From Diplomacy to War - British Foreign Policy in China 1793 – 1860

Seminar Paper, 2013

29 Pages, Grade: 6.0


1. Introduction

The trade relations between the British Empire and the Chinese had been established in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. From the beginning, trade was restricted to confinements in Canton, as the Qing Emperors saw the foreign intruders as a potential threat and were keen on keeping the foreigners beyond their borders and under tight control. This relationship between the two Empires only changed at the beginning of the 19th century when the British decided to renew their trade interests in the Far East. The following time was then characterized by an increase of diplomatic efforts between the expansionist British and the reluctant Qing Emperors, which was eventually disrupted by war.

In this paper, I want to analyse the development of the British political and economic relations to China, during the period of time in 1793 – 1860. This period was chosen as it marked a turning point in the Anglo-Chinese relations, causing events that immensely affected the histories of both Empires to come, and leading to the rise of one, and the downfall of the other. The year 1793 witnessed the journey of the Macartney Embassy to the court of the Qing Emperor, which was the first renewed attempt to secure trade concessions for the unsatisfied East India Company. This first diplomatic act was bound to failure due to the fundamental differences in cultural self-conception. The subsequent events demonstrate the continuation of failed awareness from two Empires each seeing themselves as the centre of the world. In this way, the tensions during this time between the powers were also influenced by the change from a cultural to an economic clash, exposing the interests of both nations in the conflict. The failure of diplomatic measurements is of particular interest in this case, as they gave rise to the catastrophic events of the two Opium Wars. In order to understand this process, I will focus on the employed strategies and policies by the British to reach their goals of opening China to trade. Further, the aim is to provide an evaluation of both countries‘ motivations during the Opium Wars, so as to understand why the British employed different and increasingly pushing tactics, or why the Qing Emperors goals were dissimilar to such an extent. The year 1860 was chosen as the end of this period, as it saw the destruction of the Imperial summer palace by the British as retaliation for their tortured ambassadors, and can be seen as a symbol for the disastrous consequences the conflict had on both sides.

Lastly, one crucial focal point lies in the consequences of the Opium Wars, which marked essential events in Chinese history and which are present in the country’s discourse until our time. Indeed, for the Chinese Empire the wars delivered disastrous results, forcefully tearing down its policies of isolationism, leading to the “scramble of China” between the European powers in the latter half of the century. Therefore, I would like to focus my attention on the contemporary as well as twentieth century perspectives on both the British and the Chinese sides.

Regarding the source material, there are a considerable amount of British sources and a small translated amount of Chinese sources available. The British sources are varied, presenting a wide scope of British perspectives, showing that the events of the Opium Wars were already a disputed subject at the time. One newspaper article is particularly interesting as it shows the publicly accessible side of discussion[1]. A valuable resource for an array of British and international sources is found in the five letters to the Earl of Shaftsbury, compiled by Major Robert Alexander, an officer of the East India Company in Madras.[2] Alexander comments majorly on the effects of the opium smuggling on Britain, India and China. He quotes numerous opinions on the opium issue, among them notable people involved in the Canton trade such as Sir Charles Elliott or Stuart Marjoribanks. Although Alexander provides these sources to support his plea of ending the opium trade, the untouched citations still allow a differentiated view on the issue from various angles and different classes of society in Britain. On the side of war supporters, the main source chosen was a statement by Hugh Hamilton Lindsay, the EIC’s Secretary in Canton during the first opium crisis.[3]

On the Chinese side, a valuable source is found in Lin Zexu, the High Commissioner of Canton and a key figure in the first Opium War. His viewpoint is presented in a remarkable letter he wrote to Queen Victoria.[4] Of further interest is the imperial letter the Emperor Qianlong sent to Britain in 1793 addressed to King George III, revealing the governmental position in the trade conflict and their adversity to British trade expansion.[5] Lastly, in his critical letters to the Earl of Shaftsbury, Major Alexander also gives space to the numerous translated Chinese opinions on the opium issue as a completion of the British viewpoint.[6]

2. The Anglo-Chinese Trade

2.1 Origins and Development

The beginning of the Anglo-Chinese trade relations reaches back to the year 1637, and the East India Company (EIC) ran their first permanent factory from 1699 in Canton. From the outset, British trade efforts were marked by restriction, being only allowed on the borders of the Chinese Empire, in the port of Canton. Anyhow, during the eighteenth century, several circumstances lead to the persistence of solely British interests in China. The British had won several colonial wars, established themselves in the essential India trade and had stimulated their trade with the Industrial Revolution.[7] This made the EIC the only important trading partners of the Chinese Empire early on, and granted them a primary position in their trade relations. However, the Chinese Emperors had always shown reluctance towards the barbarians from the West, and the system they implanted for the foreigners was characterized by strict fiscal policies and trade regulations. The Chinese Imperial efforts were characterized by a fixed tariff system which encouraged import and discouraged the export of products, which was underdone by local authorities in Canton. To the disappointment of foreign merchants, these tariffs were applied at random and frequently changed, as the central government had little direct impact on the local authorities who had a keen interest in monetary gains. Essentially, the Canton trade was monopolized and administered by a small association of elite merchants, the Cohong. This Guild constituted of thirteen merchants who were authorized by the Emperor to handle and secure all foreign trade, in particular tea and silk. In this way, they also served as intermediaries between the foreign merchants and the imperial court. Essentially, every foreign ship that arrived in Whampoa near Canton, the only port they were allowed to enter, was assigned to a Cohong merchant, who then was responsible for the selling of import products and the acquisition of new export products.[8] When a vessel entered Whampoa, besides paying import taxes, the foreigners also had to bring with them a cumshaw, a present to the local government.[9] In addition to the economic regulations, the Chinese authorities paid much attention to all details of subjugation in Canton, thus reducing the threat of foreigners to a minimum. The regulations set in place involved indeed every aspect of the foreigners’ lives. First of all, the foreign merchants had to settle in the assigned foreigner quarter outside the city walls, the Thirteen Factories. Secondly, the merchants were not allowed to have more than a fixed number of servants and their employees had to be licensed. Thirdly, they were not allowed to carry any weapons nor enter the Pearl River close to Canton with military ships. And lastly, they were not allowed to have any excursions in and around Canton that did not concern their businesses.[10] This practice of trade regulations was in place from 1757 to 1842, and its limitations rendered the British merchants increasingly unsatisfied. Nevertheless, they accepted the Chinese trade system from the start, as the trade was profitable even under these conditions.

The early British trade had focussed on the imports of luxury items such as porcelains, copper and silk.[11] Then, towards the eighteenth century, trade became heavily reliant on the import of high quality Chinese tea, since it was the “only available article which could be forced into universal consumption without competing against home manufacture”.[12] At the same time, the limitation of trade meant that trade deficit increased steadily. The British consumption of tea showed the largest growth, and it became more and more difficult for the EIC to meet the needs of the market, as the Chinese had little interest in foreign products which they perceived as inferior. In a letter to King George III in 1793, Emperor Qianlong highlights this the following way: “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures.”[13] The only few products the Chinese desired were raw furs and medicinal roots, otherwise, they preferred direct payments in silver.[14] Britain was connected to the gold standard at the time, sourcing its silver from South America or Europe, and the supply was limited and could not equalise with the growing Chinese exports. In addition, the Spanish had supported the American War of Independence, which cut off the British from their supply of Spanish silver.[15] Another product that would have demand in China was needed, and the British found this product in opium, which became their key product in the intra-Asian trade.

The opium trade had been in the hands of Arab and Indian merchants for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, and it had been used as a medicinal remedy. The Portuguese and Dutch had succeeded in bringing the trade into their hands, as opium formed a desirable product for its consistency in demand and the possibility to ship it to Europe and eastwards.[16] The product was mainly produced in factories in India, from where it was then shipped eastwards. With the advancements of the EIC in India, the British were able to produce opium in the traditional cotton-growing areas in the north and centre of the country, and the export of Indian opium became a main aspect of their trade policies. Whereas the Dutch had seen opium primarily as barter for their spices in Indonesia, for the British, after having succeeded in the creation of a Bengal monopoly in 1773, it became their main trade product with the Far East. With opium being the company’s new method of paying for Chinese products, the exchange trade for silk and tea prospered. In the course of the eighteenth century, British imports of opium to China steadily increased. The country’s large market promised huge profits, and, if anything, the demand was almost unlimited regarding the rapid population growth at the time owing to the Emperor’s agricultural reforms. A contemporary English history book quotes a Chinese census from 1753 with a figure of 102’3280250 people, and by the year 1812, the population had already exploded to 361’221’934 people.[17] How heavily the import affected the China trade is evident in the import numbers quoted by Major Alexander[18]:

Table 1.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Prior to 1767, the annual imports had been stagnating around 200 chests for almost a century.[19] Considering that each chest was filled with 140 pounds of opium, the numbers after 1767 confirm the growing importance of the product on the Chinese markets. They demonstrate a heavy increase after opium had become the preferred exchange product for tea and silk, and indicate the profits connected to such trade. By 1837, the opium imports were shown to be worth 25‘000‘000 Dollars. In a similar way, tea exports augmented by the means of the opium exchange trade. A nineteenth century history book quotes a number of 21 Million pounds of tea for the year 1789 exported from Canton and a number of 54 to 55 Million pounds fifty years later.[20] This provided immense revenues for the British government through the taxes imposed on tea imports, which could in turn be used to enforce the nation’s military resources to protect trade interests.


[1] Anonymous: British opium trade with China. In: The Leeds Mercury, 7th Sept., 1839. Birmingham 1840.

[2] Alexander, Robert: The Rise and Progress of British Opium Smuggling. The Illegality of the East India Company's Monopoly of the Drug and its injurious Effects upon India, China, and the Commerce of Great Britain. Five Letters Addressed to the Earl of Shaftesbury. London 1856.

[3] Lindsay, Hugh Hamilton: Is the War with China a Just One. London 1840.

[4] Lin, Lexu. Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839. In: Chinese Repository, Vol. 8 (February 1840), pp. 497–503.

[5] Emperor Qianglong: Imperial Mandate to King George III. In: E. Backhouse, E., and Bland, J.O.P.: Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking. Boston 1914.

[6] Alexander: British Opium Smuggling.

[7] Clyde, Paul Hibbert: The Far East. A History of the Impact of the West on Eastern Asia. Englewood Cliffs 1962. p. 67.

[8] Clyde: The Far East. p. 69.

[9] Anonymous Author: The Ancient and Modern History of China. Comprising an Account of its Government and Laws, Religion, Population, Revenue, Productions, Manufacture, Arts and Sciences, Language and Literature. A Statement of Facts relative to the Opium Trade. London: Moffat, 1840. p. 87.

[10] Collis, Maurice: Foreign Mud. Being and Account of the Opium Imbroglio at Canton in the 1830’s and the Anglo-Chinese War that followed. London 1946. P. 14-15.

[11] Stockwell, Foster: Westerners in China. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. p. 60.

[12] Greenberg, Michael: British Trade and the Opening of China 1800-42. Cambridge 1951. p..3.

[13] Emperor Qianglong: Imperial Mandate to King George III. p. 325.

[14] Stockwell: Westerners in China. p. 74.

[15] Beeching, Jack: The Chinese Opium Wars. London: Hutchinson, 1975. p. 24.

[16] Owen, David Edward: British Opium Policy in China and India. New Heaven: 1934. p.7.

[17] Anonymous: The Ancient and Modern History of China. p. 46.

[18] Alexander: British Opium Smuggling. p. 21-23.

[19] Beeching: Opium Wars. p. 24.

[20] Anonymous Author: The Ancient and Modern History of China. p. 51.

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From Diplomacy to War - British Foreign Policy in China 1793 – 1860
University of Basel
The British Empire
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6 = Highest Achievable Grade in Switzerland. Supervisor: Deputy Director German Historical Institute of London
china, history, Britain, opium, war, Qing, British Empire, 1793, 1860, colonial, imperialism, emperor, seminarpaper, foreign policy, opium wars
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Derya Ünal (Author), 2013, From Diplomacy to War - British Foreign Policy in China 1793 – 1860, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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