Senior Honors Theses
History Department Honors Program

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Thesis or dissertation

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A Senior Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for Honors in History.
Faculty Advisors: Siyen Fei and Lynn Hollen Lees


The histories of the Opium War, of which there are many, have posited that the roots of the conflict are diverse and interconnected, ranging from cultural differences to conflicting perspectives on trade. Many historians even imply that the Opium War was somehow inevitable. They point to the famous Macartney Mission of 1793, in which the first British diplomat to meet the Chinese emperor refused to kowtow and was subsequently denied formal diplomatic relations with the Chinese. However, in investigating documents of the British East India Company at Canton some years later, the war in no way seemed predestined. On the contrary, there existed a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship between the Chinese and British merchants at Canton. Through examining the archives of the East India Company Factory at Canton from March 1833 until July 1834 it becomes quite clear that the internal problems of regulating trade at Canton, the relationship with the Hong Merchants, the attitudes toward the Chinese, and the legal and political issues that arose all paint a lucid, new narrative of the root of the Opium War. The documents demonstrate that the Company’s successful management of the tenuous relationship with the Chinese merchants at Canton actually helped avoid conflict and legal infractions with higher authorities. Although the Company lacked true authority over the British subjects at Canton—other than providing them with licenses—it carried out the difficult task of representing the entire British community to the Chinese. Thus, when significant problems arose, the company’s long-standing relationship with the Chinese merchants ultimately led to decades of a stable, lucrative trade for the British. However, when the Company lost its monopoly over the China trade in April of 1834, the management of the relationship drastically changed. The first British superintendent of trade, Lord Napier, would exhibit stubbornness, belligerence and a misunderstanding of the Chinese. Refusing to draw upon the knowledge of colleagues who were experienced in the China trade, his cavalier actions set Sino-British relations on a path to war. It was the loss of the British East India Company’s monopoly and the subsequent restructuring of the trade relationship on the ground at Canton that would ultimately set the stage for the precipitation of armed conflict in the Opium War of 1840.


Opium War, Opium, British East India Company, China, Nineteenth Century, Lord Napier, Howqua, John Daniels, Select Committee, Sylph, HC Cutter, James Innes, Cumsingmun, Palmerston, Jason Karsh

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Date Posted: 08 May 2008