why was the opium trade so important to the british

By 1690, the Company had trading centres (known as 'factories') all along the West and East coasts of India. The main centres were at Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. The Company started to protect its trade with its own armies and navies - very different from most companies today. London also became an important trading centre, where goods were imported, exported and transferred from one country to another. The Company would have liked to pay for all its import goods with silver, but traders in England wanted them to export English manufactured goods. English and Chinese sea merchants had first met at the markets in Bantam - a long way from either country. The Company wanted to trade directly with China, but it was not until 1699 that the Chinese allowed the Company to trade at Canton. From China, the Company bought tea, silk and porcelain. The Chinese wanted silver in return. Over the next 100 years tea became a very popular drink in England, and there was a fear that too much silver was leaving the country to pay for it. To stop this happening, the Company became involved in a triangular trade by smuggling opium (a highly addictive and illegal drug) from India into China. The Company grew opium in India. They were looking for something that the Chinese would accept instead of silver, to pay for the goods they bought at Canton. Opium was a valued medicine which could deaden pain, assist sleep and reduce stress. But it was also seriously addictive and millions Chinese became dependent on the drug. Although opium smoking was a subject of fascinated horror for Europeans, the Company actually encouraged people to use the drug in China - sales of opium were extremely lucrative. As a result, millions of Chinese would die from opium addiction, and the very fabric of Chinese society was threatened.


After the Company's trade monopoly was abolished in 1834, smuggling of opium into China by European private traders intensified. The Chinese state was deeply disturbed at this and threatened force. Britain was prepared to defend 'free trade' and, in 1840, they went to war. These 'Opium wars' led to a humiliating defeat of the Chinese and a trade treaty which ceded Hong Kong to the British.
Despite Niall Fergusons efforts in 2003 to partially rehabilitate British imperialism in his bestselling Empire the subject still provokes angry debate. The recent revelations concerning the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices obliteration of archives dealing with British brutality in 1950s Africa and Malaya drew the Empires attackers and admirers into open combat. George Monbiot in the Guardian lambasted defenders of the imperial legacy, while Lawrence James in the Daily Mail argued that the Empire was a dynamic force for the regeneration of the world. The Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60 between Qing-dynasty China and Britain are a perfect case study of the international divergence of opinion that the Empire continues to generate. In China the conflicts the first between it and a western nation are a national wound: the start of a western conspiracy to destroy China with drugs and gunboats. In Britain the wars barely seem to register in public memory. It is perhaps in its attempt to provide a strong intellectual rationale for the Opium Wars that most clearly shows its age. It begins with a discussion of the ideological differences between the two sides: the British attachment to free trade and progress jibing with the traditional Confucian bias against merchants and commerce.


Many earlier western commentators tried to play down opium as the casus belli, asserting instead that a clash of economic and political cultures lay behind the conflicts. They sought a moral justification for wars that were essentially about protecting an illegal, profitable drugs trade. Audio: These days historians may prefer to focus on the amoral pounds, shillings and pence logic of the wars, arguing that they were about opium and the drugs unique ability to balance the books, rather than a more intellectually respectable collision of civilisations. John Wongs 1998 study of Britains second Opium War with China, Deadly Dreams, made clear Lord Palmerstons dependency on opium revenues throughout the middle decades of the 19th century. In light of the British addiction to Chinese exports (silk, ceramics and tea), opium was the only commodity that saved the British balance of payments with Asia from ruinous deficit. Marchant argues that mid-century British merchants in China believed that a just war should be fought to defend progress. In reality the British leaders of the opium trade through the 1830s and 1840s were far more interested in protecting their drug sales in order to fund lucrative retirement packages (one of their number, James Matheson, used such profits to buy a seat in Parliament and the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis). Marchant also portrays opium as an absolute blight on 19th-century China. Over the past decade, however, Frank Diktter, Lars Laaman and Zhou Xun have enhanced our understanding of late-imperial Chinas opium culture. They have moved away from the idea that opium turned any casual smoker into a pathetic victim and have instead portrayed with increasing subtlety the economic, social and cultural realities of its use in China.


Yet there is much in Marchants article that remains relevant. He captures nicely the childish blitheness of the young Queen Victoria to the war in China (Albert is so amused at my having got the Island of Hong Kong). He makes an important point, too, about the over-reliance of some earlier Anglophone historians on western sources and paradigms to interpret Chinese history and their neglect of internal Chinese factors. Until surprisingly recently, this remained a significant issue in Chinese studies. As late as 1984 an influential sinologist called Paul Cohen felt the need to call for a China-centred history: one that relied on careful work in Chinese archives and examined Chinese history on its own terms. As a result we have seen an impressive body of works emerge that have re-examined a succession of Sino-western encounters through sources from both sides. In the case of the Opium War the examination of Chinese materials has highlighted how split the court was on the question of an anti-opium crackdown; how chaotic and absent-minded the Qings military and diplomatic response was; and how politically complex ordinary Chinese reactions were to the British and the war. As doing research in China becomes easier and more archives open their collections to foreigners (although many materials from the 1960s and 1970s remain out of reach) the old bias towards western sources that Marchant acutely noted is happily becoming the stuff of history. Julia Lovell is Senior Lecturer in Chinese History at Birbeck, University of London and is the author of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (Picador, 2011).

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