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Chapter 2.1
The Opium War and the cession of Hong Kong Island
Contributor: Ting Sun-Pao, Joseph

The Emperor Kangxi reopened the seaports in 1685, and the yuehaiguan (粵海關 Guangzhou Customs) was established under the hubu (戶部 Ministry of Revenue). Western traders began to call at Guangzhou, the major port in China, for trade. Trade grew and flourished throughout the 18th century.[1] In 1757 Guangzhou was declared the only port open for western trade, and it remained so until the opening of five treaty ports after the Opium War. Foreign merchants from western countries made profits from the sale of tea, porcelain wares and silk in their home countries, but their cargoes of cotton and woollen goods were sold at a loss in Guangzhou. From the late 18th century, the British merchants began to import opium grown in India, and it soon became the main imported item, generating huge profits. The balance of trade was thus reversed. The Qing court was alarmed, as the import of opium not only resulted in the outflow of silver bullion, but increasing numbers of Chinese nationals were becoming addicted to the drug. As a result, the import of opium was prohibited. In 1839, being determined to stamp out the opium trade, Emperor Daoguang sent Commissioner Lin Zexu to Guangzhou to enforce the imperial edict and suppress the trade. At Lin’s orders, the opium chests at Guangzhou were confiscated and destroyed at Humen (虎門). Hostilities mounted as skirmishes broke out between the British merchant fleet and the Qing navy near Kowloon. A war between the two nations became inevitable.[2]

Westerners trading in Guangzhou had to abide by many stringent regulations imposed by the Qing authorities.[3] More importantly, trade could only be conducted through Hong merchants (行商) appointed by the Qing court. Discontented with the condition of trade in Guangzhou, British free-traders pressed the British Home Office to take military action to force the opening of China and to secure an island where trade could be conducted under British administration and protected by British law.[4]

Hong Kong was the obvious choice for various reasons: its closeness to Guangzhou, the major port for foreign trade; its strategic geographical location on the South China coast; and above all, its excellent natural harbour, which is deep and sheltered from the north-east wind in winter and the south-west monsoon in summer. Westerners trading in Guangzhou had had knowledge of the island of Hong Kong and its anchorages since the late 17th century. Foreign vessels heading for Huangpu (黃埔), the Guangzhou port, would take anchorage and replenish their water supplies near Waterfall Bay close to today’s Wah Fu Estate, before continuing their journeys.[5] From the early 19th century, when the import of opium was banned, illicit trade was conducted on Lingding Island (伶仃島) (also known as Nei Lingding Island (內伶仃)), at Urmston Road, Kap Shui Mun, and in the harbour of Hong Kong where cargoes were discharged and loaded for re-export. After hostilities began, British traders vacating Guangzhou and Macao took shelter in Victoria Harbour.[6]

An expeditionary force led by Captain Charles Elliot and his cousin Rear-Admiral George Elliot arrived at the mouth of the Pearl River in June 1840, then headed north to occupy Zhoushan, reaching Baihe near Tianjin in August. The Manchu noble, Qishan was appointed as plenipotentiary to hold talks with the British. Nevertheless, a surprise attack on the Bogue (Humen) was mounted by the British on 8 January 1841 and Guangzhou was threatened. Alarmed by the military action of the British, Qishan made concessions, and some preliminary agreements were drafted, including seeking the emperor’s consent to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British.[7] Although the convention was not signed, Hong Kong was occupied by a naval force under Commodore Gordon Bremer on 26 January 1841. Hostilities resumed, and Charles Elliot was replaced by Sir Henry Pottinger in August 1841. The war waged on, and the British force reached Nanjing in August 1842. The Qing court conceded, and the Treaty of Nanjing was signed on 29 August 1842. Hong Kong was officially ceded to Britain.


  • [1]
    H. B. Morse, The Chronicles of the East India Company Trading to China. 1635-1834 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926); Paul A. Van Dyke, The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700-1845 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007).
  • [2]
  • [3]
    Paul A. Van Dyke, The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700-1845 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007).
  • [4]
  • [5]
    Armando M. Da Silva, ‘Fan Lau and Its Fort: An Historical Perspective’, JHKBRAS, 8 (1968), p. 83.
  • [6]
  • [7]
    Ibid., p. 66.
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