Wars are fought for profit, for territories and for freedom. A historically important conflict is the Second Opium War (Arrow War), which took place in China, from 1856-1860. This War was a struggle against imperialism and brute tactics and is regarded as the concluding event in the Euro-Chinese Opium Wars. In this article, learn more about this classic battle between the East and the West.
Background to Second Anglo-Chinese War
Before delving into the war, it is necessary to understand the environment that existed in 18th century China. The ruling Chinese dynasty at that time, were the Qing dynasty. Fourteen years had passed since the end of the First Opium War but tension still existed between the Chinese rulers and the British. There is no one cause of Second Opium War, rather possible reasons are:
China had a monopolized and exclusive trading system with the British, French and to a lesser extent, the Americans. As such, these foreign powers wanted more and more Chinese ports to carry out trade with. They also wanted the Chinese government to be more relaxed and lax in their trading regulations and rules.
The British empire at that time, was at the height of its imperialistic reach and rule. It had a commodity that was deadly, but, prized. Opium was in high demand in China and the British colonies mass produced opium for export. There was just one problem, the Chinese rulers did not want such a dangerous substance flooding their markets and destroying the will power of their population. Legalization of the opium trade was one key point of digression between the 2 countries.
At the end of the First Opium War, the Chinese were forced to sign various treaties by the foreign forces such as the treaty of Huangpu, the Wangxia Treaty and the Treaty of Nanking. These were regarded as unfair by the Chinese, as they had to make concessions and pay money, while the foreign powers had no such obligations. The treaties were biased against the Chinese and were regarded as "unequal treaties".
Also the imperial powers wanted to renegotiate the terms of all the treaties, as they felt the Chinese had done nothing to fulfill their conditions. The British in particular, were very insistent about their demands. They wanted a British ambassador to reside in China, piracy should be controlled by the Chinese and opening internal land-based trade to British merchants.
Timeline of the War
It just takes one spark to light a fire and in this case, one incident to start a war.
October 8th 1856 - A Chinese owned ship, the Arrow was boarded by the Qing police, as it was suspected of being a pirate and smuggling vessel. 12 Chinese crewmen were arrested. The British at Guangzhou demanded their release saying that, as the ship was British registered, they were exempted from such official tactics, according to the Treaty of Nanking. They also claimed that the vessel had a British flag, which was taken down and was insulted by the Qing officials. The British demanded redress, the Chinese refused to back down. Both sides kept pointing fingers at each other. This clash was responsible for nicknaming the 2nd Opium War as the Arrow War.
The British were occupied with the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Qing rulers with the Taiping Rebellion, so tension and violence resumed in 1857. The French joined this conflict, due to their anger at the execution of a French missionary, Auguste Chapdelaine. The joint Anglo-French force attacked the city of Guangzhou from the Pearl River. They conquered it, removed the governor and military leaders from power and ruled over the city for 4 years.
Another incident that fanned the war, was the attempted poisoning of Sir John Bowring, then Superintendent of Trade in Hong Kong. The town baker used arsenic while baking bread but put too much, so his victims just had a bout of mild poisoning. The whole city was in danger of being poisoned. This incident angered the English Parliament and any critics to the War were silenced.
Fed up of waiting for the Chinese to do anything, the English-French force ventured north and captured the Taku Forts around Tientsin in May, 1858. Tientsin was very close to the Forbidden Palace of the Qing emperor Xianfeng and this was very frightening for the Chinese, so they decided to surrender.. for the moment.
June 1858 - four Treaties of Tientsin were made, one for each imperial power that had fought in China, the British, the French, the Russians and the Americans. 11 Chinese ports were opened for trade with the West, the imperial powers could set up embassies and China had to pay money to Britain and France.
For a while, everything was peaceful. But Emperor Xianfeng, due to unrelenting pressure from his nagging government, refused to honor the treaties and sent General Sengge Rinchen to take back the Taku Forts and keep men and arms in them at all times. Rinchen refused to allow the new ambassadors and envoys from Britain and France, to enter Taku with their military escorts.
On the 24th of June 1959, the British cleared up the Baihe river to forcibly enter into the Taku Fort. They were resisted but did not give up and in 1860, a very large Anglo-French force marched onto the Taku Forts. In August, Tienstin was once again captured. Negotiations started between the Emperor and the British. For some time, things seemed to be going well.
In September, a British official Harry Parkes and his small party were arrested and tortured viciously. This angered the British, who broke off the peace talks and marched on to face Rinchen's cavalry at Beijing. Two battles were fought, with severe losses in manpower and weaponry on the Chinese side.
The English and French entered Beijing in October of 1860. Emperor Xiangfeng ran off, leaving his brother Prince Gong in charge. British and French prisoners were freed, looting of the Palaces was taking place in full swing when talks were going on between Gong and the imperial powers.
The British army commander Lord Elgin wanted to burn all the palaces down, including the Forbidden Palace, to teach the Chinese a lesson, regarding torturous interrogation practices. But he was calmed down by other diplomats and instead, only the two Summer Palaces were burnt.
On the 16th of October 1860, the Treaty of Tianjin, which was signed 2 years earlier was fulfilled by the Qing dynasty. The Imperial powers all had a permanent diplomatic presence in Beijing, the British and French received 8 million taels from China and the trade of opium was legalized.
You can learn a lot from defeat and the Chinese learned the hard way, how the ineffectiveness of leaders can destroy a nation. The faith of the people in the dynastic form of government, which was followed for centuries, was shaken. The Chinese people were angered and awakened by this crushing defeat and humiliation at the hands of the West. The Second Opium War can be regarded as the first step of the nation of China towards resisting imperialism and becoming the great people force, it is today.