As more of the British economy and lifestyle began to depend on the tea trade, the British began to feel vulnerable to a foreign, largely uncooperative, country for one of their main commodities. This “vulnerability” was emphasized in England to justify to the people that legitimate commercial and military aggression was necessary against China (Fromer, 358). These are themes and propagandistic techniques that would be repeated later, throughout the world, during the World Wars.
The situation came to a head in 1839 when the Chinese emperor ordered thousands of pounds of opium to be confiscated from a British ship and publicly destroyed. Queen Victoria’s advisors at the time were men who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and had a great deal of influence over foreign policy and public opinion (Rose, 4). They responded by sending an army, and the first Opium War began (Pettigrew, 88).
In the first Opium War, 1839-42, the Chinese military were no match for the British. China’s desire to suppress Indian-grown opium trade failed, and British acquired the control Hong Kong and five new ports from which to trade. These concessions were extremely heavy-handed and humiliated the Chinese, but thus were the place of tea in the British Empire. Without the continue sale of opium in China, they could not purchase tea, but the war caused rising anti-foreign sentiment in China (Dalziel, 70).
Tension and resentment led to the second Opium War, or the “Arrow War,” 1856-1860. The Chinese captured a British boat named The Arrow, and accusing the British of smuggling, which they likely were, but it was still against Chinese law. Again the British responded with war and again the Chinese were overwhelmed by superior technology.
This time, the Chinese paid the British large amounts of silver for reparations, began allowing foreigners to travel in China’s interior, legalized opium trade, opened 10 new ports, and allowed missionaries to promote the Christian faith (Hodge, 147). As harsh as these concessions were, Britain could have conquered China but chose not to. They wanted the current Qing Dynasty to remain in power, but as a weakened negotiating party, and they wanted China to accept free trade and diplomatic relations in the style developed by European nations (Hodge, 217).
To put the opium sales into perspective, in 1820, an average of 10,000 cases of opium entered China annually; by 1870, opium imports averaged 100,000 cases annually. Opium sales peaked by 1879 and did not wind down until the First World War (Hyam, 28).
Although the British finally got China to legalize the opium trade, they did not want China to legalize the cultivation of poppy within their Chinese borders. If China began growing poppy and producing their own opium, Britain could not longer pay for tea with Indian-grown poppy (Rose, 4). As relations with China were crumbling, the British realized they needed to find alternate sources of tea, and that meant growing it somewhere within the border of the British Empire.