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Trade relations have always been influencing the economy of the countries. However, some profitable ventures in the course of history were not legal. An example of such trade relations is the opium trade, which was at a peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some western countries, Great Britain in particular, used to sell opium grown in India to China. This traffic was significant for the economy.
Moreover, it allowed western merchants to bring Chinese goods popular in the west and thus profit. The East India Company, which belonged to Great Britain, was a monopolist in this sphere. The monopoly led to the Opium war in 1839.1 It was a Chinese attempt to stop the import of drugs. Thus, some questions arise. What was the economic and political significance of the British-Chinese opium trade? Was there the necessity of such global opium trade considering all risks and its illegal character? What moral issues were or were not considered in the opium trade? The following research is going to answer these questions.
Economic Significance of the British-Chinese Opium Trade
The British-Chinese opium trade was an issue for many arguments. First of all, its illegal character was much discussed. Samuel Warren dedicated a pamphlet, The Opium Question, to this problem. He stated that the British Opium Trade between India and China for almost forty years was provided under “a nominal, if not an actual, prohibition” and “became, within the last three years, the object of very strenuous opposition on the part of the Chinese, on grounds which will be clearly explained hereafter.”2 There were suggestions to legalize this trade. However, they were abandoned by the Emperor.
Britain could not abandon China, as it was a strategic market. Warren described the significance of the opium trade between Britain and China in the following way: “Had we been content … to take the produce and manufactures of the Chinese in exchange for our opium; not only to take goods for our opium, but bur also bring our silver for /their/ goods, which shows the extent to which the Chinese were disposed to go in their demands – does anyone that has read the foregoing pages believe that we should ever have heard of these their wild denunciations of the drug, or experienced the monstrous extent of fraud, insult, and outrage which they have at last presumed to inflict upon us?3
According to Su, opium at that time became was one of the most profitable exports in British trade.4 Moreover, the Indian economy relied upon sales of opium to Canton. A plan to stop the opium trade would paralyze Indian trade and eliminate an important source of colonial income. It would also impose “a heavy Treasury or taxpayer burden on Britain to support India’s economic stability.”5
Political Significance of the British-Chinese Opium Trade
Political concerns were also in priority in the issue of the British-Chinese opium trade. The work by Warren, The Opium Question, opens with the considerations which had to be made by the British government. The author interrogates “Ought the British Government to adopt the terms of a contract assumed to have been entered into on their behalf by Captain Elliot, the Chief Superintendent of the trade of British Subjects in China, in his Public Notice issued from Canton upon the 27th of March, 1839, with the British owners of 20,283 chests of Opium, which, solely under and in pursuance of such Public Notice, were surrendered up to him for the alleged service of her Majesty’s Government?
In other words, who ought to bear the loss of this opium, amounting to the sum of about two millions four HUNDRED thousand POUNDS STERLING – Her Majesty’s Government, or the late owners of that opium?”6 On the one hand, opium merchants could not operate without an unofficial approval of the British government. They were not sanctioned for their activity, and this fact did not contribute positively to the image of the Government when the issue of banning the opium trade developed. On the other hand, the Opium War, which followed the years of the active opium trade, caused political changes in China in addition to social and economic. It also influenced the relations between China and the Western world.
Moral Issues of the Opium Trade
Apart from political and economic issues, the opium trade stimulated the rise of moral concerns. The question of the reasons for the actions of the Chinese Emperor was asked by Warren. “That the Emperor of China opposed, or that we are given by his representatives to understand that he opposes and that vehemently, the introduction of opium into his dominions, is admitted; the question is, what is his real ground for doing so?
Is it paternal and virtuous regard for the morals and health of his people, or does it arise from a very different cause, a chimerical dread of draining the silver out of his dominions, and a desire to force us to a different footing of commerce – from the sale to barter?”7
Judging by this passage, the intentions of the Emperor were not obvious. In addition, moral was not the primary concern of the Chinese people involved in the opium trade. In addition to high profits, the cultural background was significant. People brought up in the traditions of a Confucian culture had priorities different from those of the Judeo-Christian culture.8 Janin also claims that “the governor-general in Canton mounted a token campaign against opium only as a duty and as a gesture to please then emperor, not as a crusade based on any moral principles.”9
In the course of history, the opium trade between Britain and China led to the Opium War. This war cannot be called a usual one. This dramatic period in the history of relations between China and the Western world, Britain in particular, conditioned many changes in the country. These changes touched diverse spheres such as social, economic, and political. It also led to the change of relations between China and Western countries.
After the conflict, China was economically weak if compared to the west. It increased the impact of the Western nations and caused the crises, which left many people in poverty without the opportunity to earn money. These events influenced the direction of international cooperation and trade development for the following decades.
Janin, Hunt. The India-China Opium Trade in the Nineteenth Century. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999.
Melancon, Glenn. Britain’s China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence and National Honour, 1833–1840. Oxford, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2017.
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Su, Christine. “Justifiers of the British Opium Trade: Arguments by Parliament, Traders, and the Times Leading Up to the Opium War,” Stanford University, 2012. 45-51.
Warren, Samuel. The Opium Question. London, United Kingdom: Ridgway, 1840.
- Glenn Melancon, Britain’s China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence, and National Honour, 1833–1840 (Oxford: Routledge, 2017).
- Samuel Warren, The Opium Question (London: Ridgway, 1840), 61.
- Warren, The Opium Question, 74.
- Christine Su, “Justifiers of the British Opium Trade: Arguments by Parliament, Traders, and the Times Leading Up to the Opium War,” Stanford University, 2012. 45-51.
- Su, “Justifiers of the British Opium Trade: Arguments by Parliament, Traders, and the Times Leading Up to the Opium War,” 45.
- Warren, The Opium Question, 1.
- Warren, The Opium Question, 64.
- Hunt Janin, The India-China Opium Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999), 5.
- Janin, The India-China Opium Trade in the Nineteenth Century, 5.