The term 'Opium Wars' is used for the two wars, the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the Second Opium War (1856-1860), fought between the Chinese forces, i.e., the Qing Dynasty, and the British Empire in the 19th century. Also referred to as the 'Anglo-Chinese Wars', they were triggered as a result of the rising tension between the Qing Dynasty and British Empire after the former tried to restrict the trafficking of opium by British traders.
First Opium War: 1839 - 1842
The First Opium War, also known as the First Anglo-Chinese War, was fought between the United Kingdom and China, which was then under the rule of the Qing Dynasty. The war began on March 18, 1839, and came to an end on August 29, 1842, with a British victory and the Treaty of Nanking. It was one of the major wars of the 19th century.
Why was it Fought?
At the beginning of the 19th century, the British colonial expansion of Asia was at its peak. The British East India Company had secured trade relations with several Asian countries, including China and India. In China, opium was the principal product of trade that the British were quite keen in. Opium trade, which increased manifold in a short term of time, was a major boost to the British economy. However, its turned out to be a disaster for China, as their economy suffered a major setback. In addition, the drug came as a major dent to the society, with thousands of individuals getting addicted to it. Throughout this, the British hegemony in the Asian continent was slowly growing; a large part of the credit of which went to their superb military power.
It wouldn't be wrong to say that the Opium War was predominantly triggered by economic causes. The British had created a stronghold in China as far as trade relations were concerned. Their next priority was not just to ensure that this stronghold lasted, but also to expand it. After their trade agreement with China expired in 1834, they sought a renewal. While doing this, they also tried to obtain the rights to trade through more ports in China. During this period, the traders from the United States seized the opportunity and tried to initiate trade relations with China under the concept of free trade. This was not welcomed by the British, especially in context of opium trade, which had become a major economic aspect for them.
Conditions further worsened in China and the Qing Dynasty, which ruled the nation at that time, decided to curb opium trade within their domestic jurisdiction. This decision, however, turned out to be disastrous, as the use of opium in the country actually increased. This made the Chinese administration take a new decision and opt to legalize the trade of opium. The Chinese policy of legalizing opium trade didn't go down well with the British though, as their profits from the trade were reduced by a significant extent.
Where was it Fought?
The British refusal to comply with the new Chinese policy further soured the diplomatic relationship between the two nations. This was followed by an attack on the traders at one of the entry ports for the British in 1839. Several tons of opium was confiscated from the ships in the harbor. In response, the British navy counter attacked the Chinese and the First Opium War began. The war spread through a few other coastal areas, with a few Chinese ports as the battlegrounds for it.
What were its Effects?
The First Opium War finally came to an end in August 1842, with a victory for the British forces. The Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which they referred to as the first Unequal Treaty, owing to the fact that the British had no obligations to follow according to it. Other than this, the island of Hong Kong was also ceded to the United Kingdom. The victory of a small British army over the Chinese army with a greater manpower turned out be a historical event for the British forces, while the Qing Dynasty was left red-faced.
Though there was a brief break after the First Opium War (1839 - 1942), the tension between the two nations was far from over. It eventually triggered the Second Opium War (1856 - 1860), when Chinese administrators searched a British ship for smuggled opium. The British forces again retaliated with an attack; this time with the French forces as allies. The second war came to an end in 1860 with an Anglo-French victory and the Treaties of Tianjin.