June 3, 1839: Biggest Drug Bust in History Starts a War

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A Brief History

On June 3, 1839, Chinese agents under Lin Zexu (various spellings) seized an incredible 1210 ton cache of opium (2.66 million pounds, or 1.2 million kilos), later destroying the drug.

Digging Deeper

Incredibly, the opium was being forcibly imported into China by British drug merchants with the complicity of the British government.  China at the time had no need for Western goods, but was producing silk and other products bought in large amounts by the West, resulting in a gross trade imbalance.  (Sound familiar?)  British opium (poppy) farmers in India sent their drug to China where opium use became rampant, creating a vast market for the drug and partially offsetting the trade imbalance.

The Chinese emperor realized the danger of a stupefied population as well as the threat to the vast wealth being generated by imbalanced trade, and appointed Lin Zexu to handle the situation.  Outraged British officials unleashed their mighty Navy and Army on the hapless Chinese and imposed a reviled Treaty of Nanking upon China, which included giving the British rights over the use of 5 Chinese ports and ceding Hong Kong to Britain.  This conflict was called The First Opium War.

By 1856, the Chinese who had been chafing under the “unequal” terms of the treaty rose up in what became known as The Second Opium War, this time with France joining with Britain against the Chinese.  Opportunistic Western countries such as the United States also grabbed a piece of the action and carved a niche in China to get a foot in the door to this vast trading “partner.”  This war appeared to end in 1858 with a peace imposed by the Western countries, but the Chinese resumed hostilities and fought again until 1860.  The slaughter of Western troops and diplomats by Chinese forces resulted in renewed determination by the West, and once again an “unequal” truce was imposed on China.  (A torture method employed against Westerners was “slicing” in which many cuts were made on the victim, with life and misery prolonged by the use of tourniquets to delay blood loss.)

Today with the Western democracies beset by rampant drug addiction, drug violence, the outflow of untold millions of dollars in currency and the fumbling inability to cope with the problem, it is hard to imagine there was a time when these same countries were the ones inflicting a drug scourge upon another major nation.  Perhaps the old saying, “What goes around comes around” is true after all.  Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Madancy, Joyce A.  The Troublesome Legacy of Commissioner Lin: The Opium Trade and Opium Suppression in Fujian Province, 1820s to 1920s (Harvard East Asian Monographs).  Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.