• Neil Padilla

Steeped to Perfection Part 4: Under the Influence

In the last chapter, we discussed how tea came to be regarded as an essential trade good especially for the British. There was a time when the average English household spent a significant amount of their income on tea.  The ever-increasing debt of the British East India Company as well as the dependence of their empire on the income from tea trade coupled with the strict regulations imposed by the Chinese government only served to make the British Empire even more desperate to get access to more tea. 

This begins the fourth part of this series and your training in becoming more of a tea expert. 

Prelude to War

Since the British government basically bankrolled the British East India Company’s conquest of the subcontinent of India, a venture that cost them more than they gained, and because the British East India Company‘s main revenue came from the delivery of tea to Britain, the county was left even more dependent on the tea trade. This was true not just because of the people’s uncontrolled tea addiction but also because the economy grew ever more dependent on tea.




As mentioned, the BEIC realized at this point that the cost of conquering India was not bringing in the revenue that it had hoped to gain. Cotton, a commodity which they hoped to grow in India, had lost much of its value due to the increase in production in other countries like Egypt and the Americas. There was another product however that could grow in India. It was at this time that they turned their attention to growing poppy and processing it to become opium. 

Opium use has been recorded to have been a practice in China as far back as the Tang dynasty. The recreational usage of narcotic opium was limited though. It was introduced there Opium (then limited by distance to a dried powder, often drunk with tea or water) was introduced to China and Southeast Asia by Arab merchants. The Ming dynasty banned tobacco as a decadent good in 1640, and opium was seen as a similarly minor issue. The first restrictions on opium were passed by the Qing in 1729 when Madak (a substance made from powdered opium blended with tobacco) was banned. At the time, Madak production used up most of the opium being imported into China, as pure opium was difficult to preserve.


Back then opium, much like today, was highly illegal in China; any drug would be, but processing and selling drugs was a line the BEIC was willing to cross. They did not want to get kicked out of China though so they set up shop in Calcutta – the part of India they controlled at the time that had the nearest border with China. This attracted smugglers and individuals who were open to dispensing the substance. Since the product they had was way better than what was circulating in China, almost everybody wanted some.


By 1835, they were moving 3.064 million pounds of the opium into China per year. By 1838, the British were pumping roughly 1,400 tons of opium per year into the Chinese population per year. 

Tea and Morality 

The emperor appointed an official named Lin Zexu a viceroy, governor-general and scholar-official to address this growing concern with opium. He began his work in abolishing opium trade in China in March 1839.



He began by closing opium dens and arresting opium dealers. With that done, he sent a letter to Queen Victoria appealing to her conscience and morality to end the opium trade. An excerpt of the letter was written as follows: 

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li from China. The purpose of your ships in coming to China is to realize a large profit. Since this profit is realized in China and is in fact taken away from the Chinese people, how can foreigners return injury for the benefit they have received by sending this poison to harm their benefactors?

They may not intend to harm others on purpose, but the fact remains that they are so obsessed with material gain that they have no concern whatever for the harm they can cause to others. Have they no conscience? I have heard that you strictly prohibit opium in your own country, indicating unmistakably that you know how harmful opium is. You do not wish opium to harm your own country, but you choose to bring that harm to other countries such as China. Why? Lin did not get any response and it is suggested that it was lost in transit. The letter was later reprinted in the London Times as a direct appeal to the British public.  Having received no response, Lin banned the sale of opium and demanded that all supplies of the drug be surrendered to the Chinese authorities. He also trapped British traders in Canton by closing the Pearl River Channel. He seized opium stockpiles in warehouses and Chinese troops boarded British ships in the Pearl River and the South China Sea before destroying the opium on board.


By April and May 1839, British and American dealers surrendered 20,283 chests and 200 sacks of opium. This amount of opium amounted roughly 1/6th as much as the British Empire. The stockpile was publicly burned with lye on the beach outside Canton. 

This only raised resentment from the British Empire. Such a loss could potentially destabilize an entire economy.  Another incident caused further division between the two empires. 

In early July 1839 a group of British merchant sailors got drunk from drinking rice liqueur and beat a local villager. Lin Zexu demanded that the guilty parties be executed. Instead, the soldiers were arrested by British officials as ordered by the local superintendent of British trade named Charles Elliot. Now it must be noted that Elliot was sympathetic to the Chinese cause and also detested the opium trade. He even asked the British opium traders to let the burning of the opium pass and he also paid the family of the murdered villager in recompense.  Fearing that the soldiers would be executed under local laws, he had the guilty soldiers detained, tried, and sentenced on his own ship. Lin was invited to observe the proceedings. The decision was for the men to do hard labor in England which did not sit well with the Chinese people. Lin Zexu wanted to ensure that foreigners could not just treat Chinese laws like child’s play. In retaliation, all food supplied to the British was stopped and spread the news that the water sources the British were using were poisoned. He also ordered the Portuguese who then controlled Macau to kick out all the British. Lin was on a rampage – he would get rid of the British. 

The British were forced to retreat to an island off the coast of the mainland which will eventually become Hong Kong. 

A Fateful Day

Elliot dispatched an armed schooner and a cutter to Kowloon to buy provisions from Chinese peasants. It was September 4th, 1939 and the food shortage has worsened for the British. 

The two ships approached Chinese war junks in the harbor with a request to permit their men to land and purchase supplies from the locals. They were allowed through and basic necessities were given to them by Chinese sailors. The Chinese commander within Kowloon did not permit the locals trade with the British. 

This situation grew more intense in the afternoon. Elliot, perhaps feeling desperate, issued an ultimatum that, if the Chinese refused to allow the British to purchase supplies, they would be fired upon.

British ships opened fire on the Chinese vessels at around 3 in the afternoon. The war junks returned fire. Chinese gunners on the coast joined in and began to fire at the British ships. Nightfall ended the battle, and battle lines have been drawn. This would be known as the Battle of Kowloon.  The First Opium War had begun. 

In retrospect, it has been noted that Lin's forceful opposition to the opium trade was a primary catalyst for the First Opium War. He was praised for his constant position on taking the "moral high ground" in this issue but has also been blamed for an approach that did not take into account the domestic and international complexities the problem brought up.  The Daoguang Emperor endorsed Lin’s policies but then blamed Lin for the resulting disastrous war. He was removed from office and exiled thereafter. 

The British government retaliated further by dispatching personnel to China made up of British and Indian military forces. In the ensuing conflicts, the British Royal Navy used its superior naval and gunnery power to inflict a series of defeats on the Chinese. By the end of 1842, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking.

The Treaty of Nanking granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to foreigners in China. It also gave the advantage to foreigners to trade as it opened five treaty ports to foreign merchants. Hong Kong was ceded to the British Empire.


The failure of the treaty to satisfy British goals of much-improved trade and diplomatic relations led to the Second Opium War which lasted from 1856 to 1860.

Nemesis and Gunboat Diplomacy

The Chinese referred to her as the “Devil Ship”. Nemesis was the first British ocean-going iron warship. She was the largest of a class of six similar vessels ordered by the ’Secret Committee’ of the East India Company. The Devil Ship 899 KB View full-size Download

Nemesis was deployed to China and arrived there by late 1839 and displayed a tremendous amount of power to underline how under matched the Chinese were to the British. This display led to what we now call as Gunboat Diplomacy. 

Gunboat Diplomacy refers to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power, implying or constituting a direct threat of warfare should terms not be agreeable to the superior force. Basically it means scaring the hell out of the other party by providing such a great show of force that they give in to their proposals. 

Further Conflict


The Second Opium War was an outcrop of the dissatisfaction of the outcome of the Opium War. This war was also known as the Second Anglo-Chinese War, the Second China War, the Arrow War, or the Anglo-French expedition to China. This was a war pitting the British Empire with the help of the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China that lasted from 1856 to 1860



This second major war in the Opium Wars was fought over issues relating to the exportation of opium to China, and resulted in a second defeat for the Qing dynasty. The agreements of the Convention of Peking led to the ceding of Kowloon Peninsula as part of Hong Kong. ===

It has taken us a long way from discussing tea to two wars that, even though had a significantly smaller death toll, had such a great impact on global politics. These effects affect us even today.



This ends your fourth lesson in relation to tea.  Tea affects us all. Our next lesson will include how tea culture has evolved all around the world. 

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