Leaves & Beans of History: The Opium Wars, Part II

Posted on September 7, 2017 Blog | | No comments

In the previous installment covering the Opium Wars we saw how China held a monopoly on tea and how much Britain desired the leaves. In order to gain the much-needed silver required to purchase the Chinese tea the British East India Company started to grow opium in India. They would then sell it to smugglers who then sold it to the Chinese. This drug trade allowed the British to purchase the massive amounts of tea they needed, but opium was illegal in China, had created millions of addicts, and was costing the country millions in silver. Lin Zexu and Charles Elliot, the two men in Canton representing China and Britain respectively, had just crossed paths and literal tons of opium were destroyed as a result.

When It Rains…

After Lin’s destruction of the 20,000 chests of opium Elliot still refused to sign the bond pledging to no longer import opium on pain of death. And to be fair, he had his reasons. First, doing so would have forfeited almost sixty years of British effort for extraterritoriality in China. Second, given how much of British trade was already tied up in opium agreeing to such a term would have meant revolt and violence from the merchants. So, on May 23rd 1839 Elliot retreated from the port of Canton to the Portuguese controlled trading port of Macao, ordered all British ships out of Canton, trade with the Chinese was to stop, and considered how to proceed.

Tensions remained high for the next month, and then on July 7th tragedy struck. A group of drunk American and British sailors destroyed a small temple and ended up beating a man who died the following day. Elliot did his best to smooth over this disaster and gave $1,500 to the victim’s family (either a bribe or earnest reparations). 1 Lin thought the situation simple and demanded the murder to be handed over to him for execution. Elliot though, thought it would be almost impossible to determine who specifically dealt the killing blow since it was a group of individuals involved. As such, he wasn’t about to hand a potentially innocent British citizen over to Chinese law. Instead, Elliot himself tried the six sailors who were known to be involved in the incident on his ship. He sentenced five of the six to paying fines and prison terms back in Britain. Unfortunately, the British judiciary ruled that Elliot did not possess such authority over British citizens, so the sailors were allowed to go free once they were back home.

How Elliot saw Elliot vs. How Britain saw Elliot

It’s unlikely Lin ever learned of their freedom, but regardless, the measures Elliot took did not placate him. Lin had demanded the sailors be tried by Chinese law since they killed a Chinese citizen on Chinese soil. When this order was not met, on August 15th he forbid any shopkeepers or merchants to supply the British with any provisions and started posting signs around Macao that water sources had been poisoned. By September 4th the British had been forced to retreat to a barren island that is now Hong Kong and after a brief exchange of cannon fire the Chinese acquiesced to reopen trade for food and water. However, nothing else was settled.

Up until this time, both Lin and Elliot had been acting largely independently, but also communicating with their superiors. However, while Lin (and the emperor’s attendants) seemed to only tell the emperor of inflated victories and how outmatched the British were, Elliot was more up front about the circumstances. Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, whether motivated by the principles of free trade, pressure from the opium merchants who were promised compensation for their destroyed property, or the knowledge that Britain depended on the continuing trade of opium and tea, had started to marshal armed forces in India.

Elliot was informed of this on October 20th 1839, and that the forces would arrive early next summer. 2 This helped him remain resolute to not sign the bond that would give China the authority to execute any British merchants caught dealing in opium, and that trade should remain suspended. However, some ship captions either did not know about the suspension or didn’t care. One such ship, the Thomas Coutts, was only carrying cotton and the captain signed the bond without hesitation. Elliot knew he couldn’t let this stand and so formed a blockade to stop any other British ships from entering the harbor.

A curious chain events then took place on November 2nd and 3rd 1839. On the 2nd, another British ship, the Royal Saxon, approached the blockade with intentions of signing the bond and trading. One of the ships in the blockade, the Volage, fired a warning shot across the bows of the Royal Saxon. The admiral of the Chinese navy heard the shot and saw the merchant vessel approaching. Since the British blockade was technically illegal in China he sent his ships out to both protect the merchant ship and prove they still had control of their own harbors. When the blockade saw the Chinese war junks bearing down on them Captain Henry Smith asked to engage, but Elliot did not give the order until the following day, November 3rd. When the British ships opened fire they tore into the Chinese war junks. One of the ships had it’s powder storages hit and blew up spectacularly, sending wood, water, and fire through the air. 3 Only the Chinese admiral’s ship stayed and continued the fight after all the others had either retreated or were sunk. The British ships ceased their fire to let the defeated admiral return upriver and they sailed for Macao. This result would be shadows of things to come.

Knife To A Gun Fight

In June of 1840 the armed forces Palmerston had written of arrived in Chinese waters. 4 However, they did not descend upon Canton. Instead, on July 1st they appeared again off the shores of the island of Zhoushan, almost nine hundred miles northeast of Canton and one hundred miles southeast of Shanghai. 5 The British strategy was to cut off the capital’s food supply by taking control of the south-east coast, where it would ship from Nanjing via the Grand Canal. Representatives of both countries met twice, once on each other’s ships. The British laid out their demand for the Chinese to surrender the island peacefully or suffer the consequences. The people of Zhoushan argued they had done nothing to the British and that it was Canton where they should wage their war. They could see they were outmatched, but honor would not let them simply stand down and cede the island to the British.

After several days of unsuccessful negotiating, at 2 pm on July 5th the British ships fired their first broadsides into the Chinese embankments. Elliot’s military secretary, Lord Jocelyn, described the event,

“…the crashing of timber, falling houses, and groans of men resounded from the shore…When the smoke cleared away a mass of ruin presented itself to the eye…crowds were visible in the distance flying in all directions.” 6

The ships only fired for nine minutes total. When the British and Indian marines landed on the beaches and charged into the town they were only greeted with corpses. Broken bows, arrows, and discarded cotton padded jackets used as armor littered the ground.

These one-sided victories for the British would repeat themselves at every engagement. The Chinese wooden war junks simply couldn’t stand up to the British copper plated war ships. In addition, this was the inaugural use of the first iron clad steam paddle ship named the Nemesis. Chinese forts and ships alike would be crushed by this heavily armed floating fortress that did not need proper winds or tides to maneuver.

The Chinese soldiers were out gunned as well. They were armed with only swords, spears, bows and arrows, and firearms that were from the 15th century. A lack of disciple, training, the ability to consolidate their much larger army, ill kept fortifications, and internal strife among the classes all factored into the one notion that both Chinese pro- and anit- war politicians could agree on: that their army was hopeless. 7


After capturing the island of Zhoushan the British had pushed only a little further inland when the emperor dismissed Lin Zexu and empowered another official named Qishan to negotiate. Qishan managed to convince Elliot to leave the south-east coast and return to Canton in order to discuss terms. After more than a month of negotiating with no results, on the morning of January 7th 1841, Elliot and the army bombarded the fortifications of Chuanbi, an island just south of Canton. The results were much the same here as they were on Zhoushan, only worse. The Chinese were easily overpowered again, but a line of propaganda that the British executed all their prisoners incensed the Chinese to throw themselves at the enemy or off of cliffs. In the end, almost 280 Chinese were dead and 462 were wounded. The British had no deaths and only 38 were wounded. 8 By the following morning the Chinese were ready to negotiate, and less than a month later a treaty was created. Sadly, this would not be the end of the wars.

In the closing installment covering the Opium Wars we’ll see how the first war finally came to an end, how the second war was very much like the first, and how they have affected China and tea to this day.

Matt Foster is the Wholesale Trainer at Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company in St. Louis Missouri. Barista Intermediate and IDP certified, he spends his days teaching and his nights reading and writing. He’s also competed on the regional and national levels of the US Brewer’s Cup. His other interests include intriguing cocktails, delicious food, adorable dogs, and traveling the world to find all those things to put his face in.

Contact at mattf@kaldiscoffee.com | Follow on Instagram


1. Ph.D. Hanes III, W. Travis and Sanello, Frank. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2002. pg. 60
2. Ph.D. Hanes III, W. Travis and Sanello, Frank. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2002. pg. 69
3. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 9
4. Keay, John. China, A History. Basic Books 2009. pg. 464
5. Ph.D. Hanes III, W. Travis and Sanello, Frank. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2002. pg. 91
6. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 110
7. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 115
8. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 133