How would you explain the trends in the development of trade in opium?
The global opium trade dates back to seventeenth-century China, during the Qing Dynasty, when the practice of smoking opium became widespread among the elite. Despite growing concern over addiction, which led to an imperial ban, both the practice and the sale continued. Further prohibitions, especially concerning the importation of opium, likewise had insufficient effect.
The problem and the internationalization grew as the European nations made inroads into Asian markets. In particular, British mercantilism is associated with the opium trade in China. The substance played a key role in trade, in an era of growing European demand for Chinese luxury products, such as silks and porcelain. As the British found it difficult to develop equivalent interest in their trade goods, opium became an important commodity—and soon the major good the British merchants offered to China. In the eighteenth century, the British East India company accelerated the smuggling of opium from India into China.
The competition among the European powers exacerbated the problem, as the French vied with the British for access to this valuable market. Chinese efforts focused both on ending the trade and expelling the Europeans. These struggles led to armed conflicts, known as the Opium Wars, from 1839–1842 and 1856–1860. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking opened China to British trade, in the form of five ports available to British ships and merchants, along with control of Hong Kong. China’s defeat in 1858 led to additional concessions and forced the country to cede to Britain an important territory, the Kowloon Peninsula.
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