The Treaty of Nanking was a peace treaty that put the First Opium War to an end (1839-1842). It was signed between Great Britain and the Qing Dynasty of China and is considered by the Chinese as the first of the Unequal Treaties.
The First Opium War
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the British Empire's demand for Chinese goods, particularly tea, porcelain, and silk, resulted in a significant trade imbalance. The British paid for these goods with silver, draining their reserves and creating a pressing need for a more favourable trade arrangement. This prompted the British East India Company to engage in the opium trade, smuggling opium grown in British-controlled India into China. As a result, opium addiction escalated rapidly in China, leading to public health issues and social unrest.
Aiming to end this situation, the Chinese government, led by officials like Commissioner Lin Zexu, tried to suppress the opium trade. In 1839, Lin confiscated and destroyed large quantities of opium in Canton, which led to tensions with the British traders. The British response was swift and assertive, culminating in the seizure of the Chinese-owned lorcha (a type of ship), the Arrow, which further escalated the conflict. Since all attempts to resolve these tensions failed to yield a satisfactory outcome, the British declared war on China on July 3, 1840, marking the beginning of the First Opium War.
The British enjoyed military superiority thanks to their advanced weaponry, which overpowered the outdated Chinese forces. The Royal Navy's proficiency in naval warfare enabled it to blockade key Chinese ports, severely disrupting maritime trade. Then the British captured strategic coastal cities, including Canton and Shanghai, further pressuring the Chinese government to negotiate. In 1842, both sides reached an agreement, leading to the signing of the Treaty of Nanking.
The Treaty of Nanking
A peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Nanking, was signed between both countries on August 29, 1842. The terms of the document dismantled the Canton System that had been enforced since 1760. Consequently, Hong Kong, then a sparsely inhabited island, was ceded to the British Crown. This acquisition would later evolve into a key trading hub and a British colony until its handover to China in 1997. Additionally, the port cities of Canton, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai were opened to foreign trade, severing China's ability to regulate commerce within its borders.
Moreover, the treaty imposed an indemnity of 21 million silver dollars on China, a hefty reparation that symbolized the economic imbalance resulting from the conflict. Furthermore, it granted British citizens immunity from Chinese law and enabled them to be tried under British jurisdiction instead. The treaty also mandated the release of British prisoners of war and provided amnesty to Chinese individuals who had aided the British during the war. This disregard for Chinese sovereignty further entrenched the asymmetrical power dynamic between the two nations. The British, on their part, agreed to withdraw troops from Nanjing, the Grand Canal, and Zhenhai once the treaty was ratified and the first payment received. Lastly, British forces would remain in Gulangyu and Zhaobaoshan until full reparations were received.
The treaty was finalized through the collaboration of British interpreter John Robert Morrison and Chinese representative Wang Tajin. Chinese Emperor Daoguang ratified the document on October 27th, and Queen Victoria added her written approval on December 28th. The ratification exchange occurred in Hong Kong on June 26, 1843.
The treaty paved the way for other Western powers to demand similar privileges, effectively dismantling China's traditional tributary system and exposing the empire to further territorial encroachments. Subsequent treaties, such as the Treaty of Wanghia with the United States and the Treaty of Bogue with France, perpetuated the unequal terms established by the Treaty of Nanking.
The treaties marked the end of the Canton System and established a new framework for China's foreign relations and trade, marking the beginning of what Chinese nationalists later termed the "century of humiliation." The sense of national disgrace fueled a burgeoning nationalist sentiment that would eventually culminate in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and establishing the Republic of China.
Still, the Treaty of Nanking's legacy was not limited to China alone, as the notion of unequal treaties and extraterritoriality set a precedent that reverberated across Asia and beyond. In this sense, Japan, observing China's subjugation, embarked on its own path of modernization and territorial expansion, ultimately culminating in its emergence as a global power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
- british empire
- first opium war
- qing dinasty
- queen victoria
- hong kong
- emperor daoguang
- canton system