In 1684, the Emperor K'ang Hi decreed a limited opening up of foreign trade with China. Foreign merchants would be allowed to do business with representatives of the Cantonese Co Hong, merchants who monopolized business with the farmer/producers and set prices and volumes of goods. Their corruption was notorious. China demanded payment in silver piasters from Spain's colonies in America, to the distinct displeasure of the English who would have much preferred to trade than to suffer such a cash outflow.
As the demand for tea grew, China had to increase production. Tea became increasingly profitable for the peasants, and they converted their cotton fields to tea plantations, thus creating a new need. Gradually, the British merchants succeeded in trading cotton from their Indian colonies for cases of tea. In 1773, however, they discovered an Indian product for which the demand was even greater: opium. Despite the Emperor's bans, 16 000 cases of opium were imported into China in 1829, and this number quickly grew as the use of opium spread through all classes of society.
The Emperor tried in vain to regain control of trade and to stop the imports of opium. In 1839, a high commissioner of Canton burned the contents of 20 000 cases of opium, engendering heavy losses for the protesting British merchants. Not long afterwards, an Imperial decree closed China to foreigners. The English replied by blockading Canton (1840), and so began the first Opium Wars. The clear superiority of the British in terms of arms gained them victory. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking awarded the British excellent conditions, including the freedom to trade in opium, the end of the obligation to deal exclusively with the Co Hong and above all the concession of an island, Hong Kong, on which to establish their commercial base.
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Chine d'hier et d'aujourd'hui