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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Sep 19, 2022

Last time we spoke, the British government was walking a tight rope between getting their tea fix and not being banned from trade with China. When Britain ended the East India company’s monopoly over the China trade, they assumed they could not be implicated in the illegal opium trade and they were soon proved very very wrong. Britain had managed to fix their silver problem, but at the cost of draining China’s silver and that tight rope they were walking, well they fell. China was becoming chaotic again, revolts were likely to be on the horizon. The Qing dynasty had had enough of the situation and began to crack down in the 1830’s more and more so. Now China is sending one man who had proven he knew how to stop the opium trade and soon he would wage war on the illicit trade.


This episode is Lin Zexu vs big opium


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on the history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.


Lin Zexu gave the strongest and swiftest voice of approval and he was no ordinary official. Lin Zexu was the son of a schoolteacher and proved to be a great student. He passed the brutal competitive examination in Beijing in 1811 at the age of 26 emerging top of his class. Working as a judge in the 1820’s he earned a reputation for fairness and the nickname “Lin, Clear as heaven” or “Lin the Clear sky” which was a testament to his incorruptibility. Over the years of his work he earned great renown as a pragmatic administrator deeply versed in how to deal with water management and flood relief. He was a rare official who could be relied upon to put the welfare of the people ahead of his own gain. He was frankly, incorruptible and because of this, in 1838 he was Emperor Daoguangs favorite minister and reached a rank comparable to Deng Tingzhen in Canton while being 10 years younger than him. He was a beacon of honesty and virtue in a time when the Qing government was full of corruption. One and a million as they say. 


Lin Zexu’s primary concerns had always been domestic, he had no dealings with foreigners as that was exclusively a Canton issue. Foreign relations were very far from his mind and this shaped his way of thinking. His main concerns were with the Chinese, not the foreigners when tackling the problem of opium. Lin Zexu was quite conservative and his support for suppressing opium was based on his abiding faith in moral suasion. When Huang Juezi made his proposal it marked a turning point for Lin Zexu. He seized on the proposal almost like a religious crusade and immediately offered the Emperor a detailed action plan. He recommended the confiscation and destruction of opium pipes and other equipment for using the drug. Local moral campaigns, education campaigns to teach the evils of opium to the people and active suppression of opium dens and corrupt officials. He also recommended medical treatments to help addicts wean off opium. He described various elixirs used to combat opium addiction.


One thing of interest to me as my first degree is in neurobehavioral science, Lin Zexu talked about giving patients a mix of small amounts of opium combined with herbs that would make the patients sick. This idea has been used in the field of addiction and can be effective. The Idea is based on operant conditioning, by linking to the act of taking opium with a negative stimulus you might get the patient to be more and more reluctant to take the drug. I will attest this in practice is a hit or miss depending on the drug or action. Anyways Lin Zexu’s action plan was quite formidable and was hitting the issue at the source at multiple angles. 


After sending his action plan to the Emperor, Lin Zexu took the initiative to test it out in his provinces of Hunan and Hubei. In august of 1838 he launched the campaign first setting out to hospitals to treat addicts. Then he jailed dealers, issued proclamations condemning the use of the drug and ordered local officials to round up and destroy whatever opium or opium using equipment they could find. Reports began to pour into Beijing about the success of Lin Zexu’s plan. Tens of thousands of pipes were and ounces of opium were confiscated. Mind you 10 thousands ounces of opium was around 10 chests worth, during a time when 30,000 chests were coming into China annually. The pipes and opium were burnt publicly, which was a crucial element to the plan as they needed to prove to the public they indeed were destroying the substance, otherwise the public would assume they were taking it for themselves! Lin Zexu’s reports to the Emperor were increasingly triumphant and their tone pressed the urgency to unleash the action plan outside Hunan and Hubei. In September of 1838 Lin Zexu declared opium to be the largest problem the Qing dynasty was facing. “Before opium was widespread, those who smoked it only harmed themselves. The punishments of canning and exile were enough to keep them in line. But when its evil influence has penetrated into the whole country, the effect is tremendous. Laws should be put into rigid enforcement. If left in a lax state, then after a few decades, there will be no soldier in this Central Empire to fight against invaders, nor money to bear the military expenses. I have the fear, that if the evil be suffered to grow at this critical moment there may be no more chance for remedy”


In October of 1838, the Daoguang Emperor was leaning heavily towards initiating the suppression campaign while some of his officials still believed he might legalize opium. Those same officials were feeding Charles Elliot stories that at any moment the substance would be legalized and this influenced his actions. Then on November the 8th a Manchu official named Qishan who was the governor general of Zhili province reported the largest drug bust in the history of the Qing empire to that point. The confiscated opium was found in Tianjin, not too far away from Beijing. Qishan stated the opium had come from Canton through the Cantonese traders who managed to ship it north through various means. The major drug bust indicated to the Qing court, perhaps they needed to perform the same action in Canton. Emperor Daoguang then made the decision to summon Lin Zexu to Beijing in December of 1838. After the meeting, Emperor Daoguang tasked Lin Zexu with a mission to obliterate the opium trade in Canton. Lin Zexu would travel south as an imperial commissioner, holding the power to act on behalf of the Emperor, answerable to no other local officials. He would have command over all naval forces at Canton and Deng Tingzhen would give him support. Thus in early January of 1839, while Charles Elliot expected legalization of opium to be declared at any moment, Lin Zexu made his way to end the illicit trade once and for all.


Charles Elliot was being fed false information about the ongoing court battle over the opium question in China and he worried about his lack of authority over the British subjects in Canton. If the opium smugglers provoked a crisis under his watch, he was placed in quite a predicament. The British traders and Chinese did not actually know what Elliot’s authority was and on many occasions tried to pry the information out of him. The English newspapers for example repeatedly asked him to clarify what his authorization was, but he refused to ever answer.  Elliots became increasingly concerned with British sailors getting into fights with local chinese and organized a naval police force to deal with the issue. Yet when he began doing this he was scolded by Palmerston for overstepping his authority. “You have no power of your own authority to make any such regulations. The establishment of a system of police at Whampoa within the dominions of the Emperor of China was in violation of the absolute right of sovereignty enjoyed by independent states”


By the early winter of 1839 it seemed governor general Deng Tingzhen’s ongoing efforts to crackdown on the Chinese opium smugglers was working. As noted by William Jardine “Not a broker to be seen, nor an Opium pipe; they have all vanished. The authorities are seizing smokers, dealers and shopkeepers innumerable. We must hope for better times and brisker deliveries”. Up to this point Deng Tingzhen limited his actions towards the Chinese and did not target any foreigners. Occasional shots were fired between government boats and foreign smuggling vessels, but nothing had gotten out of hand. Then on December 3rd, a small drug bust was performed and 2 Chinese workers were caught smuggling opium for a British merchant. In response to the incident, Deng Tingzhen decided to make an official statement to the foreign community. On december 12 a small force of Qing soldiers went to the gates of the foreign factories and hammered a wooden cross on the gate indicating they were about to execute a convicted Chinese opium dealer. The site of the execution was to be in front of the foreign factories, obviously Deng Tingzheng was sending a message to the foreigners, that they were responsible for the man's execution. 


Its hard to know who acted out first. Elliot was at Whampoa and did not witness the event to come and those involved on the British side said they had no involvement. Its been theorized British sailors may have perpetuated it, regardless some foreigners decided that the execution in front of their homes was too distrubed and began to tear down the gallows being erected. The local Chinese soldiers did nothing to resist, some even began to help tear it down. A crowd of Chinese formed to watch the event and its remained peaceful, until some rowdy British began shoving their way through the crowd. These British hit several Chinese with sticks and some threw rocks, as you can imagine soon fights began and a full riot burst. Several thousand Chinese came and began pelting the foreigner with rocks prompting the Chinese soldiers to intervene and escort the foreigners back into the factories. In the end the gallow was torn down, but the convicted Chinese smuggler was executed elsewhere. 


Palmerston demanded to know what had occurred, he was furious the British subjects had the audacity to get involved in Chinese affairs. “On what grounds did the traders imagine themselves entitled to interfere with the arrangements made by the Chinese officers of justice for carrying into effect, in a chinese town, the orders of their superior authorities”. Elliot was quite shaken by the situation. He knew he had to do something to thwart any further incident, but he had no real authority to do anything. He wrote back to Palmerston “that the danger and shame of the opium trade had reached a point where it was falling by rapid degrees into the hands of more and more desperate men”. Elliot then decided to take firm action, on december 18 he issued a proclamation ordering all British vessels carrying opium to depart the inner waters of Canton immediately. He had no authority to confiscate their cargoes, nor to arrest them and thus he fell back on the authority of the Qing government. If any British vessels refused, he would personally turn them over to the Chinese “Her Majesty’s Government will in no way interpose if the Chinese Government shall think fit to seize and confiscate the same”. Simultaneously he wrote the governor of Canton pledging his support for the campaign against opium. 


The opium traders were all very very pissed off. The superintendent, Elliot was supposed to protect them! James Matheson complained to the British press “that Elliot had adopted the novel course of assisting the Qing government in this, against his own countrymen! It appears to be the intention of Captain Elliot to offer himself as a kind of chief of the chinese preventive service”. Another execution of a convicted chinese opium smuggler took place in february of 1839, this time it was done much faster and with a large guard. William Jardine left Canton in late January of 1839, leaving Matheson to watch over the business. Enroute to Canton was Lin Zexu who was being counseled by many Qing officials. Qishan warned Lin Zexu not to start a war against the foreigners. Another official Gong Zizhen who was prolifically anti opium, advised that if Lin should try to shut off the source of opium directly at Canton, then both the foreign and Chinese dealers might start a revolt and China might not have sufficient military power to control them both. He recommended a gradual approach, first take action to reduce imports and only against the Chinese merchants and consumers while simultaneously increasing the military defenses at canton. He argued that China’s existing naval forces could not possibly match the British and that efforts should be made to increase coastal and inland defenses. With all that being complete, in time they would be able to shut off the foreign merchants completely. Enroute to Canton, Lin Zexu visited Bao Shichen a official who had written since the 1820’s on the subject of shutting down foreign trade to prevent the drain of silver from china. Bao Shichen told him “to clear a muddy stream you must purify the source. To put a law into effect you must first create order within”. Lin Zexu took this to mean he should first begin arresting all the government officials who had violated the ban on opium. Then he must completely shut off the flow of foreign opium imports coming into Canton. Bao Shichen would later state that Lin Zexu misunderstood him completely and that shutting down foreign trade was too dangerous. 


In March of 1839, Canton was anxious about Lin Zexu’s arrival. Everyone knew the great powers invested upon him, but nobody knew how he would use them. He arrived on March 10th and immediately struck hard. He began with mass arrests of the known Chinese smugglers and put up proclamations announcing his mission was to destroy the opium trade in its entirety. He ordered marchants to abandon the trade and for users to hand over their pipes to be smashed. Thousands of pounds of opium and tens of thousands of pipes were confiscated. In 3 months after his arrival, he would arrest 5 times the amount of people that Deng Tingzhen had done in his 2 year reign. As things were going along successfully with the Chinese affairs, Lin Zexu then decided to address the foreign merchants. On march 18 he issued an edict ordering the British merchants to surrender all of their opium to him and gave them 3 days to comply. The Hong merchants as the traditional mediators between the foreigners and the Qing government bore the heaviest blame and Lin Zexu began interrogating them all. Many were brought before him on their knees under threat of execution if they should lie. 


The foreign merchants initially made no efforts toward surrendering their opium, they all wanted to see how far Lin Zexu would actually go. Lin Zexu was not accustomed to being disobeyed and quickly lost his patience. By March 19 he announced that no foreign merchants would be allowed to leave the Canton factories until they gave up their opium and signed papers stating they would never trade the drug again in China under penalty of death. Boom. If they continued to defy him after the 3 day, he would execute Houqua and other Hong merchants on the morning of March 22. The Hong merchants all panicked and pleaded with the British merchants to help. The British caved in someone and agreed to hand over 1000 chests of opium on the morning of march 22. Word came that the amount of chests would not be enough and thus the British simply held back. 


Houqua and some other Hong merchants were paraded around the Canton square with iron collars and chains. Lin Zexu threatened to execute them if British merchants did not hand over the opium, but the deadline had passed and many were suspicious if Lin Zexu was bluffing. One person who did not think Lin Zexu was bluffing was Elliot who was in Macao when he heard of the situation. Elliot feared the British merchants would all be put on trial and executed. Elliot resolved to save them by standing up to the imperial commissioner, but also while trying to appease him. Elliot wrote to Palmerston “to save the merchants a firm tone and attitude was all that he needed to efuse the unjust and menacing disposition of the Imperial commissioner, but that he would also appease him by using his best efforts for fulfilling the reasonable purpose of the Qing government”


Elliot arrived at the Canton factories at sundown of March 24 in a rowboat in full captain's uniform with a cocked hat and his sword in hand. He proclaimed to the merchants “given the imminent hazard of life and property and the dark and violent natures of Lin Zexu’s threats, they should begin immediate preparations to evacuate the Canton factories. If Lin Zexu refused to grant them passage from Canton to Macao within 3 days, Elliot would conclude that the Chinese intended to hold them hostage. So long as their proceedings were moderate, defensible and just I will remain with you to my last gulp!”. That night Lin Zexu ordered all the Chinese staff in the factories to leave. The cooks, linguists, porters, servants and such all packed up and left. Then Lin Zexu shut off all supplies from entering the factories and surrounded them with soldiers. The foreign factories had become a prison for roughly 350 people, not all of whom were British. There were Americans, Parsis, some Dutch alongside the British. Lin Zexu was careful to order all guards to not provoke nor molest the foreigners, he wanted everything to be peaceful. Nobody was going to starve however, provisions were plentiful in the factories, however the merchants found cooking for themselves disastrous. One report came from the Americans who said Robert Frobes attempt at ham and eggs came out a hard black mass approximating the sole of a shoe


Elliot was terrified they were all going to starve or be executed. Elliot resolved that they had to cooperate with Lin Zexu and hand over all the opium for if they didn't, he feared they would all be executed. In the name of her majesty, Elliot ordered everyone to surrender the opium to him and in return he would sign a promissory note guaranteeing that the British government would pay them its fair market value. The offer seemed too good to be true to the merchants. The Qing authorities could at any moment seize all the opium by force and with it their tremendous losses. James Matheson said “our surrender is the most fortunate thing that could have happened”. Throughout the afternoon on march 27th, the merchants brought Elliot statements of the amount of opium under the control of their firms and he in turn signed notes of guarantee payments by the British government. All told the amount was 20, 283 chests with a market value of roughly 10 million dollars. There was one glaring problem with this solution, Elliot had absolutely no authority to do it.


Elliots decision would turn out to be the crux of many events to come. Elliot had no authority nor any instructions to do what he did. It seems in hindsight it was a rash decision made in panic. From Elliots point of view he had to immediately save the lives of the British subjects and the overall trade relations between Britain and China. After making the choice he wrote to Palmerston “I am without doubt, that the safety of a great mass of human life hung upon my determination”. All the merchants who went along with it knew full well Elliots did not have the authority to purchase 10 million dollars worth of opium on behalf of the Crown, but because he had been so ambiguous in the past about his authority, they could all play coy that they went along with it believing he did have the authority. The signed document would give them a strong case against the British government for compensation if and when it came to that. Facing the choice of having their contraband seized by Elliot or Lin Zexu, it was a no brainer they had better chances dealing with their own government to get reimbursement. Both Elliot and the traders assumed there would be a compensation of sorts and with it the termination of the Indian Chinese opium trade for good. They had no idea how events in Britain would unfold as a result of all of this. 


And so Elliot wrote to Lin Zexu informing him he would be surrendering all of the opium, which would be the single largest seizure of opium recorded in Chinese history up to that point. Lin Zexu wrote to the emperor on april 12 1839 after the seizure detailing how enormous the success was. He got them to seize all the opium in a short time and they made little conflict over it, hell no military force was really necessary “naturally they were cowed into submission”. Lin Zexu recommended they show benevolence towards the foreigners, to forgive them of their past crimes and send them a large gift of livestock, since he imagined they were starving and they no longer had their trade to support them. Yet Lin Zexu did not immediately release them, Elliot was livid! Lin Zexu told Elliot they could only be granted to leave once ¾’s of the opium had been collected a process that would take weeks, possibly months. Elliot sent a secret dispatch to Palmerston begging him for a naval fleet “it appear to me, my lord, that the response to all these unjust violences should be made in the form of a swift and heavy blow, prefaced by one word of written communication”. Elliot further argued for naval blockade of Canton and the Yangtze River, the capture of Chusan island all followed up by a northern expedition to demand the “disgrace and punishment” of Lin Zexu and Deng Tingzhen. Emperor Daoguang should be forced to apologize for the “indignities heaped upon the Queen and to pay an indemnity to satisfy British losses. The Qing government must be made to understand its obligations to the rest of the world. 


It would take 6 weeks for all the opium to be collected and the Qing officials expected the opium to be sold off to reimburse the countless Chinese traders that had lost out. Emperor Daoguang however ordered Lin Zexu to destroy it all, and that is just what he did. I would like to mention at this time, I covered what is to come, the first Opium war on my personal channel, its a 45 minute or so documentary so please check it out it would mean a lot to me. But what I also want to let you know is there was a British/Chinese movie made on the Opium war called…the Opium War haha, which came out in 1997. I won't sugar coat it, not a amazing film by any measure, but the scene where Lin Zexu destroys the opium is quite impressive and does more merit to the story then me narrating it, so check it out if you would like! Over the course of 3 weeks in June, Lin Zexu destroyed the opium at a specially built site near the Tiger’s Mouth. An american missionary named Elijah Bridgeman witnessed it and there are artist renditions of the event. In rectangular pools around 7 feet deep the opium balls were crushed and tossed in. Chinese workers would stir the thick opium filled water into a froth then cover it all with lime and salt for a few days before casting it out to sea.


Lord Palmerston learnt of the confiscated opium from the traders themselves before Elliots letter arrived. The letter that informed Palmerston was from James Matheson who was launching a campaign to make the government pay up. Suddenly petitions from all the merchants poured into Palmerstons office. A bunch of drug dealers were shaking down the British government to pay for their lost drugs. There was another major problem, since march of 1839 all trade with China had halted and there was no way to tell when it would open back up. Ships full of cotton textiles were stuck at Macao and tea shipments were stuck in Whampoa. All the non opium traders were petitioning Britain to do something and fast. Collectively the domestic manufacturers of goods that went to Canton held significant political power, much greater than the opium claimants. They demanded “prompt, vigorous and decided measures to reopen Canton and put the regular China trade on a more secure and permanent basis”. What they wanted was a treaty, done via force if necessary.


William Jardine arrived in Britain in September right as the news from Canton was spilling in and began a lobbying campaign. For the british government the talk of the opium trade was embarrassing and they wished to make the entire matter disappear as quickly as possible. However the amount of money owed to the opium traders was enormous and the Treasury of England was in no state to compensate them. Palmerston was in a terrible situation and he brought the issue of China to a cabinet meeting at Windsor castle on October 1 of 1839. He was being bombarded by business lobbyists demanding action, Elliots letter pleading for help and the English press. Britain was involved in a war in the Ottoman Empire against Russia, with a dispute between Maine and New Brunswick and an invasion of Afghanistan thus all the ministers did not want to distract themselves too much with the China problem. Palmerston offered a quick solution, he tossed in front of the cabinet several maps of the Chinese coast and explained how a small British squadron could blockade China’s crucial ports and rivers to force the Qing government into submission. The plan was almost identical to a plan formulated by James Matheson in 1836 after Napiers death. The Prime minister Lord Melbourne was not so much concerned with the military aspect of the plan, but how were they going to pay the 10 million to the opium merchants, they had no financial resources to spare. They did not want to take on anymore government debt, the debt was already high after the Napoleonic wars. Also it was going to look terrible bad that the British government was paying off drug dealers. Then the solution came, the brand new secretary at war, Thomas Macaulay made a suggestion to Palmerston, a rather out of the box idea. Why not make China pay for it all.


Palmerston put forward Macaulay’s idea and the cabinet agreed boom. The matter was settled, a naval squadron, not too large would be dispatched to obtain reparation from China for Lin Zexu’s taking of Elliot and the other British subjects hostage. On may 21st of 1839, Lin Zexu finally allowed the foreigners to leave Canton and Elliot ordered all British subjects to abandon the factories and go to macao. Despite this more tense events would follow. 


In early July there was a drunken melee in Hong Kong harbor. The comprador of the British ship Carnatic was arrested and the sailors of the Carnatic demanded his return, but the Chinese refused. Thus 30 sailors on July 12th from the Carnatic and Mangalore, both ships owned by Jardine Matheson & Co went ashore and to the village of Jianshazui on the Kowloon Peninsula. They all proceed to get drunk off Samshu, a fortified rice wine and vandalized the local temple and beat to death a man named Lin Weixi. Elliot was livid when he heard the news, he was trying to bide time in the hopes Britain was sending reinforcements. He immediately tried to rush to Jianshazui to bribe the family of the victim, but the bribery was to no avail. When Lin Zexu heard of the affair he demanded that the culprits be handed over for Chinese justice. At this time Lin Zexu he had just received new regulations from the Emperor that formully mandated the death sentence for opium users in China and for the first time also for foreigners who sold opium.The British assumed it was a death sentence to give the men up. Lin also put up postings that if any Chinese killed a foreigner unjustly they would be executed. Instead of giving up the men, Elliot called for a court of inquiry and charged 5 British sailors with riot and assault, but brought no murder or manslaughter chrages. Lin Zexu accused the British of denying China’s sovereignty by issuing a court of their own.


Elliot then invited Lin Zexu to send government officials to observe a new trial for the said sailors, but Lin Zexu refused and promulgated an edict that forbade anyone from giving food or water to all the British citizens in China under penalty of death. The situation was growing more and more tense and Lin Zexu tossed Elliot a rope. On August 17 he ordered Elliot to hand over the murderer without specifiyng the perpetrators identity. Thus the idea was that Elliot could simply send whomever he wanted and the matter could be settled. From Elliots point of view however, to handover any British citizen would cause an uproar back home and he refused to do so. 


 On August 24, an English passenger aboard a boat near Hong Kong was attacked at night. The Chinese stripped the man naked, cut off his ear and stuffed it in his mouth. Rumors began to spread that Lin Zexu was amassing thousands of soldiers to invade Macao. Then the Portuguese governor general of Macao, Don Adraio Accacio a Silveira Pinto told Elliot he had been ordered by the Chinese to expel the British from the colony. He also told Elliot that the Chinese were secretly forming a military force to seize all the British in Macao. That very same day 2 ships belonging to Jardine Matheson & Co arrived to Macao, the Harriet towing the Black Joke. Living up to its name, the Black Joke was covered in blood all over her decks and her crew was missing. The crew of the Harriet reported that unidentified Chinese had boarded the Black Joke as it passed the island of Lantao and massacred the entire crew except for a single sailor they had rescued. Governor Pinto was so alarmed by this development he simply ordered the British to leave immediately.


Elliot finally took action. Elliot ordered all the British women and children to depart aboard some merchant ships and sail to Hong Kong Island. With no more hostages at stake Elliot now felt free to make a counterattack if necessary, but for now he would bide his time hoping that Britain was sending a squadron. His hopes were raised when a warship from India arrived, the Volage which held 26 cannons, she also brought with her news that another warship, the Hyacinth and 18 gunner was on its way shortly. Thus Elliot and all the men boarded the ships and sailed to the Kowloon peninsula and set up a flotilla just above Hong Kong island.


Lin Zexu got a report of the exodus of Macao and felt he had finally won and wrote to Emperor Daoguang “no doubt they have on their ships a certain stock of dried provisions; but they will very soon find themselves without the heavy, greasy meat dishes for which they have such a passion”. On September 1 the Emperor sent Lin Zexu a letter asking if the rumors were true that the barbarians had purchased female children and used them in diabolical rites. Lin Zexu replied that the foreigners employed Chinese adults as plantation workers and miners and a few children, but he did not believe that any black magic was involved in their employment. The Emperor also asked if the confiscated opium contained human flesh which he theorized might explain the illicit drugs preternatural addictive powers. Lin had heard these ridiculous rumors before, but he could not contradict the Emperor as it amounted to Lese Majeste, so he replied that the opium may have contained flesh of crows that second handedly eat human flesh.


After dealing with the Emperor letters which said a lot about the perspective of Beijing on the matter, Lin went to Macao to thank the Portuguese governor for his help. Then Lin Zezu learnt of the British flotilla at Hong Kong. Lin Zexu began to issue orders forbidding the supply of food or water to British ships under the penalty of death. Again the Chinese staff were removed and Chinese war junks began to surround the kowloon peninsula and Hong Kong harbor. Signs were raised stating that the wells and streams had been poisoned.


Elliot tried one last ditch effort at diplomacy and took 3 ships, the 14 gun cutter Louisa, the 6 gun schooner Pearl and the 18 gun Volage to Kowloon to demand provisions. They soon ran into 3 anchored Chinese war junks who were blocking them from landing. Elliot sent an interpreter to demand they be allowed food and water. The Chinese captains refused to comply and Elliot said if they did not comply by 2pm that day he would be forced to bombard them. 2pm came with no indication of provisions being sent and no response from the Chinese. So Captain Henry Smith of the Volage fired on the nearest Chinese war junk and the first shot of the First Opium War had been made.


According to Adam Elmslie a young superintendent clerk was witnessed the event Henry Smith ordered the volley and “The Junks then triced up their Boarding nettings, and came into action with us at half pistol shot; our guns were well served with grape and round shot; the first shot we gave them they opened a tremendous and well directed fire upon us, from all their Guns (each Junk had 10 Guns, and they brought all these over on the side which we engaged them on) ... The Junk's fire, Thank God! was not enough depressed, or ... none would have lived to tell the Story.—19 of their Guns we received in [the] mainsail,—the first Broadside I can assure you was not pleasant.”


Thus the outdated cannons aboard the Chinese war junks were aimed too high completely missed all the British ships. The ships continued to exchange fire and the shore batteries opened fire to support the war junks. By 4:30pm the British had used up almost all their ammunition and made a getaway with the war junks in quik pursuit. Adam Elmslie had this to say when the fire fight recommenced. 

“The junks immediately made sail after the Louisa and at 4:45 [pm] they came up with the English vessels. We hove the vessel in stays on their starboard Beam, and the 'Pearl' on the larboard [portside] Bow of the van Junk, and gave them three such Broadsides that it made every Rope in the vessel grin again.—We loaded with Grape the fourth time, and gave them gun for gun.—The shrieking on board was dreadful, but it did not frighten me; this is the very first day I ever shed human blood, and I hope it will be the last”.

During the second engagement the Chinese war junks retreated to their previous positions and the 3 British ships returned to the flotilla causing a stalemate. The captains of the Chinese war junks sent word to Lin Zexu of a great naval victory over the British claiming to have sunk a number of enemy ships and inflicting 50 casualties. The truth was there were no British casualties and no ships sunk however, in fact the Chinese had 2 killed and 6 wounded. Captain Henry of the Volage bagged Elliot to let him attack the Chinese war junks near Hong Kong harbor certain of victory, but Elliot refused fearing the outbreak of a wider battle and wanting the foreign ministers approval first before escalating things anymore. Despite the reported victory of the Chinese war junks, food and water was sent to the British ships.

Lin Zexu was facing a personal and painful problem, an excruciating hernia. Chinese doctors were trying to help him to no avail, so Lin Zexu visited the office of one Dr. Peter Parker, no not spiderman, this was a Yale educated missionary. Parker fitted Lin Zexu with a truss that helped with the pain. After this Lin Zexu began reviewing the military situation at hand, at this time he wrote a poem about the battle of Kowloon “A vast display of Imperial might had shaken all the foreign tribes/And if they now confess their guilt we shall not be too hard on them.”. The Chinese began to war game while at Hong Kong the Hyacinth arrived to reinforce Elliots Flotilla. Lin Zexu continued to demand the surrender of the sailors who killed Lin Weixi, but as time went on the anger caused by the event had dissipated. Then a sailor allegedly drown from one of Jardine Mathesons & Co’s ships and the Chinese volunteered to let that dead sailor be identified as the murderer, case closed. 

Yet trade between Britain and China did not resume and Lin Zexu kept demanding all those who wished to trade in China sign the contract promising not to deal opium under penalty of death. Elliot told the traders not to sign the waivers and to simply sit tight for the time being as he waited for a British fleet. Some of the traders undercut his orders however and went ahead and signed the waiver and thus were allowed to trade legal cargo. One of these traders was Captain Warner of the British cargo ship Thomas Coutts and Lin Zexu was so impressed by the man he asked him to take a letter back to Britain for Queen Victoria. The letter was a remarkably frank document that explained the situation in Canton. It described all the evils of the opium trade and how it was hurting China and the response the Qing government was making to the opium crisis. It also stipulated how they could amend the situation to get rid of the opium menace and resume legal trade.

Captain Warner alleges he made good on the promise to bring the letter, first to Lord Palmerston, but his office refused to receive the letter, and there is little evidence Queen Victoria read the letter in question. The Times of London did publish the letter however, it seems Captain Warner must have simply given it to them in the end. When Lin Zexu found out another British warship had joined the Flotilla he took action. He suddenly proclaimed the corpse of the drowned sailor was no longer sufficient for the murder of Lin Weixi and renewed his demands for the murders to be handed over. Failure to comply would result in the expulsion of the entire British colony.

In the fall of 1839, 38 British trading vessels and 28 trading companies aboard them remained in Hong Kong harbor. Elliot begged the governor of Macao to let them come back, but he refused fearing the Portuguese would be dragged into what looked like an impending war. Then on October 20th, Elliot received a letter from Palmerston informing him that early next summer, 16 British warships with 4000 men were enroute to rescue the flotilla and to sit tight. However in the meantime more captains were signing the waiver and at the end of October Lin Zexu ordered all British ships to leave within 3 days time. Elliot set sail aboard the Volage with Hyacinth backing him up, for the Bogue as the British called it, it is also known as the Humen, it is a narrow strait in the Pearl River Delta. When Elliots ships reached Chuanbi near the mouth of the river on November 2nd, they came face to face with a Chinese fleet consisting of 15 war junks and 14 fire ships commanded by an old and revered Admiral named Guan Tianpei.

Elliots ships came to a halt when he ran into Guan's fleet and they began to exchange a series of messages trying to ferret out the intentions of the other. Guan threatened to seize either ship if it was holding the murderer of Lin Weixi “All I want is the murderous barbarian who killed Lin Weixi. As soon as a time is named when he will be given up, my ships will return into the Bogue. Otherwise, by no means whatsoever shall I accede”. Elliot failed to persuade Guan that he was no threat and the admiral fleet began to maneuver into a position to attack the 2 British Warships. As this was occurring, the Royal Saxon arrived on the scene on its way to Canton. Elliot was anxious to not allow another Captain to sign the opium waiver and fired a warning shot across the Royal Saxon’s bows to prevent the ship from entering the river. Guan proceeded to anchor hit ships in between the British warships and the Royal Saxon. Captain Smith pleaded with Elliot to allow him to attack before it was too late and Elliot gave in. The 2 British warships closed in and began to fire their broadsides. The stationary guns aboard the Chinese war junks could not be aimed effectively and fired right over the British masts. One lucky British volley hit a war junks magazines causing it to explode tremendously and sink. This caused the Chinese captains to panic as the Volage continued to score hits at point blank range. 3 more junks were hit and sunk and some of the crews aboard other ships literally jumped overboard. The entire Chinese fleet baegan to scatter and flee, all except for one ship, Admiral Guan’s which suicidally stayed to return fire. Guan’s ship posed a minimal threat and Elliot impressed by the old Admiral’s courage, ordered Smith to stop the barrage and allow the damaged flagship of Admiral Guan to sail off. The Chinese fleet had 1 junk exploded, 3 sunk, countless damaged and the Volage sustained light damage to its sails while Hyacinth’s mast received a hit from a 12 pound cannon ball. 15 Chinese sailors were dead with 1 British wounded. The battle of Chuanbi was over and the way to Canton was now open.

News of the sea battle reached England and the government remained in denial about the cause of the conflict IE: the opium trade. A group of lobbyists led by William Jardine began to pelt the British press to save the opium trade while simultaneously demanding the British government reimburse the opium merchants. Parliament began to debate how to go about the situation and there emerged an anti-war camp and a war camp. One anti war advocate, Sir William Ewart
Gladstone said


“Does he [Macaulay] know that the opium smuggled into
China comes exclusively from British ports, that is, from

Bengal and through Bombay? That we require no preventive

service to put down this illegal traffic? We have only

to stop the sailing of the smuggling vessels…it is a matter

of certainty that if we stopped the exportation of opium

from Bengal and broke up the depot at Lintin [near Canton]

and checked the cultivation of it in Malwa [an Indian

province] and put a moral stigma on it, we should greatly

cripple if not extinguish the trade in it.

They [the Chinese government] gave you notice to

abandon your contraband trade. When they found you

would not do so they had the right to drive you from their

coasts on account of your obstinacy in persisting with this

infamous and atrocious traffic…justice, in my opinion, is

with them [the Chinese]; and whilst they, the Pagans, the

semi-civilized barbarians have it on their side, we, the

enlightened and civilized Christians, are pursuing objects

at variance both with justice and with religion…a war

more unjust in its origin, a war calculated in its progress to

cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not

know and I have not read of. Now, under the auspices of

the noble Lord [Macaulay], that flag is become a pirate

flag, to protect an infamous traffic.”

Palmerston blamed the purchasers of the opium and not the sellers and that the effect of halting the opium exports to China would just drive Turkey and Persia to sell it instead.
“I wonderwhat the House would have said to me if I had come down to it with a

large naval estimate for a number of revenue cruisers…for the purpose of

preserving the morals of the Chinese people, who were disposed to buy

what other people were disposed to sell them?”


After 3 days to debate the house of commons voted on April 9th of 1840 271 vs 262 to proceed for war. On 20 February 1840 Palmerston sent 2 letters, 1 to Elliot and 1 to Emperor Doaguang. The letter to the Emperor informed the Qing dynasty that Britain had already sent  a military expeditionary force to the Chinese coast.

These measures of hostility on the part of Great Britain against China are not only justified, but even rendered absolutely necessary, by the outrages which have been committed by the Chinese Authorities against British officers and Subjects, and these hostilities will not cease, until a satisfactory arrangement shall have been made by the Chinese Government.

Palmerston’s letter to Elliot instructed him to set up a blockade of the Pearl River and forward the letter from Palmerston to Emperor Daoguang. After that Elliot was to capture the Chusan Islands, blockade the mouth of the Yangtze River, start negotiations with the Qing officials. Palmerston also issued a list of objectives that the British government wanted accomplished, with said objectives being

  • Demand to be treated with the respect due to a royal envoy by the Qing authorities.
  • Secure the right of the British superintendent to administer justice to British subjects in China.
  • Seek recompense for destroyed British property.
  • Gain most favoured trading status with the Chinese government.
  • Request the right for foreigners to safely inhabit and own private property in China.
  • Ensure that, if contraband is seized in accordance with Chinese law, no harm comes to the person(s) of British subjects carrying illicit goods in China.
  • End the system by which British merchants are restricted to trading solely in Canton.
  • Ask that the cities of Canton, Amoy, Shanghai, Ningpo, and the province of northern Formosa be freely opened to trade from all foreign powers.
  • Secure island(s) along the Chinese coast that can be easily defended and provisioned, or exchange captured islands for favourable trading terms.

It was left to Elliot as to how these objectives would be fulfilled, but noted that while negotiation would be a preferable outcome, he did not trust that diplomacy would succeed, writing;

To sum up in a few words the result of this Instruction, you will see, from what I have stated, that the British Government demands from that of China satisfaction for the past and security for the future; and does not choose to trust to negotiation for obtaining either of these things; but has sent out a Naval and Military Force with orders to begin at once to take the Measures necessary for attaining the object in view.


And so because of a drug cartel, run by some ruthless characters like Jardine & Matheson, Britain choose to go to war with the Qing Dynasty and begun a century of humiliation for China.

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The incorruptible Lin Zexu was the perfect man for the job of putting an end to the opium problem. However the nefarious opium dealers would not go down without a fight and in the end this all would result in the first opium war. Buckle up it's about to get messy.