Leaves & Beans of History: The Opium Wars, Part I

The Opium Wars (1839 – 1842 & 1856 – 1860) marked the modernization of China. However, unlike other industrial revolutions that can be characterized with ingenious inventions and people of brilliance, this move to modernity was force driven by greed, drug addiction, cannon fire, and one-sided treaties. The wars are a key reason as to why tea is so readily available around the globe, but they also bring into sharp focus just how much people were willing to do for the leaves and what happens when voices of reason are snuffed out.

Since the Opium Wars were driven by tea and not coffee, we will only focus on the leaves. This will allow for a more precise narrative and the space to give the events the attention they deserve. In this first of a three-part series, we’ll see how the desire for tea led to one of the largest drug smuggling operations in history, and how two officials carried the weight of their countries on their shoulders.

One Addiction For Another

Britain first received tea from Dutch traders around the late 1650’s. However, it wasn’t until 1662 when King Charles II wedded the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who was an avid tea drinker and wasn’t about to go without, did it became popular among the social elite. 1 By 1785, the British East India Company held a monopoly on the tea trade in Britain and was importing almost 15 million pounds of Chinese tea each year. 2 This import played a huge role in the economy since the government levied a 100% import tax on it, and by 1830 tea made up nearly 10% of the country’s entire revenue receipts. 3 However, procuring these delicious leaves was proving more and more difficult.

At this time tea could only be acquired from China, and trading restrictions there were many and varied. First, and obviously, China was far away. Up until 1845 it took a British ship over two years to return with a shipment of tea. 4 Second, these British ships were restricted to Whampoa, Canton’s (modern day Guangzhou) southern-most port.  The Chinese were wary of foreigners and would not allow any to set foot in the actual empire. Third, British traders could only do business and directly interact with the Hong, a guild of Chinese merchants the government authorized to trade with foreign merchants. The Hong had considerable autonomy and privilege in these matters and many of them became wealthy through this control over trade.

The most critical element of the whole affair though was that China had little to no interest in British manufactured goods or trade items.  This was an issue because Britain was rich in goods, but poor in currency due to the many wars it waged in the last century and the current ones in India, Europe, and America. Britain even sent an official envoy, the 1st Earl of Macartney, George Macartney, to meet the Chinese Emperor and present all the wonders of European science and industry – telescopes, clocks, barometers and other such shiny goods. This was meant to dazzle the emperor and showcase the benefits China would reap from opening up trade with Britain. Unfortunately, the emperor understood these items as tributes and in a letter he sent back to King George III remarked, “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures.” 5

The final piece in this amazing red tape tapestry was the money itself. China used silver as its currency, and Britain primarily used gold. This meant Britain had to first trade with other countries like Spain in order to obtain the silver, and then buy the tea. All of these factors together created a massive trade deficit and by the mid 1700’s Britain was desperate to find a way to balance the scales. They needed something the Chinese wanted besides silver.

By this time The British East India Company had succeeded in conquering nearly half of India. It was here, centered around Bengal, that Britain found its solution; opium. Opium consumption had existed in China as early as the eighth century, but had been made illegal since 1729. China had domestic opium, but it was much less potent than what was imported, so people flocked to the latter. The government had tried on multiple occasions to crack down on the drug, but none of the attempts had any lasting effects.

The British East India Company oversaw the production of thousands of acres of opium poppies, processed them, packed the finished drug into chests, and then sold them in Calcutta to Chinese merchants, smugglers, and others who were willing to actually carry out the illicit transactions. The company would then use the silver gained from the opium trade to buy tea and then sell that back in Britain at a profit. By 1796, millions in the Chinese populace were addicts. The Emperor Jia Qing instituted several laws in an attempt stamp out the addiction, including the death penalty for those who were caught trafficking, but even this did little to slow the trade. By 1830 the amount of opium being exported to China had grown to 1,650 tons. 6

Then, in 1833 the Free Trade lobby decentralized control of the importation of tea. This meant the British East India company no longer held a monopoly on importing tea and other British merchants could now get in on the action. This caused the amount of opium being smuggled into China to skyrocket, and amounts more than doubled again. Between 1800 and 1810, approximately $26 million had flowed into China. Between 1828 and 1836, nearly $38 million traveled out. 7 The British counter balance had become a dangerous tipping point, and China had to act.

The man chosen by the emperor to tackle the overwhelming opium addiction was Lin Zexu. Lin was a remarkable man known for his inexorable work ethic, bureaucratic incorruptibility, and an inflexibility that rivaled mountains. When presented with the opium problem he drew a hard line and had a clear-cut plan. He arrived in Canton, the main hub of the opium trade, on March 10th 1839 and wasted no time. Not long after he arrested over 1,600 people for opium offences. 8 Proven addicts were forced to rehabilitate themselves by way of a year-long suspended death sentence. Those who failed to kick the habit within that year would be executed. Smugglers and traffickers were not given such leniencies. Lin also confiscated almost 14 tons of opium, closed down opium dens, and destroyed 43,000 opium pipes. 9 He also came down on the Hong and accused them of aiding and abetting the smugglers for profit. Many of them ended up in chains. 10 Soon after this he turned his attention to the British merchants and demanded they hand over their entire opium stocks and sign a bond to not import any more on pain of death. 11

Enter Chief Superintendent of the China trade, Captain Charles Elliot. A veteran sailor and aristocratic abolitionist, Elliot was actually a vocal opponent of the opium trade. However, he was also a devoted British officer who took his duties to protect British citizens (even those he did not like) and their interests seriously. So when Lin started to threaten British merchants with the death penalty Elliot was forced to step in. Once he reached Canton he placed the merchants there under his protection. This obviously did not sit well with Lin, and on March 24th he ordered all trade to cease and formed a blockade around the factories where Elliot and the merchants had retreated. Eventually, Elliot agreed to give up over 20,000 chests of opium. 12 Lin proceeded to destroy the drug by throwing it into water filled trenches, mixing it with salt and lime, and then washing it out to sea. 13

The cost of this much opium was estimated to be worth £2 million 14, or over $269,600,000 in today’s US dollars 15, 16 and Elliot promised the merchants the Crown would pay for these losses. This was significant because this statement turned a private financial affair between merchants and a government into one between nations. British property had been destroyed, yet Britain would be the one to pay for it. This act would be the first to make Elliot’s superiors in Parliament seriously consider war.

In the next installment covering the Opium Wars we’ll see how a drunken murder and a confused blockade run continued to raise tensions, how the war started in earnest, and what happens when a pre-industrial army clashes with a post-industrial one.

Matt Foster is the Wholesale Trainer at Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company in St. Louis Missouri. Level 1 and IDP certified, he spends his days teaching and his nights reading and writing. He’s also competed on the regional and national levels of the US Brewer’s Cup. His other interests include intriguing cocktails, delicious food, adorable dogs, and traveling the world to find all those things to put his face in.

Contact at mattf@kaldiscoffee.com | Follow on Instagram


1. Lou Heiss, Mary and J. Heiss, Robert. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Ten Speed Press 2007. pg. 20 2. Ph.D. Hanes III, W. Travis and Sanello, Frank. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2002. pg. 20 3. Keay, John. China, A History. Basic Books 2009. pg. 457 4. Sailing to China 5. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 87 6. Gascoyne, Kevin, Marchand, Francois, Desharnais, Jasmin, and Americi, Hugo. Tea: History, Terroirs, Variesties. Second Edition. Firefly 2014. pg. 157 7. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014. pg. 36 8. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014 pg. 59 9. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014 pg. 59 10. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014 pg. 60 11. Waley, Arthur. The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes. George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1958 pg. 34 12. Chests of Opium Destroyed 13. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014 pg. 70 14. Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. The Overlook Press 2014 pg. 66 15. Historical UK Inflation Rates and Calculator 16. Currency Convertor

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