By: Marc Immanuel

Published on: 25 June 2017

The 1839 Imperial Chinese Enforcement of China’s Law Against the Trade of Opium

In the 1830s, the Imperial Chinese authorities in Beijing became very alarmed by the increasingly degenerating situation in China due to the illegal opium trade, to the point that they decided to take forceful action and enforce the Imperial State law against the opium trade. In 1839, the Emperor of China, Emperor Daoguang [8th Emperor (1820-1850) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)], appointed scholar-official Lin Zexu to the post of Special Imperial Commissioner, with the task of eradicating the opium trade.

Zexu ordered measures to enforce a ban specifically on opium trade, while allowing other trade through Guangzhou port. [source1, source2 (part 2), source3 (part 3)]. Measures enforced by Zexu included the confiscation and destruction of opium at Humen [about 1,000 long tons (over 1 million kilograms)], which had been in the possession of primarily British and US merchants.

Following the Qing Government’s enforcement of the opium trade ban in 1839, the head of the British-US opium trade syndicate, William Jardine (1784-1843), led a war-lobbying campaign in London. He presented an invasion plan known as the Jardine Paper and successfully persuaded Britain’s Foreign Minister Henry J. T. Palmerston (known as Lord Palmerston) to support a British invasion of China.

[Palmerston held office in the United Kingdom’s Parliament as Foreign Minister during most of the period 1830-1851. After the period of the Opium Wars (1840-1860), he held the office of Prime Minister (1859-1865) until his death in 1865.]

The First Opium War

In June 1840, the British Military launched its invasion of the territory of China. More than 40 British warships blockaded the mouth of the Pearl River near Guangdong and launched the First Opium War [1839-1842 (first British Military act of aggression occurred on 3 November 1839)]. (source, pg 109)

[The term “Opium War” was a term initially coined by the Chinese.]

The First Opium War produced an estimated death toll of about 500 British soldiers and about 20,000 Chinese soldiers. The Chinese Army and Chinese civilians rose up to defend their homeland from the invading British forces. But the British forces, with their superior industrial arms, systematically massacred the Chinese resistance.

One useful example of the character of the war was the effortless British capture of the port of Tin-Hai in October 1841. According to the India Gazette: “A more complete pillage could not be conceived . . . the plunder only ceased when there was nothing to take or destroy.” The death toll: Three British soldiers, and about 2,000 Chinese people. (source1, Benjamin Cassan, pgs. 114-115; source2, “China’s Opium Wars”)

In August 1842, the British Royal Navy fleet arrived at the harbor of Xiaguan in Nanjing and declared that they would attack Nanjing city. The Qing Government yielded and pleaded for peace. On 29 August 1843, the Qing Government officially surrendered Chinese national sovereignty over the Chinese coastal region to Western imperialism, signing the Treaty of Nanking with the Government of the British Empire. (source, pg 110)

The Second Opium War

In 1856, the Western imperialist alliance launched a second war of aggression against the Chinese Empire [known as the Second Opium War (1856-1860)]. This was a joint British-French imperialist invasion.

The US Government officially claimed neutrality. However, the US Navy was involved in at least two battles against the Chinese forces — (1) the Battle of Pearl River Forts (1856) (in which US forces reported a casualty count of 7 soldiers killed and 22 soldiers wounded and Chinese forces casualties were reported to be between 250 and 500 soldiers killed or wounded), and (2) the Second Battle of Taku Forts (1859) (in which the US Navy supported the British-French forces in battle).

That second Western imperialist invasion forced the Chinese Empire to surrender sovereignty over all the territory of China to the Western imperialist alliance (primarily the British, French, US, and Russian Empires), by signing several documents known collectively as the Treaty of Tientsin, ratified by the Emperor of China [9th Emperor of the Qing dynasty (1850-1861), Xianfeng] in 1860.

The Treaty of Tientsin opened eleven more Chinese ports to foreign colonization and economic exploitation and gave the legal right to foreign vessels including warships to navigate freely on the Yangtze River  [the longest river throughout the continental expanse known as “Asia” (European naming) and the third longest river throughout the collective land surface of the Planet].


During the approximately 100-year period of the Chinese nation’s subjection to foreign imperialist domination, the US Navy operated the Yangtze Patrol  (1854-1949) — a prolonged US naval operation to protect US interests (including the US opium trade) in the Yangtze River’s treaty ports. At many points during the approximately 100-year period between 1843 and 1949, the US Navy forces landed and engaged in military action in Western-controlled ports and other locations of the territory of China.

The Chinese nation’s subjection to foreign imperialist domination and economic exploitation lasted one whole century — until Chairman Mao Zedong of the Communist Party of China proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949, following Chinese Civil War (1927-1937, 1946-1950).


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