Opium Wars | Definition, Summary, Facts, & Causes

Latest Applications Open 2023:


What were the Opium Wars?

The two small-scale conflicts known as the Opium Wars were principally sparked by the opium trade in China and included Great Britain and China. They happened at the middle of the 1800s, just as the Qing Dynasty was coming to an end. According to some historians, China’s modern age began with the Opium Wars.

What caused the wars?

China supplied a wide range of products, such as tea, silk, and porcelain, to European nations at the end of the Qing Dynasty. China didn’t import numerous items at the same period. China generally kept to itself and only let specific ports to be used by international traders.

British merchants working for the British East India Company began bringing opium into China in order to open up a new market. Opium, a highly addictive substance, was once forbidden in China. However, as more Chinese developed opium addictions, British businessmen started to profit greatly from exporting opium to China.

Opium was not wanted in China by the Chinese authorities. Too many people were developing drug addictions. They made the decision to stop the illicit opium trade in 1839. They first wrote to the British government to request that they put an end to the traders. The Chinese took over 20,000 chests of opium from British traders after they kept selling the drug. The First Opium War soon started when fighting between the two sides broke out.

First Opium War

Between March 18, 1839, and August 29, 1842, the First Opium War raged for more than three years. When the British Navy intervened, the out-of-date Chinese Naval forces were swiftly defeated. They seized control of Canton, a major trading hub, and resumed the opium trade. They subsequently made their way to take control of many cities along China’s coastline and blockedaded the Grand Canal. The Chinese were prepared to compromise in 1842 after realizing they were losing the war.


The Treaty of Nanking was imposed upon the Chinese by the British after they had won the war. The agreement restored trade between the two nations and granted Britain access to five commercial ports. In addition, it granted Britain dominion over Hong Kong and required China to pay $21 million in compensation.

Second Opium War

Between 1856 to 1860, there was the Second Opium War. In this conflict with China, the French sided with the British. The British increased their demands on the Chinese, including the legalization of the opium trade and the opening of the entire country to British business. This sparked the start of the conflict. Tensions between the two nations rose when the Chinese government refused.

When the Chinese took control of the British pirate ship Arrow, fighting broke out. The episode served as justification for an invasion on Canton by the British, who claimed that the Chinese had no authority to seize the ship. When a French missionary was put to death by Chinese officials, the French quickly joined the battle.

Canton was once more taken over by the British. For the following four years, there was intermittent fighting. Britain and France advanced on Beijing in 1860 and routed the Qing army.


The Chinese consented to sign a treaty with Britain and France at the Peking Convention in 1860. The agreement created religious freedom in China, made China responsible for paying reparations to France and Britain, authorized the opium trade, and opened a new commercial port.

Facts about the Opium Wars that are Interesting

The Second Opium War cost China land, but also gave Russia land.

After the Chinese attacked a U.S. Navy officer, the United States joined the Second Opium War.

After the pirate ship the Chinese captured, the Second Opium War is occasionally referred to as the Arrow War.

In 1997, Hong Kong was surrendered to China.

You cannot copy content of this page