Posts Tagged ‘opium war’

War with the West

One of the first foreigners to recognize Taiwan’s economic potential and to advocate its outright annexation was Dr. William Jardine, co-founder of the powerful British trading firm Jardine, Matheson, and Co. Jardine became alarmed when China took up arms in 1839 to suppress the British opium trade in Canton. He informed British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston: “We, must proceed to take possession of three or four islands, say Formosa (臺灣), Quemoy (金門) and Amoy (廈門), in order to secure new markets and new footholds in China.”

When the first Anglo-Chinese conflict, or “Opium War,” broke out, it further antagonized the strained relations between China and the West. Crews of British vessels subsequently shipwrecked off the coast of Taiwan met with even harsher treatment. The ships were plundered, then broken to pieces and burned. The crews were stripped naked and forced to walk painful distances to capitivity.

The British were not the only foreign power that showed interested in Taiwan during the 19th century. Several American traders and diplomats also advocated annexation of the island. They included Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who realized Taiwan’s strategic importance in the Far East. Gideon Nye, a wealthy American merchant and a leading member of his country’s expatriate community in Canton, proposed in 1857 that “Formosa’s eastern shores and southern point…in the direct route of commerce between China and California and Japan, and between Shanghai and Canton, should be protected by the United States of America.” Nye also had personal reasons for his proposal: he suspected that his brother Thomas, who mysteriously disappeared on the opium clipper Kelpie in 1849, had been captured and killed in Taiwan.

The Treaty of Tientsin (天津條約), which ended the first Opium War in 1860, opened four Taiwanese ports to foreign trade: Keelung and Suao in the north; Taiwanfoo (Tainan) and Takao (Kaohsiung) in the south. During the ensuing decade, foreign trade in Formosa grew by leaps and bounds. Most of the activity involved British and American firms. Primary export products included camphor, tea, rice, sugar, lumber, and coal. The sole import, which sometimes exceeded exports in value, remained opium.

By 1867, 25 foreign traders lived in northern Taiwan at Tanshui and Keelung, and another dozen lived in the south at Taiwanfoo (台灣府). Trade boomed, doubling in volume in 1869 and doubling again in 1870. Colorful expatriate communities flourished around the ports. They maintained close ties with their counterparts in Hong Kong, Canton and Amoy. Unfortunately, the perennial problems of legal responsibility and political authority continued to plague Taiwan’s foreign relations much as they do today.

A negative aspect of the trade boom was the increased frequency of violent incidents, corresponding to the greater number of foreign trading vessels that called at the island’s ports. Brawls between drunken European and American merchant marines and the lcoal Chinese usually ignited the violence. The inevitable vendettas followed. Local magistrates refused to take action in such cases, insisting that the foreigners petition authorities in Peking. But because of Peking’s lack of influence and interest in the island’s affairs, nothing ever got done through such “legal channels.”

The situation was further aggravated by the arrival of foreign missionaries in the early 1870s. Zealous missionaries from the various sects of Christianity fanned out over the island and staked out exclusive “territorial domain.” That created more confusion than the tenets of their conflicting religious doctrines. The missionaries, backed by their native countries, competed for exclusive domains in much the way traders competed for monopolies of major exports. The periodic attacks on foreign missionaries and their Chinese converts led to the same futile wrangling between local magistrates and foreign officials as did the incidents in the commmerical sector. Only displays of force produced settlements.

Yet one thing was clear to all the squabbling parties. Taiwan was indeed an alluring beauty. It was rich in resources and strategically located. But it was also untamed. There was a need for law and order that Peking could not provide. Expatriates clamored for the home governments to step in. The Japanese did just that.

Opium War (6:33)

Opium War lecture (23:31)

Opium War BBC documentary (57:32)