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The Opium Wars

GS Paper 1

 Syllabus: World History


Source: IE

 Context: Amitav Ghosh’s new book “Smoke and Ashes” explores the historical significance of opium as a powerful agent that has shaped and continues to shape the world’s history.

  • The book focuses on the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which were waged by European colonial powers on China.


The Opium Wars:

The wars were a result of Britain’s increasing consumption of tea, which led to a trade deficit with China. To address this, the British East India Company promoted the opium trade, leading to a significant increase in opium production in India for export to China.

As opium addiction spread in China, it caused severe socio-economic crises and weakened the Qing dynasty’s governance. The Chinese attempts to crack down on opium smuggling resulted in conflict with the British, leading to two Opium Wars.


About Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60):

AspectFirst Opium War (1839-42)Second Opium War (1856-60)
Parties InvolvedChina vs. British EmpireChina vs. British Empire and France
Primary CauseBritish exporting opium from India to ChinaRenewed tensions and hostilities over the opium trade
TriggerChinese crackdown on the opium tradeSeizure of a British ship by Chinese officials
Major BattlesBattle of CantonBattle of Palikao
OutcomeTreaty of Nanking (1842)Treaty of Tientsin (1858) and Treaty of Peking (1860)
Key ProvisionsChina cedes Hong Kong to BritainLegalization of the opium trade in China
Opening of five Chinese ports to foreign tradeChina pays indemnity to Britain and France
British citizens gain extraterritorial rights in ChinaMore ports opened to foreign trade
Reparations to Britain for war expensesReligious freedom for Christian missionaries in China
Most-favored-nation status for BritainDiplomatic presence in Beijing (Peking) for foreign powers
ImpactWeakened Qing Dynasty, loss of sovereigntyFurther erosion of China’s autonomy and territorial losses
Opening of China to increased foreign influence and its long-term effects on Chinese society and cultureContinued social and economic crises in China


Impacts on India during the 19th century:

  • Increased Opium Cultivation: With the success of the opium trade in China during and after the Opium Wars, there was a significant rise in opium cultivation in India.
    • This led to the exploitation of Indian farmers and increased dependence on opium cultivation, often to the detriment of other crops.
  • Economic Repercussions: As opium production grew, it diverted resources and labour away from other productive activities. The emphasis on opium also had adverse effects on India’s trade and led to a distortion of the Indian economy.
  • Social Consequences: The increased cultivation and trade of opium contributed to the addiction and widespread use of opium within certain regions of India, leading to social problems and health issues.
  • British Control: As Britain emerged victorious in the Opium wars, it further solidified British control over its colonies, including India.
  • Shift in British Policies: The revenue generated from the opium trade played a significant role in financing British colonial activities in India, including the maintenance of their military and administrative apparatus.


Charter Act Regulations:

  • Charter Act of 1813: The Act granted a monopoly of the opium trade to the British East India Company, allowing the Company to control and regulate the opium business in India.
  • Charter Act of 1833: The Company continued to maintain its monopoly on the production and sale of opium in India, particularly for export to China.
  • Charter Act of 1853: It did not address the opium trade directly. The British East India Company still retained control over opium cultivation and trade in India during this period.


Amitav Ghosh’s argument:

Opium played a central role in sustaining colonialism in Asia, bringing immense profits to colonial powers at the expense of Indian labour and the well-being of the Chinese population. The book suggests that opium, with its addictive properties, has had a profound impact on societies across classes and continues to shape history.


Mains Links:

1. At the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese nationalism took a more definite shape and centred primarily on two issues – anti-Manchuism and anti-imperialism which became the primary causes of the revolution. Elucidate. (250 words)