Two developments in the 1830s undermined this relatively stable 'Canton system': the significant expansion of opium smuggling and the rise of free-trade imperialism. Opium poppy cultivation had long been established in India and had provided an important source of revenue to the Moghul Emperors. In 1761 the E.I.C. obtained a monopoly over the opium production of British India, and soon afterwards the drug began to be shipped to China as part of the Company's triangular trade between India, Guangzhou and Britain.. Since the Chinese government had repeatedly banned opium smoking, the E.I.C. preferred to sell its production at annual auctions in Calcutta to licensed private firms so as not to jeopardize its legal trade in tea. The 'country traders' shipped the drug in specially built and heavily armed opium clippers to fortified receiving ships permanently stationed off the coast of southern China. From these floating warehouses the illicit cargoes were transferred to multi-oared 'fast crabs' and 'scrambling dragons', crewed by Chinese pirates who took the opium to coastal and riverine depots where bribed officials permitted the drug to be unloaded for distribution along extensive smuggling networks run by gangsters and Triads. The opium traffic was of considerable economic importance to the British. The profits from the E.I.C.'s auctions contributed significantly to the revenue of the government of British India, to the British government itself via tax on imported tea from China, and of course to the traders themselves. From the 1820s onwards British trade with China was in surplus, as the huge outflow of silver used to buy opium greatly exceeded the money the traders paid for Chinese tea. In 1834 the E.I.C. monopoly of trade with China ended and all mercantile activities were now in the hands of more aggressive private British (as well as Parsee and American) firms, Jardine Matheson & Co being the most important. This was in line with the laissez-faire thinking that underlay the Industrial Revolution and the general expansion of British commerce. China was viewed by the private merchants at Guangzhou, as well as the industrial capitalists back home, as a vast potential market with boundless economic opportunities, if only the Chinese government were to remove their deliberate obstructions.
The British merchants’ incentive for importing opium from India to China was to balance out their tea trade with China, and to stop the silver and gold from draining in what could have been a one-sided trade. The British had to use gold and silver because China was a self-sufficient country and...
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