What was Russia’s involvement in the Opium Wars?

The Opium Wars were caused by Chinese attempts to prevent western traders bringing opium to China during the 19th century. Predominantly imported by the British and French, opium was socially and economically devastating for the Chinese. Around 25% of their male population was addicted to the drug by 1839.

China’s weak military meant they were soundly defeated in both conflicts, and harsh treaties were imposed by the British and French. The First Opium War, for example, resulted in Hong Kong being ceded to Britain ‘in perpetuity’; the Second Opium War caused opium to be legalised in China.

Unlike Britain and France, Russia’s involvement in the Opium Wars is often overlooked. However, their exploitation of China’s weakness and their diplomatic skill earned them their largest port on the Pacific coast: Vladivostok.

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The Second Opium War

The Second Opium War lasted from 1856-1860. Long-term Chinese discontent at British and French traders importing opium into the country boiled over into armed conflict. In October 1856 the Chinese seized a vessel sailing under the British flag, the Arrow, and charged it with piracy.

The British responded by destroying Chinese forts, and the crisis prompted a general election in Britain. Many members of parliament, including future Prime Minister William Gladstone, were abhorred by the opium trade and thought Britain should not protect it.

Lord Palmerston, whose government was in favour of war, won the election and Britain sent Royal Navy vessels and soldiers to Hong Kong, Britain’s new colony next to China. France, furious at the Chinese for executing one of their missionaries, allied with them. Anglo-French forces stormed and captured the important port of Canton. China rushed to rally its forces to fight them.

William Ewart Gladstone, opponent of the opium trade. Image Credit: Public Domain

Russia’s interest in ‘Outer Manchuria’

Russia and China had been struggling over ‘Outer Manchuria’, now the south-east of Russia, for centuries.

Throughout the 1600s Russia encouraged settlers to move to the region, but in the 1680s the Chinese had driven them out. In the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, Russia agreed to abandon its territorial claims to the area.

Russia, still desiring a naval outpost on the Pacific, began sending settlers to Outer Manchuria again during the 1700s. In the build-up to the Second Opium War, with China distracted elsewhere, the Russians secretly brought tens of thousands of troops to the border.

China started out as a neutral country during the First World War. But by early 1917, one thousand Chinese men were on their way to the Western Front. Tens of thousands more would follow, to provide logistical support to the Allies. They constituted one of the largest labour corps of the war.

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The Russians seize the opportunity

Once war began and the Anglo-French forces started winning victories over the Chinese, the Russian general Nikolay Muraviov spotted an opportunity. He revealed Russia’s military presence by China’s northern border and demanded that they cede huge swathes of territory or Russia would attack.

The Chinese feared a war on two fronts. They knew they could not resist the Anglo-French attacks on their southern ports and a Russian invasion to the north. The Qing dynasty’s representative, Yishan, agreed to Muraviov’s demands.

On 28 May 1858 the Treaty of Aigun was signed, agreeing a new border along the Amur River. Russia and its eastern seaboard was significantly enlarged.

British Map of 1851 showing the Russo-Chinese border before the Second Opium War. Image Credit: Public Domain

The destruction of Beijing’s Summer Palaces

The superior technologies and training of the Anglo-French army resulted in a series of decisive victories for the western powers. At this stage, a young Russian Major General named Nikolay Ignatyev visited the Chinese capital of Peking (modern Beijing) to try and negotiate further concessions.

Anglo-French forces arrived in Peking in October 1860, and the Chinese surrender was imminent. In punishment for China’s mistreatment of prisoners, the British and the French destroyed Beijing’s Summer Palaces. They carried off priceless works of art and performed acts of wanton destruction in retribution for Chinese abuses during the war.

The British general, Lord Elgin, even considered sacking China’s historic palace complex, the Forbidden City. The Chinese finally agreed to negotiate a peace, and Ignatyev positioned himself as the mediator between the two sides.

Capture of the Summer Palace. Image Credit: Public Domain

Russia’s success at the Convention of Peking

The Convention of Peking saw China, Britain, France and Russia come together to determine the result of the war. The treaties they ratified were highly unequal – in favour of the westerners.

On 25 and 26 October 1860 the Chinese Emperor’s brother signed a series of agreements with the British and the French. A significant portion of the Kowloon Peninsula was granted to the British, extending the colony of Hong Kong. Both France and Britain also benefited from the legalisation of opium and Christianity, as well as hefty reparations.

During the negotiations, Ignatyev convinced the Chinese that only his influence with Britain and France could persuade their armies to leave Beijing. He cunningly played on Chinese fears that the capital could be destroyed if the Convention failed.

Nikolay Ignatyev. Image Credit: Public Domain

To ensure Ignatyev’s loyalty the Chinese ceded even more land to the Russians, giving them control of everything between the River Amur and the Golden Horn Bay.


In this way Russia benefited immensely from the Second Opium War, despite not actually fighting in it. Ignatyev achieved more than his countrymen had ever hoped for. Their new territory in the south-east of the country became the Maritime Province, or ‘Primorski Krai’.

Russian opportunism and Ignatyev’s diplomacy provided Russia with the Golden Horn Bay, soon the home of its great Pacific sea port: Vladivostok. The city, with its position on the south-eastern edge of Russia, allowed Russian military and economic influence to extend into the Pacific.

Russian territorial gains during the Second Opium War. Brown areas represent the territory secured in the Treaty of Aigun. Pink areas represent the territory secured at the Convention of Peking. Image Credit: Public Domain

The Chinese only realised their mistake decades later. The agreements with Russia, Britain and France in the 19th century eventually came to be known as the ‘Unequal Treaties’. These agreements were highly resented for the territorial and economic losses they inflicted.

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Your guide to the Opium Wars

In the 19th century, Britain and France sent in the gunboats to bully China into allowing the sale of opium to its citizens.

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Published: July 20, 2020 at 3:05 pm

What were the Opium Wars?

The Opium Wars were two 19th-century conflicts between China and Britain (and later France) that began with Chinese attempts to stop opium being smuggled into their country.

What exactly is opium?

Opium is a highly-addictive drug that is extracted from poppies.

As well as being used as a medicine, it has also been a popular recreational substance. By the 1830s, millions of Chinese were hooked on opium, causing significant damage to the health and productivity of the nation.

Much of the opium the Chinese were smoking had been imported by the British.

Why were the British exporting the drug to China?

At this time there was great demand in Britain for Chinese products such as porcelain and tea, but the Chinese did not want to trade British goods in return. Instead they demanded to be paid in silver. Rather than allow the country’s silver reserves to be drained, some enterprising British merchants adopted a different solution.

They took opium grown in India (which was then effectively under British control) and imported it into China, insisting on being paid for the drug in silver, which could be used to purchase Chinese products.

Although importing opium was illegal, corrupt Chinese officials allowed it to take place on a vast scale.

How did this lead to war?

In 1839 the Chinese government decided to crack down on the smuggling. It ordered the seizure of large quantities of opium from British merchants in the Chinese port of Canton, which was the only part of the country where Europeans were allowed to trade.

The outraged merchants lobbied the British government for assistance and on this occasion they found a ready audience. Britain had long hoped to increase its influence in China. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to achieve that goal.

A British naval fleet arrived in June 1840, attacking along the Chinese coast. With their inferior military technology, the Chinese were no match for the British and, after a series of military defeats, they agreed to sign humiliating peace terms.

These stipulated that China pay a large fine to Britain, open up five more ports to foreign trade, give the British a 99-year lease on the island of Hong Kong and offer British citizens special legal rights in China.

In later years, China referred to this settlement as the ‘Unequal Treaty’.

So that was the first Opium War. How did the second one come about?

With China humiliated and Britain seeking further gains, the situation remained tense.

The spark for the second conflict occurred in 1856 when Chinese officers searched a Chinese owned (but British registered) ship and lowered the British flag. In response to this affront, the British once again dispatched a military expedition, and this time they were joined by the French, who also had aspirations in China and were protesting about the murder of one of their missionaries in the country.

As before, the European powers were too strong for the Chinese. A peace agreement was reached in 1858 but, the following year, China broke off the deal. This led, in 1860, to the arrival of an even larger Anglo-French force, which stormed Beijing.

By October, the Chinese had been forced to accept British and French terms that included the right of foreign powers to keep diplomats in Beijing and the legalising of the opium trade.

What was the legacy of the Opium Wars?

In Britain they became something of a footnote in history, although the country did retain control of Hong Kong until 1997. For China the impact was more dramatic.

The military defeats weakened the Qing dynasty that was ruling the country, while the new treaties meant that China was opened up to more foreign influence.

In recent years this has been described as the start of a century of ‘national humiliation’ by foreigners that some argue only came to an end with the seizure of power by the Communist party in 1949.

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine

Opium War: The Conflict That Changed China Forever

The wars were fought to open China to foreign trade, including the selling of drugs.

Key point: London instigated a war of aggression against China in order to force an inequal treaty. Seeing their success, other major imperial powers soon followed suit.

In 1839, England went to war with China because it was upset that Chinese officials had shut down its drug trafficking racket and confiscated its dope.

Stating the historical record so plainly is shocking — but it’s true, and the consequences of that act are still being felt today.

The Qing Dynasty, founded by Manchurian clans in 1644, expanded China’s borders to their farthest reach, conquering Tibet, Taiwan and the Uighur Empire. However, the Qing then turned inward and isolationist, refusing to accept Western ambassadors because they were unwilling to proclaim the Qing Dynasty as supreme above their own heads of state.

Foreigners — even on trade ships — were prohibited entry into Chinese territory.

The exception to the rule was in Canton, the southeastern region centered on modern-day Guangdong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong and Macao. Foreigners were allowed to trade in the Thirteen Factories district in the city of Guangzhou, with payments made exclusively in silver.

The British gave the East India Company a monopoly on trade with China, and soon ships based in colonial India were vigorously exchanging silver for tea and porcelain. But the British had a limited supply of silver.

Starting in in the mid-1700s, the British began trading opium grown in India in exchange for silver from Chinese merchants. Opium — an addictive drug that today is refined into heroin — was illegal in England, but was used in Chinese traditional medicine.

However, recreational use was illegal and not widespread. That changed as the British began shipping in tons of the drug using a combination of commercial loopholes and outright smuggling to get around the ban.

Chinese officials taking their own cut abetted the practice. American ships carrying Turkish-grown opium joined in the narcotics bonanza in the early 1800s. Consumption of opium in China skyrocketed, as did profits.

The Daoguang Emperor became alarmed by the millions of drug addicts — and the flow of silver leaving China. As is often the case, the actions of a stubborn idealist brought the conflict to a head. In 1839 the newly appointed Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu instituted laws banning opium throughout China.

He arrested 1,700 dealers, and seized the crates of the drug already in Chinese harbors and even on ships at sea. He then had them all destroyed. That amounted to 2.6 million pounds of opium thrown into the ocean. Lin even wrote a poem apologizing to the sea gods for the pollution.

Angry British traders got the British government to promise compensation for the lost drugs, but the treasury couldn’t afford it. War would resolve the debt.

But the first shots were fired when the Chinese objected to the British attacking one of their own merchant ships.

Chinese authorities had indicated they would allow trade to resume in non-opium goods. Lin Zexu even sent a letter to Queen Victoria pointing out that as England had a ban on the opium trade, they were justified in instituting one too.

It never reached her, but eventually did appear in the Sunday Times.

Instead, the Royal Navy established a blockade around Pearl Bay to protest the restriction of free trade … in drugs. Two British ships carrying cotton sought to run the blockade in November 1839. When the Royal Navy fired a warning shot at the second, The Royal Saxon, the Chinese sent a squadron of war junks and fire-rafts to escort the merchant.

HMS Volage’s Captain, unwilling to tolerate the Chinese “intimidation,” fired a broadside at the Chinese ships. HMS Hyacinth joined in. One of the Chinese ships exploded and three more were sunk. Their return fire wounded one British sailor.

Seven months later, a full-scale expeditionary force of 44 British ships launched an invasion of Canton. The British had steam ships, heavy cannon, Congreve rockets and infantry equipped with rifles capable of accurate long range fire. Chinese state troops — “bannermen” — were still equipped with matchlocks accurate only up to 50 yards and a rate of fire of one round per minute.

Antiquated Chinese warships were swiftly destroyed by the Royal Navy. British ships sailed up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, occupying Shanghai along the way and seizing tax-collection barges, strangling the Qing government’s finances. Chinese armies suffered defeat after defeat.

When the Qing sued for peace in 1842, the British could set their own terms. The Treaty of Nanjing stipulated that Hong Kong would become a British territory, and that China would be forced to establish five treaty ports in which British traders could trade anything they wanted with anybody they wanted to. A later treaty forced the Chinese to formally recognize the British as equals and grant their traders favored status.

More War, More Opium:

Imperialism was on the upswing by the mid-1800s. France muscled into the treaty port business as well in 1843. The British soon wanted even more concessions from China — unrestricted trade at any port, embassies in Beijing and an end to bans on selling opium in the Chinese mainland.

One tactic the British used to further their influence was registering the ships of Chinese traders they dealt with as British ships.

The pretext for the second Opium War is comical in its absurdity. In October 1856, Chinese authorities seized a former pirate ship, the Arrow, with a Chinese crew and with an expired British registration. The captain told British authorities that the Chinese police had taken down the flag of a British ship.

The British demanded the Chinese governor release the crew. When only nine of the 14 returned, the British began a bombardment of the Chinese forts around Canton and eventually blasted open the city walls.

British Liberals, under William Gladstone, were upset at the rapid escalation and protested fighting a new war for the sake of the opium trade in parliament. However, they lost seats in an election to the Tories under Lord Palmerston. He secured the support needed to prosecute the war.

China was in no position to fight back, as it was then embroiled in the devastating Taiping Rebellion, a peasant uprising led by a failed civil-service examinee claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ. The rebels had nearly seized Beijing and still controlled much of the country.

Once again, the Royal Navy demolished its Chinese opponents, sinking 23 junks in the opening engagement near Hong Kong and seizing Guangzhou. Over the next three years, British ships worked their way up the river, capturing several Chinese forts through a combination of naval bombardment and amphibious assault.

France joined in the war — its excuse was the execution of a French missionary who had defied the ban on foreigners in Guangxi province. Even the United States became briefly involved after a Chinese fort took pot shots at long distance at an American ship.

In the Battle of the Pearl River Forts, a U.S. Navy a force of three ships and 287 sailors and marines took four forts by storm, capturing 176 cannons and fighting off a counterattack of 3,000 Chinese infantry. The United States remained officially neutral.

Russia did not join in the fighting, but used the war to pressure China into ceding a large chunk of its northeastern territory, including the present-day city of Vladivostok.

When foreign envoys drew up the next treaty in 1858 the terms, were even more crushing to the Qing Dynasty’s authority. Ten more cities were designated as treaty ports, foreigners would have free access to the Yangtze river and the Chinese mainland, and Beijing would open embassies to England, France and Russia.

The Xianfeng Emperor at first agreed to the treaty, but then changed his mind, sending Mongolian general Sengge Rinchen to man the Taku Forts on the waterway leading to Beijing. The Chinese repelled a British attempt to take the forts by sea in June 1859, sinking four British ships. A year later, an overland assault by 11,000 British and 6,700 French troops succeeded.

When a British diplomatic mission came to insist on adherence to the treaty, the Chinese took the envoy hostage, and tortured many in the delegation to death. The British High Commissioner of Chinese Affairs, Lord Elgar, decided to assert dominance and sent the army into Beijing.

British and French rifles gunned down 10,000 charging Mongolian cavalrymen at the Battle of Eight Mile Bridge, leaving Beijing defenseless. Emperor Xianfeng fled. In order to wound the Emperor’s “pride as well as his feeling” in the words of Lord Elgar, British and French troops looted and destroyed the historic Summer Palace.

The new revised treaty imposed on China legalized both Christianity and opium, and added Tianjin — the major city close to Beijing — to the list of treaty ports. It allowed British ships to transport Chinese indentured laborers to the United States, and fined the Chinese government eight million silver dollars in indemnities.

Russia fights opium war as US marks 8 years in Afghanistan

As Russia grapples with its ominous demographic situation &ndash according to the grimmest estimates, the population could tumble by as much as 3 million people to below 140 million by the next decade &ndash it should come as no surprise that heroin addiction, which kills up to 30,000 Russians annually, sits front and center on the Kremlin&rsquos radar.

&ldquoFor Russia, the task of eradicating Afghan opium production is an unrivaled priority for Russia,&rdquo said Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia&rsquos Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics (FSKN). &ldquoMore than 90 percent of drug addicts in our country are consumers of opiates from Afghanistan. Up to 30,000 people die of heroin-related illnesses annually.&rdquo

&ldquoThe 1990s saw a tenfold increase in heroin consumption in Russia,&rdquo continued Ivanov, speaking at a news conference at RIA Novosti on Thursday. &ldquoToday, the number of drug addicts has grown to 2.5 million people, predominantly between the ages of 18 and 39.&rdquo

&ldquoAccording to date available from the UN, as well as our own research, we have found that the number of people using heroin in Russia is on average 5 to 8 times higher than in the EU countries.&rdquo

Last month, Ivanov took his message to Washington D.C., where he gave a speech to the Nixon Center. There, he stressed that Russia is not the only country that is threatened by the &ldquoscourge of Afghan opium production.&rdquo

&ldquoThe transnational nature of Afghan heroin trafficking makes it impossible for any state to take refuge from its calamitous impact,&rdquo Ivanov said. &ldquoThe Afghan heroin market is situated mainly outside and away from Afghanistan and is based on a sophisticated global sales infrastructure.&rdquo

Finally, Ivanov provided perhaps the most convincing argument of all that the Afghanistan&rsquos drug production needs to be given the highest priority: Afghan heroin helps to nurture the very roots of terrorist networks.

&ldquoIt has been repeatedly demonstrated that the drug business provides the financial basis for terrorism and is one of its main factors for its upsurge.&rdquo

Ivanov then drew a direct parallel with Russia&rsquos past experience in dealing with the world&rsquos premier terror mastermind, Osama bin Laden, who the Russians say funneled enormous funds to Chechen rebels.

&ldquoIt was Osama bin Laden,&rdquo Ivanov reminded, &ldquowho in the middle 1990s created heroin supply chains to Russia&rsquos Chechnya in order to fund Chechen terrorists.&rdquo

But what makes the Afghan drug problem for Russia different from the specter of, say, alcoholism, road fatalities or serious illnesses is that a solution to the problem is not dependent upon Russia&rsquos efforts alone. Indeed, the success of Russia&rsquos campaign against heroin addiction hinges on the efforts of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, of which the U.S. dominates in terms of both numbers and leadership.

Against the background of Russia&rsquos dire drug problem, Ivanov stressed during his Thursday news conference that &ldquocooperation between the United States and Russia was on the rise.&rdquo

The Americans respond

Timothy Jones, the Drug Enforcement Administration&rsquos attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, echoed Ivanov&rsquos positive assessments of the joint efforts now occurring between Moscow and Washington on the drug front.

&ldquoWe&rsquore going to be combining our expertise,&rdquo Jones said in a telephone interview with RT. &ldquoThe DEA and the FSKN have been working together for years in joint investigations. But this new level of cooperation will bring a greater number, and more emphasis, to the problem that Russia is facing.&rdquo

Jones then reiterated Ivanov&rsquos remarks that the heroin problem is not relegated to Russia alone.

&ldquoThe drug trade is not just a problem for Russia,&rdquo he said. "It&rsquos a problem for the United States, it&rsquos a problem for Iran, and it&rsquos a problem for Turkey. It&rsquos a problem for all of the neighboring countries.&rdquo

The DEA&rsquos Moscow attaché then stressed the need for all nations to work together to defeat the heroin problem.

&ldquoUnless we all work together and attack this problem as a joint effort,&rdquo Jones warned, &ldquowe&rsquore not going to be able to make the difference that we need to make.&rdquo

Jones then spoke at length about the DEA&rsquos work in Afghanistan.

&ldquoThe DEA has a large number of agents down there that work jointly with the coalition forces. And so we are actively engaged in looking for the drug labs, for the drug traffickers, and the&hellip chemicals that are coming into the country. And of course we have other offices in the surrounding countries that surround Afghanistan. So in cooperation with those offices, as a team, together with our counterparts, try to attack the problem.&rdquo

But the US embassy&rsquos DEA attaché stressed that the United States was not working alone to defeat the drug traffickers operating in Afghanistan, and discussed the DEA&rsquos cooperation with Russia&rsquos FSKN, as well as other affiliates in the field.

&ldquoOur efforts are not singlehanded,&rdquo Jones said. &ldquoWe work in conjunction with our counterparts in the respective countries we&rsquore in. Any leads that we find regarding Russia, we pass those along to the FSKN, and vice versa. We have a large number of people in Afghanistan, so if FSKN has some leads for us, we will receive those and actively cooperate to resolve the problem.&rdquo

Look! Up in the sky!

One area where the United States and Russia have opposing views on how to beat the drug traffickers at their own game involves the use of airplanes, which Russia said could fumigate the poppy fields.

So far the United States has responded coolly to the proposal, and this continues to vex the Russians.

&ldquoIn 2008, the state of Columbia successfully eliminated 230 out of 280 hectares of coca crops through the method of defoliation by spraying herbicides from the air,&rdquo Ivanov told his audience in Washington last month in an effort to garner support for the initiative. &ldquoYet opponents of the chemical methods argue that herbicide spraying would be perceived negatively by the Afghan peasants, which could strengthen resistance movements.&rdquo

Ivanov then quoted the political analyst and author, David Kilcullen, the author of the book, "The Accidental Guerrilla," a copy of which he hoisted into the air at his Moscow media conference.

&ldquoIf we are already bombing Taliban positions,&rdquo he quotes Kilcullen as saying, &ldquowhy won&rsquot we spray their fields with a harmless herbicide and cut off their money?&rdquo

DEA Attaché Timothy Jones said that the coalition forces, not just the U.S. forces, were against the use of employing herbicides against the drug traffickers over fears it might spark some sort of a backlash from the local population.

&ldquoFirst, I don&rsquot think you can say that it&rsquos only the United States that is making all of the decision there (in Afghanistan),&rdquo Jones said. &ldquoWe have a Coalition. And it&rsquos the Coalition that has to make the determination as to what is proper. So for us to say that the United States supports something and we&rsquore just going to do it no matter what &ndash that&rsquos not the way this is set up.&rdquo

&ldquoOn the surface, I would say yes, it is a very quick way of eradicating the opium,&rdquo Jones said, before pointing out the disadvantages of spraying defoliates over the fields. &ldquoBut there&rsquos another thing you must take into consideration. A lot of these people do not understand the concept of aerial spraying. And even though we can use chemicals that attack a specific type of plant, the people on the ground may think that you are attacking everything, destroying their livelihood.&rdquo

Jones, arguing that an &ldquoeducational process would need to take place before we just started spraying chemicals,&rdquo said the chemicals from aerial spraying could get into the soil and water supply, possibly harming children and animals.

Although this is one point of contention between the United States and Russia, it seems that in the future a compromise may be found and active defoliation of the poppy fields may begin in earnest. On the face of it, there really seems to be no other way to tackle the problem. After all, 7,700 tons of opium was produced in Afghanistan last year, officials say, which accounts for 93 percent of total global opium production. Needless to say, opium is Afghanistan's cash crop.

Will the United States eventually give in to Russian demands for an active defoliation program, perhaps with the direct assistance of Russian planes and pilots (after all, the job would certainly contain extreme risks, especially when we consider that around 3 million Afghan people are dependent directly or indirectly on opium production)?

Stranger things have happened. Who would have guessed, for example, that Russia would agree to give American military planes clearance to fly over Russian airspace to a distant theater of war? But that is exactly what is happening today, and it seems that Russia will expect some sort of concessions for these flights.

Ivanov hinted as much in Washington.

&ldquoRussia is the main victim of Afghan heroin,&rdquo he reminded his audience. &ldquoHowever, it is helping the United States and NATO by making concessions. We allowed the transit of not only lethal, but also military Afghanistan-bound cargoes across our territory. This must be viewed as considerable support to the Coalition&rsquos activities in Afghanistan.&rdquo

In the meantime, America is becoming increasingly bogged down in a land rightfully nicknamed &ldquothe graveyard of empires,&rdquo while parts of Russia are starting to resemble &ldquograveyards of drug addicts.&rdquo

Given this grim political landscape that presents a massive threat to both former Cold War powers, some form of mutually advantageous cooperation should be achievable. After all, both countries share more or less the same nightmares over Afghanistan.

The Second Opium War

By 1856, largely thanks to the influence of Britain, ‘chasing the dragon’ was widespread throughout China. The term was originally coined in Cantonese in Hong Kong, and referred to the practice of inhaling opium by chasing the smoke with an opium pipe. Although by this point, the first opium war was officially over, many of the original problems remained.

Treaty of Nanking

Britain and China were both still dissatisfied with the unequal Treaty of Nanking and the uneasy peace that had ensued. Britain still desired that the trade of opium be legalised, and China remained deeply resentful of the concessions that they had already made to Britain and the fact that the British were continuing to sell opium illegally to their population. The question of opium remained worryingly unsettled. Britain also wanted access into the walled city of Guangzhou, another massive point of contention at this time as the interior of China was prohibited to foreigners.

To further complicate matters, China was embroiled in the Taiping Rebellion, starting in 1850 and creating a period of radical political and religious upheaval. It was a bitter conflict within China that took an estimated 20 million lives before it finally came to an end in 1864. So as well as the issue of opium continually being sold illegally in China by the British, the Emperor also had to quell a Christian rebellion. However, this rebellion was heavily anti-opium which complicated things further, as the anti-opium stance was beneficial to the Emperor and the Qing dynasty. However it was a Christian rebellion and China at this time practiced Confucism. So although there were parts of the rebellion that were widely supported, including their opposition to prostitution, opium and alcohol, it was not universally supported, as it still contradicted some deeply held Chinese traditions and values. The Qing dynasty’s hold on the region was becoming more and more tenuous, and the open challenges to their authority by the British were only fuelling the fire. Tensions began to escalate between the two great powers once again.

Detail from a scene of the Taiping Rebellion

These tensions came to a head in October 1856, when the British registered trading ship the ‘Arrow’ docked in Canton and was boarded by a group of Chinese officials. They allegedly searched the ship, lowered the British flag and then arrested some of the Chinese sailors on board. Although the sailors were later released, this was the catalyst for a British military retaliation and skirmishes broke out between the two forces once again. As things escalated, Britain sent a warship along the Pearl River which began firing on Canton. The British then captured and imprisoned the governor who consequently died in the British colony of India. Trading between Britain and China then abruptly ceased as an impasse was reached.

It was at this point that other powers began to get involved. The French decided to become embroiled in the conflict as well. The French had a strained relationship with the Chinese after a French missionary had allegedly been murdered in the interior of China in early 1856. This gave the French the excuse they had been waiting for to side with the British, which they duly did. Following this, the USA and Russia also got involved and also demanded trade rights and concessions from China. In 1857 Britain stepped up the invasion of China having already captured Canton, they headed to Tianjin. By April 1858 they had arrived and it was at this point that a treaty was once again proposed. This would be another of the Unequal Treaties, but this treaty would attempt to do what the British had been fighting for all along, that is, it would officially legalise the import of opium. The treaty had other advantages for the supposed allies as well however, including opening new trading ports and allowing the free movement of missionaries. However, the Chinese refused to ratify this treaty, somewhat unsurprisingly, as for the Chinese this treaty was even more unequal than the last one.

Looting of the Imperial summer palace by Anglo-French troops

The British response to this was swift. Beijing was captured and the Imperial summer palace burned and pillaged before the British fleet sailed up the coast, virtually holding China to ransom in order to ratify the treaty. Finally, in 1860 China capitulated to the superior British military strength and the Beijing Agreement was reached. This newly ratified treaty was the culmination of the two Opium Wars. The British succeeded in gaining the opium trade that they had fought so hard for. The Chinese had lost: the Beijing Agreement opened Chinese ports to trade, allowed foreign ships down the Yangtze, the free movement of foreign missionaries within China and most importantly, allowed the legal trade of British opium within China. This was a huge blow to the Emperor and to the Chinese people. The human cost of the Chinese addiction to opium should not be underestimated.

Detail from Rabin Shaw’s ‘Self-Portrait of the Opium Smoker (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)’

However these concessions were more than just a threat to the moral, traditional and cultural values of China at the time. They contributed to the eventual downfall of the Qing dynasty in China. Imperial rule had fallen to the British time and time again during these conflicts, with the Chinese forced into concession after concession. They were shown as no match for the British navy or negotiators. Britain was now legally and openly selling opium within China and the trade of opium would keep increasing for years to come.

However, as things changed and the popularity of opium decreased, so did its influence within the country. In 1907 China signed the 10 Year Agreement with India by which India promised to stop cultivating and exporting opium within the next ten years. By 1917 the trade had all but ceased. Other drugs had become more fashionable and easier to produce, and the time of opium and the historic ‘opium eater’ had come to an end.

Ultimately it took two wars, countless conflicts, treaties, negotiations and no doubt a substantial number of addictions, to force opium into China – just so that the British could enjoy their quintessential cup of tea!

The racialization of our country’s drug policies are a feature of the system, not a bug. From the very beginning, one of the explicit goals of American drug enforcement policy has been the demonization of what Harry Anslinger — the grandfather of modern-day drug enforcement — believed to be ”the degenerate races”. An often-overlooked part of this history is the way anti-Chinese sentiment fueled the enactment of America’s first drug control efforts.

The Angell Treaty of 1880, which was enacted in response to the rapid rise of anti-Chinese sentiment during the 1870s, banned Chinese nationals from importing smoking-opium into the United States. Pharmacologically identical, but less potent than other opium derivatives, smoking-opium was — at least at first — largely consumed by Chinese immigrants in California. ⁣

Bigoted and xenophobic US officials — confident that opium smoking would solely appeal to “degenerate” Asian immigrants —composed the treaty in such a way that it only prohibited Chinese nationals from importing smoking-opium.

American citizens were still free to partake in the trade.

Predictably, the limitations of this intervention failed to curb the importation of smoking opium. In fact, it had the complete opposite effect. The profit opportunity posed by the ban incentivized greater American involvement in the importation and domestic cultivation of smoking-opium, which in turn helped to introduce smoking opium to new geographies and demographics.

The passage of 1909’s Opium Exclusion Act — which fully banned the import of opium and its derivatives into the United States — was ostensibly an attempt to correct the unintended and counterproductive consequences of the Angell Treaty. However, the data makes it clear that public health concerns were not the chief goal of the legislation in 1909, American opium consumption had been in steady decline for nearly two decades. In reality, the primary motivation was appeasing racist and xenophobic Anglo-Americans living in the American West (many of who were simultaneously championing a rash of other anti-Chinese ordinances). ⁣

The enforcement practices of the Opium Act also illustrate its intended objective enacting greater social over Chinese immigrant communities in the American West. Despite American law enforcement’s awareness that problematic smoking-opium use was largely concentrated in Anglo-American communities, mass raids on Chinese homes and businesses quickly followed the Act’s passage. These efforts succeeded in terrorizing and brutalizing Asian-American communities but had a nuanced — and largely oppositional — impact on US smoking-opium consumption. ⁣

You see, heightened police activity in Chinatown caused white opium smokers to set up dens in their own neighborhoods. This geographic spread not only made enforcement more expensive and less effective, but the raids—by compelling opium smokers to seek out new non-Chinese consumption locales and purveyors — worked to decrease the social stigma around opioid consumption.

That said, the Opium Exclusion Act did succeed in one of its stated goals. While smoking opium continued to be smuggled in (or produced domestically), the ban made the substance so expensive that it became virtually inaccessible to all but the wealthiest segment of society. And so in the years following the Act’s passage, the US saw an even steeper decline in the number of Americans regularly consumed opium.

Unfortunately—and quite predictably, the inaccessibility of smoking-opium (which, remember, was less potent and addictive than other opium derivatives) did not result in opium consumers abandoning the substance altogether. Most smoking-opium consumed abandoned the pipe only opium only to replace it with the use of more powerful, addictive, and largely legal opiates—namely heroin and morphine.

“It was soon found that it was difficult to enforce that act, and that the smuggling of smoking opium, beginning on the 1st of April 1909, had been growing ever since, in spite of all the efforts of the Government to stop it and this act is designed to cure the defect in the opium-exclusion act [sic] and to stop that smuggling.” — US Congressional Record, 1913.

The data shows that a dramatic escalation of problematic heroin and morphine use kicked in *less than a year* after the passage of the Opium Exclusion Act.

America’s First Multimillionaire Got Rich Smuggling Opium

When business legend John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he was hailed as a titan of trade and praised as a sharp salesman with a taste for philanthropy. “There are few men whose biography would prove more instructive or more acceptable for the present age than the life of John Jacob Astor,”gushed one magazine in his obituary.

But today, one facet of the first multi-millionaire’s biography might seem to tarnish his shining legacy: his dabbling in smuggled opium. Astor’s enormous fortune was made in part by sneaking opium into China against imperial orders. The resulting riches made him one of the world’s most powerful merchants𠅊nd also helped create the world’s first widespread opioid epidemic.

Born in Germany, Astor’s enterprising spirit took him abroad when he was just 18. He ended up in the United States at a time when the country was in the midst of a new love affair with China.

As Astor began to sell furs in New York, he kept tabs on America’s new China trade. The country had a longstanding obsession with Chinese goods, especially the tea that had fueled revolutionary sentiment against the United Kingdom. During British rule, American trade was under England’s thumb, and the East India Company had a monopoly on trade with China. The Revolutionary War changed that, and the new United States, now free of the monopoly, could trade freely with China. American ships began to sail directly to Canton, and the flow of commerce that followed made millionaires out of the intrepid men who plunged into the trade.

Astor began to import Chinese tea and silks𠅊nd to flirt with another way to get in on the trade boom.

A port off the Canton River in China. (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

“The China trade was an early engine of American investment,”notes Eric Jay Dolin for The Daily Beast. The merchants who became millionaires thanks to commerce with China also became philanthropists𠅋ut there was a downside. “These American fortunes, and all their good works…must be weighed against the damage that was done in acquiring them,” writes Dolin.

That damage took the form of drugs—namely, opium. Since there wasn’t much demand in China for western goods, England and the United States made up for it by providing something that was. They used the profits from opium to purchase tea, pottery and fabrics that they𠆝 resell back home. This also allowed merchants to get around a big technical challenge: an international shortage of silver, the only currency the Chinese would take.

Opium was technically banned in China, but merchants like Astor found a way around the ban. Large ships containing gigantic hauls of opium met small vessels outside of legitimate ports and swiftly unloaded their illicit cargo. Bribery was common and officials who had taken bribes looked the other way instead of enforcing anti-opium laws.

Astor knew that British ships usually smuggled in premium opium from India, but he wanted to get a foothold in the opium trade. For his first salvo, he purchased 10 tons of Turkish opium in 1816. The quality wasn’t as high as Indian opium, but it was still in demand: dealers cut Indian opium with their Turkish supply. Astor shipped the opium to China in exchange for goods that he resold in the United States.

It isn’t clear how much opium Astor sold during his years as a drug smuggler, and the business was just a lucrative sideline to his even more profitable fur trade. But Astor is thought to have sold hundreds of thousands of pounds of opium between 1816 and 1825, when he stepped away from the China trade for good. According to historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, Astor even brought opium to New York, openly selling it and evenadvertising it in New York newspapers.

Chinese opium smokers in Hong Kong. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By selling opium, Astor was satisfying an international craving that would reach epidemic proportions during the 19th century. Opium use became rampant in China, where 3 million people smoked opium in the 1830s. By 1890, a full 10 percent of China’s population smoked opium. In a bid to curb opium use, imperial China banned producing or consuming the drug, even executing dealers andforcing users to wear heavy wooden collars and endure beatings.

Smugglers like Astor fed that demand without taking on too much risk as Frederic Delano Grant, Jr. notes, American smugglers overlooked the consequences of the trade. “Perhaps the opium traders’ inability to see most Chinese as other than menials or curiosities helped them keep faceless the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who craved the drug they sold,”writes Grant.

Astor wasn’t the only American to make his fortune in part through opium smuggling: Warren Delano, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s father, made millions engaging in what hecalled a �ir, honorable and legitimate” trade.

Opium smoking and injection of opium derivatives like morphine created hardcore drug users in England and the United States, but the main toll of opium use in the West was felt among casual users who started using opium under doctor’s orders. Opium use was socially acceptable and medically approved in some forms, and could be found in patent medicines prescribed for everything from pain to depression.

This led to widespread addiction and became, in effect, America’s first opioid epidemic. In 1859, Harper’s Magazinewrote of “glassy eyes in Fifth Avenue drawing-rooms and opera-stalls” and “permanently stupefied” babies𠅊ll people who took or were given opium in prescription or over-the-counter form. It would take until the late 19th century for American doctors to curb their prescriptions of opium derivatives to patients.

By then, opium abuse had devastated China and caused two wars. Astor, long since dead, had passed his fortune on to a family that became a Gilded Age fixture and dominated New York philanthropy and high society.

Astor’s reputation didn’t suffer from the trade—though it was illegal in China, Astor conducted his drug deals openly. But by participating in the opium trade in the early 1800s, he helped create a system that fueled addiction worldwide𠅊nd made millions while he was at it.

Unsurprisingly for a work controlled by a committee of bureaucrats, the ballet was mired in conflict

Unsurprisingly for a work controlled by a committee of bureaucrats, the ballet was mired in conflict throughout its development. Virtually everyone involved fought over every element possible (aside from composer Reinhold Glière – a master of the art of playing it safe who kept his compositions light and uncontroversial, stayed out of ideological battles between artists, and coasted through the revolution unscathed). The original scenarist’s treatment was rejected and his duties were passed to Kurilko, who is credited as its official author. A third person involved in the script fell out with ballet master Vasiliy Tikhomirov over the second act, and his name was removed from the project. One of the ballet’s most crowd-pleasing dances, the folksy Yablochko (or “Little Apple”), is derived from a Russian sailor song, and as Glière later recalled, the Bolshoi orchestra’s musicians considered it demeaning to play. “Pressure, endless pressure,” reads an internal memo from the period, quoted by Elizabeth Souritz in her book Soviet Choreographers in the 1920s. “More than once the whole thing fell apart and we lost hope.”

Flower power

The Stalinist era was difficult for new productions: higher-ups wanted them, but it was hard for them to survive the ever-shifting demands of the state bureaucracy and censorship. Usually, it was safer to simply rework old classics with the right ideological spin. The Red Poppy too was nearly killed. In the spring of 1927, the culture commissar ordered the Bolshoi to bump it in favour of an opera by Prokofiev, as part of an effort to woo the acclaimed composer back from abroad. But then, the ballet found its moment. On 6 April, Chinese police raided the Soviet embassy in Beijing. Meanwhile, crisis was building in Shanghai. Nationalists had allied with communists to take control of the city, but had turned on them. Soviet papers filled with headlines about the slaughter of Chinese communists. The Red Poppy suddenly “resonated with the current political situation and thus received approval for performance,” writes Simon Morrison, a music professor at Princeton University, in his book Bolshoi Confidential.

Britain had established the East India Company in 1600 in part to gain access to the Chinese market. Thereafter the company enjoyed a monopoly over Britain's trade with China. Given Britain's growing demand for tea, porcelain, and silk from China, trade between China and Britain remained in China's favor down to the early nineteenth century. In order to find money to pay for these goods and cover the trade deficit, the company started to import opium to China in large quantities starting in the mid-eighteenth century. The size of these imports increased tenfold between 1800 and 1840 and provided the British with the means to pay for the tea and other goods imported from China. By the 1820s the trade balance had shifted in Britain's favor, and opium became a major commercial and diplomatic issue between China and Britain.

The opium trade was illegal in China. The Qing state had banned opium sales that were not strictly for medical purposes as early as 1729. But the law was not rigorously enforced. A century later more Chinese people had become opium smokers, which made enforcement of the ban more difficult. By the mid-1830s growing drug addiction had created such serious economic, social, financial, and political problems in China that many Chinese scholars and officials were becoming concerned about the resulting currency drain, moral decay, and diminishment of the military forces' fighting capacity. They argued that China had to ban the opium trade once and for all.

The emperor agreed and in 1838 decided that the opium trade must be stopped. He sent an official named Lin Zexu (1785–1850) to Guangzhou with a special mandate to solve the opium problem. Lin launched a comprehensive attack on the opium trade, targeting users as well as providers of the drug. In his dealing with British opium traders, he used a combination of reason, moral suasion, and coercion. He even sent a letter to Queen Victoria to argue his case. In his carefully phrased letter, Lin tried to appeal to the British queen's sense of moral responsibility and legality. When reason and moral suasion did not work, Lin blockaded the residence compound of the foreign opium traders, including the British superintendent in Guangzhou, to force them to give up more than twenty thousand chests of opium.

The goods from China carried away by your country not only supply your own consumption and use, but also can be divided up and sold to other countries, producing a triple profit. Even if you do not sell opium, you still have this threefold profit. How can you bear to go further, selling products injurious to others in order to fulfill your insatiable desire?…Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused.

Lin Zexu's Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839. In China's Responses to the West, edited by Ssu-yü Teng and John King Fairbanks. (Cambridge, 1954), p. 26.

For the Chinese, Lin's actions were about opium. For the British, however, the drug was a key component in their trade with China. Without the profits from opium, British merchants would not be able to pay for Chinese tea and silk, and Britain was prepared even to risk war to continue the opium trade. Because the opium trade was illegal in China, Britain could not officially argue for a war to protect the opium trade. Instead, it claimed that Lin's strong action on opium insulted British national honor. In 1834 the British government abolished the East India Company's monopoly on China trade. This had serious consequences for Anglo-Chinese relations because the chief representative of British interests in China now represented his country rather than the company, so that an insult to the British trade superintendent was now a matter of state. Britain also claimed that it went to war with China to promote free trade.

On these grounds, the full British fleet under Admiral George Elliot, consisting of sixteen warships and four newly designed steamships, arrived in Guangzhou in June 1840. They blockaded Guangzhou and Ningbo and fought their way farther up the north coast, and in 1840 threatened Tianjin, a port city close to Beijing. The Qing court agreed to negotiate, and in 1842 the Treaty of Nanjing concluded the first Opium War. As a result Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, and China was forced to abolish the Guangzhou system on which Chinese trade relations had been based for over a century and agreed to allow the British to trade and reside in four coastal cities in addition to Guangzhou: Shanghai, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Ningbo. China in addition agreed to pay an indemnity of $21 million to cover the losses claimed by the British opium traders and Britain's war expenses. A supplement to the treaty signed in 1843 extended most-favored-nation treatment (a guarantee of trading equality) to Britain, and the Qing state later granted most-favored-nation treatment to all the Great Powers. The treaty therefore symbolized the beginning of the so-called century of shame for China. Other powers immediately followed suit and forced China to sign a series of unequal treaties. The foreign powers' unequal rights in China lasted until 1943. With the Treaty of Nanjing and the unequal treaties that followed, China lost its judicial and tariff autonomy and other crucial parts of its national sovereignty. Although the nineteenth century was a century of rivalries among major European powers, because of the most-favored-nation clause they continued to be allied against China.

The Opium Wars

The wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60 are a perfect case study of the divergence of opinion that the British Empire continues to generate.

Despite Niall Ferguson’s efforts in 2003 to partially rehabilitate British imperialism in his bestselling Empire the subject still provokes angry debate. The recent revelations concerning the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s obliteration of archives dealing with British brutality in 1950s Africa and Malaya drew the Empire’s attackers and admirers into open combat. George Monbiot in the Guardian lambasted defenders of the imperial legacy, while Lawrence James in the Daily Mail argued that ‘the Empire was a dynamic force for the regeneration of the world’.

The Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60 between Qing-dynasty China and Britain are a perfect case study of the international divergence of opinion that the Empire continues to generate. In China the conflicts – the first between it and a western nation – are a national wound: the start of a western conspiracy to destroy China with drugs and gunboats. In Britain the wars barely seem to register in public memory.

It is perhaps in its attempt to provide a strong intellectual rationale for the Opium Wars that Leslie Marchant’s 2002 article most clearly shows its age. It begins with a discussion of the ideological differences between the two sides: the British attachment to free trade and progress jibing with the traditional Confucian bias against merchants and commerce. Many earlier western commentators tried to play down opium as the casus belli, asserting instead that a clash of economic and political cultures lay behind the conflicts. They sought a moral justification for wars that were essentially about protecting an illegal, profitable drugs trade.

These days historians may prefer to focus on the amoral pounds, shillings and pence logic of the wars, arguing that they were about opium and the drug’s unique ability to balance the books, rather than a more intellectually respectable ‘collision of civilisations’. John Wong’s 1998 study of Britain’s second Opium War with China, Deadly Dreams, made clear Lord Palmerston’s dependency on opium revenues throughout the middle decades of the 19th century. In light of the British addiction to Chinese exports (silk, ceramics and tea), opium was the only commodity that saved the British balance of payments with Asia from ruinous deficit. Marchant argues that mid-century British merchants in China believed that a ‘just war’ should be fought to defend progress. In reality the British leaders of the opium trade through the 1830s and 1840s were far more interested in protecting their drug sales in order to fund lucrative retirement packages (one of their number, James Matheson, used such profits to buy a seat in Parliament and the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis).

Marchant also portrays opium as an absolute blight on 19th-century China. Over the past decade, however, Frank Dikötter, Lars Laaman and Zhou Xun have enhanced our understanding of late-imperial China’s opium culture. They have moved away from the idea that opium turned any casual smoker into a pathetic victim and have instead portrayed with increasing subtlety the economic, social and cultural realities of its use in China.

Yet there is much in Marchant’s article that remains relevant. He captures nicely the childish blitheness of the young Queen Victoria to the war in China (‘Albert is so amused at my having got the Island of Hong Kong’). He makes an important point, too, about the over-reliance of some earlier Anglophone historians on western sources and paradigms to interpret Chinese history and their neglect of internal Chinese factors. Until surprisingly recently, this remained a significant issue in Chinese studies. As late as 1984 an influential sinologist called Paul Cohen felt the need to call for a ‘China-centred’ history: one that relied on careful work in Chinese archives and examined Chinese history on its own terms. As a result we have seen an impressive body of works emerge that have re-examined a succession of Sino-western encounters through sources from both sides.

In the case of the Opium War the examination of Chinese materials has highlighted how split the court was on the question of an anti-opium crackdown how chaotic and absent-minded the Qing’s military and diplomatic response was and how politically complex ordinary Chinese reactions were to the British and the war. As doing research in China becomes easier and more archives open their collections to foreigners (although many materials from the 1960s and 1970s remain out of reach) the old bias towards western sources that Marchant acutely noted is happily becoming the stuff of history.

Julia Lovell is Senior Lecturer in Chinese History at Birbeck, University of London and is the author of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (Picador, 2011).