Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money: A Short History of the Opium War

A four-part history of the Opium War (1840-1842) for The World of Chinese Magazine. Click the links below for Parts I-IV.

Part I

"On a sultry summer evening in 1839, Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu stood on the shores of the strait known as The Tiger’s Mouth near Guangdong and watched as over 1,300 tons of opium, mixed with lime and salt water, flowed down the beach and into the Pearl River Estuary. As Commissioner Lin watched the toxic sludge flow into the bay, he said a small prayer to the Gods of the Ocean, asking their forgiveness for despoiling the purity of their water with the foreigner’s poison."


Part II

"Britain fought a war, ultimately, to preserve Queen Victoria’s good name as the world’s largest narco-baron. The opium merchants of England and America acted as any cartel would: they used their money to buy influence. They paid journalists to write stories of Chinese arrogance and cruelty. They paid for politicians to give speeches about the beneficial effects of the trade and the importance of preserving universal values of free and fair trade at any cost. They used the proceeds of their racket to all but purchase a declaration of war."

Part III

To find an approximate parallel for the terror the Nemesis struck in the hearts of Chinese defenders, we might need to turn to the realm of science fiction. The 1990s semi-classic Independence Day featured large hovering spacecraft, impervious to human weapons, and which could obliterate a city. The Nemesis could not fly and was not powered by a race of telepathic space insects…but from the perspective of Qing troops and officers trying to pierce her defenses using square-rigged wooden war junks and antiquated cannons, she might as well have been.

Part IV

In one of the great ironies of history, none of the treaties directly deals with the cause of the war: opium. It would take another conflict, the Arrow War of 1856-1860, which resulted in the occupation of Beijing and the looting and burning of the imperial summer palaces, to finally legalize the trade in the narcotic.