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During the eighteenth century, the demand in Britain for Chinese luxury goods, such as porcelain, silk and tea, created an enormous trade deficit because the British lacked any profitable product that they could export to China. In 1773, the East India Company found a solution by monopolising opium buying in Bengal, north-east India. In spite the Chinese law banning the importation of opium, British traders carried the narcotic to the coast of China where they passed it on to Chinese merchants who smuggled it into the country, bypassing the trade regulations that required all foreign cargo to be unloaded at Canton.

By the beginning of nineteenth-century, the Qing government in China, alarmed by the spread of addiction and the reversal of the trade deficit, attempted to halt the opium trade by making a decree in 1810. Yet, the vastness of the Chinese Empire made it difficult for the government to implement its laws, especially regarding the highly profitable opium trade, which continued to grow. Over the next ten years the amount of Bengali opium imported to China increased to nine hundred tons per annum (in 1773 it was seventy tons).

Finally, the Chinese government began to implement tougher policies – from 1838 native drug smugglers faced the death sentence. That same year the Emperor appointed a commissioner, Lin Zexu, with the moral zeal to stamp out the opium trade. He arrested around 1,700 Chinese opium dealers, demanded that foreign traders hand over their supplies of the drug, and that they promise not to deal in opium again on pain of death. The British trade commissioner Charles Elliot acquiesced to the first of these demands, persuading British traders to hand over about a quarter of a million pounds of opium, but would not accept that British subjects could be tried under Chinese law.

When negotiations between the Chinese and British failed, Elliot ordered the withdrawal of British traders from Canton, prohibited trade with China, and prepared for war. Having been thrown out of Macau by the Portuguese, at the request of the Chinese government, the British needed a new base of operations. On 23rd August 1839, the British occupied the then largely barren island of Hong Kong.

The conflict between Britain and China, known as the First Opium War raged for the next three years resulting in a decisive British victory. As part of the Treaty of Nanking, which marked the end of the war, the Chinese opened up more of their ports to foreign trade, compensated the British government and traders to the tune of over twenty million dollars, and ceded Hong Kong to the British Crown “in perpetuity.” In 1898, the two parties signed a new convention that changed the terms of the cessesion to a ninety-nine year lease, which ended in 1997 when sovereignty of the island transferred back to China.

In 1839, Commissioner Lin wrote a letter about the opium trade in China to Queen Victoria, which she never received. The text of the letter is available on the Modern History Sourcebook site.

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