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Opium Trade in China: Analysis Of Lin Tse-Hsü Letter to Queen Victoria

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In the 1800s China was plagued by Opium being smuggling into the country from the west, people all over China had become reliant on the drug. As a result the Emperor got his commissioner Lin Tse-Hsü to deal with the opium crisis, they decided to write Queen Victoria a letter. In the letter Lin personally addresses the Queen and tells her about Chinas long lasting and growing problem with addiction to opium. He explains to her the Emperor is furious about this problem and wants to bring it to an end. Throughout letter Lin speaks highly of China and truly would like to protect it and save it from the epidemic. He is a humble and a liberal reformist, that only wants to serve his emperor to the best of his ability, many would consider him a “radical patriot”.

In his letter puts forward some threats and assumptions which inadvertently lead to the opium wars. Lin assumed that the British made great profits off legal trade and he could use this as leverage to get the British to crackdown on the illegal opium trade, he also threatens all trade with China unless the smuggling is ended. He was incorrect in thinking that the British were also against the smuggling of opium and that they would also like it to be eliminated. The biggest mistake that Lin made in his letter to Queen Victoria was that he threatened the British smugglers and traders, with harsh penalties and “regulations” that would be enforced while trading with China.

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In Lin’s letter he threatens Queen Victoria by telling her that China doesn’t need the trade of the west and that if the opium smuggling continued China may fully close its borders to trade. The problem was Lin didn’t know that the British were using the sales of their opium to buy the Chinese silks and goods. He thought that the British were making most of their money off the reselling of their tea and rhubarb which wasn’t true. The main reason for the British trading with the Chinese was the profit from the opium. This is evident by the monopoly that the East India Company held on the opium trade in China when it was a legal, and when they took part in the illegal opium trading after it was prohibited in 1796.[footnoteRef:5] For such a large company to stay in an illegal trade such as drug smuggling that must mean the profits from doing so was enormous. So when Lin started to threaten trade it was not the loss of the silks and teas the British were most worried about it was their precious opium trade.

The British were also no enemies of the smugglers, with their roots in the formerly legal trading. When China outlawed the importation, use and distribution of opium it was not initially well enforced by the Chinese officials. The British continued to fund traders and companies that smuggled opium to China. was no incentive for the British to stop their people from bringing opium to China, as it brought large profits and was helping fund their industrial revolution. When the opium war broke out it was even clearer the British supported the smugglers when they forced the Chinese to decriminalize opium after the second opium war. Knowing this makes clear-cut that Lin was in a losing battle from the beginning he wasn’t just facing some smugglers he was facing the entirety of Britain and the other countries that were selling opium in China.

At the end of his letter to Queen Victoria, Lin asks of her how she would feel if foreigners were to break the law in her country, would she punish them. He then tells her of new laws/regulations that will come into place to punish foreign merchants that were caught smuggling opium. Lin was not bluffing within weeks of him arriving in Canton the trading hub for opium, he had sieged the westerners factories, forced all Chinese workers in these factories to leave and told the westerners that they were not allowed to leave their factories until all the opium they had was given over making them prisoners in their factories. This surely would’ve infuriated any government that their people were held almost hostage in a foreign land even if they were smugglers of opium which was not a concern to the British government. One of the greatest causes for the Opium Wars was Lin’s lack of knowledge about the importance of selling opium to China for the British, this lack of knowledge led him to implement very harsh penalties even on the foreigners without knowing that this would anger the British and cause tensions between the two. Even after Charles Elliot from the British Royal Navy had successfully delayed the date that the regulations were to go into effect and managed to get Lin to lift the siege of 350 foreign merchants by gathering up and surrendering at least 4,515 chests of opium to Lin. There was no way that Lin could continue this method of dealing with the opium without retaliation.

Throughout the letter Lin tries to draw sympathy from the Queen. Before he tells the Queen about the new laws/regulations that will apply to foreigners he tries to sway her to be sympathetic towards his cause by asking simply “Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly, your honorable ruler would deeply hate it.” Lin tried many tactics in his letter to convince and force the British into ending the opium trade unfortunately, in the end he only made matters worse for the Chinese as it increased tensions between the two countries.

These assumptions and threats Lin made in this letter surely made him a patriot he loved his country to the point where he would risk threatening other major world powers. But his downfall in this was that he didn’t have the knowledge of the importance of the opium to those powers and as he pushed and pushed to remove it from China he pushed and pushed Britain towards war to defend not only her people but to defend her vital source of wealth. Even with all his attempts to draw sympathy from the Queen of England he was backed into a corner where he was either going to submit to the foreigners and allow the trade of illegal opium or continue to fight for his countries safety that is why Lin Tse-hsü was truly a Chinese patriot/nationalist he was only fighting for the safety of his country and his people.

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