The Opium wars which erupted one hundred and seventy years ago between the Chinese Qing Empire and the British Empire has to a large extend shaped the Chinese Modern History and it is seen as the beginning of the western domination of China, a period which the Chinese refer to “ The Century of Humiliation”.
Background Of The Opium Wars
The war started because of trade conflicts between the Chinese and the British. In the Early to Mid 19th century the English suffered from a huge trade imbalances with the Chinese. The huge demand for Chinese tea in Britain and the Chinese insistence on selling tea in exchange of silver had led to great outflow of silver and money from Britain.
To reverse this trade deficit the British tried selling their woolen merchandise to the Chinese but it failed as the Chinese were more used to Padded cotton cloths and silk. The British then started trading with China in Opium. There was high demand for opium in China due to its medical and recreational use. This led to a reversal of the British trade deficit with China but it wreaked havoc on Chinese society as thousands of rich and poor Chinese alike were addicted to this drug. This societal degradation led the Chinese to ban trade on opium.
This action didn’t go down well with the English and they, in a bid to further their naked Imperial ambitions and economic interests, declared war on China. The Chinese were defeated and were forced to pay a huge indemnity, cede Hong Kong to the British and open their markets to western capitalists. This war is an example of how colonial powers used their military prowess to economically subjugate Asian countries and undermine the sovereignty of Asian rulers.
How We Indians Suffered?
In India, not much significance is attributed to the Opium war. Most people are not even aware of it and the few who are, regard it as a foreign war that was fought far from the frontiers of India. What many people don’t know is the strong connection that the Opium war has with India.
The opium that the British sold to the Chinese was grown in India. It was from the fields of Bengal and Bihar that the opium, which led to an unjust war and deaths of thousands of Chinese, originated. This opium has not only caused trouble in China but also in our own country.
The agricultural fertile lands of Bengal and Bihar were forced fully used to grow poppy and it drove thousands of poor farmers off their lands. These farmers were later shipped to the Caribbean as indentured laborers. The cotton fields of India were transformed into poppy fields. Poppy, grown in these field were transported to Opium factories in Ghazipur and Patna, where these century old opium factories still stand.
High quality processed Opium were then transferred from the factories to Calcutta by the river Ganga. The East India Company then used to auction it off to the English and Indian merchants, who then shipped that to China and made huge profit by selling them. This was the trail of opium that triggered the war in China.
How It Benefited the English Merchants and Parsi Businessmen
It was not only the English Merchants who were eager for profits through the immoral Opium trade. The Parsi business community of India was also heavily engaged in Opium trade. The lack of Opium monopoly of the East India Company in Mumbai helped the Parsis in conducting hugely profitable opium business. Some Parsi businessmen like Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy took advantage of the Opium trade with China and amassed huge wealth, with which he later on started his own merchant fleet.
Mumbai as a city flourished with many prominent building likes the Central Municipal Library and David Sassoon Library being financed by the philanthropic businessmen engaged in Opium Trade. Whereas the farmers in Bengal and Bihar were being exploited by the English, the businessmen in Mumbai flourished.
This brought wealth into the city of Bombay and led to the boom of Banking and Insurance business in Bombay. This boom in business, banking and insurance would later build the foundation of India’s financial capital, Mumbai.
How Indian Soldiers Faces Racial Abuses From Either Sides, and Lost Their Lives in The Foreign War
The war in China was not fought by only British and Chinese soldiers. Indian soldiers were also involved in the battles of the Opium war. 1 coy Madras Rifles, 2nd Madras Native Infantry, 6th Madras Native Infantry and the 14th Madras Native Infantry of the Madras Army took part in the First Opium war. The Indian sepoys were widely used in the battles of Canton, Amoy, Tinghai and Chin-Kiang Fu.
In all the battles the Indian and British forces were vastly outnumbered but the discipline, morale and better weaponry of the British forces prevailed. The Indian forces had to face severe racial abuses by both the British and the Chinese.
The Indian soldiers would be used by the British Empire in other overseas war and conflict of the future. It was the exploitation and use of Indian resources and soldiers which kept the British Empire strong and made it an Empire where ‘the sun never sets’.
The Opium Wars Devastated India ~ What Next?
The opium wars had a profound effect on India. Its repercussions on the Indian economy and society have largely remained ignored. It was a war where the British used the resources of one vanquished Asian Giant to vanquish the other. It’s been 176 years since the Opium war but still the basic nature of geopolitics hasn’t changed much. Even now the West coaxes India to join the western security apparatus to ‘contain’ China and the west dominated IMF and world bank forces poor Nations to open their markets for foreign players, so that they all can enjoy the so called ‘fruits’ of Western model of Free Market Capitalism.
The history of the Opium wars and its relation to India should not be ignored and further research needs to be done in this context. History is the greatest teacher to Mankind and whenever man fails to take lessons from it, History repeats itself.
By: Avinandan Choudhury