On this day June 3, 1839

In Humen, China, Lin Tse-hsü destroys 1.2 million kg of opium confiscated from British merchants, providing Britain with a casus belli to open hostilities, resulting in the First Opium War.

Lin Zexu 林则徐

Lin Zexu 林则徐

A formidable bureaucrat known for his competence and high moral standards, Lin was sent to Guangdong as imperial commissioner by the Daoguang Emperor in late 1838 to halt the illegal importation of opium from the British.

He arrived in March 1839 and made a huge impact on the opium trade within a matter of months.

He arrested more than 1,700 Chinese opium dealers and confiscated over 70,000 opium pipes. He initially attempted to get foreign companies to forfeit their opium stores in exchange for tea, but this ultimately failed and Lin resorted to using force in the western merchants’ enclave.

It took Lin a month and a half before the merchants gave up nearly 1.2 million kilograms (2.6 million pounds) of opium. 500 workers laboured for 22 days in order to destroy all of it, mixing the opium with lime and salt and throwing it into the ocean outside of Humen Town.

Finally, Lin pressured the Portuguese government of Macau to deport the British, resulting in their settlement of then still barren Hong Kong.

Lin also wrote an extraordinary “memorial” (摺奏), by way of open letter published in Canton, to Queen Victoria of Britain in 1839 urging her to end the opium trade. The letter is filled with Confucian concepts of morality and spirituality.

As a representative of the Imperial court, Lin adopts a position of superiority and his tone is condescending, despite the British clearly having the upper hand when the event is examined with hindsight. His primary line of argument is that China is providing Britain with valuable commodities such as tea, porcelain, spices and silk, while Britain sends only “poison” in return. He accuses the “barbarians” (i.e. private merchants) of coveting profit and lacking morality. His memorial expressed a desire that Victoria would act “in accordance with decent feeling” and support his efforts. He writes:

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians.

That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?

Lin Zexu, Open letter addressed as if to the “King” of England but only published in Canton (1839)

The memorial was never delivered to the queen, though it was later published in The Times. Open hostilities between China and Britain started the same year.

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