Empire in Asia

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The Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing), proposed in 1842 and ratified in 1843, marked the conclusion of the conflict between Great Britain and Qing China commonly known as the 1st Opium War (1839-1842). Sir Henry Pottinger and High Commissioners Keying and Elepoo, the respective plenipotentiaries of Queen Victoria and Emperor Tao-kwang, brokered the treaty. It was the first conflict that pitted Qing Imperial forces against an industrial European power.

The causes and origins of the 1st Opium War remain the subject of lively study and debate. Most historians agree the conflict emerged from a number of pressures combining over time, the tipping point coming when Qing Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu intentionally destroyed privately-owned chests of opium in 1839. Initially a solution to the drain of British silver through the lucrative Chinese tea trade, the astounding growth of Opium import and consumption within China in the 19th century contributed to the breakdown of moral and social order that the Court in Beijing desperately sought to address. This was a dangerous combination: the appointment of a zealous commissioner to tackle a pressing domestic problem, by a central authority unaware of, even disinterested in, the power and attitudes of the European forces arrayed behind the lucrative trade. A disorganized imperial China wound up fighting to defend its sovereign authority over trade against a divided but ruthless British power, pressed by commercial interests determined to open up this lucrative revenue flow.

The Treaty of Nanking was a significant milestone in the study of empires in Asia for a variety of reasons. It was the treaty that marked what became the reluctant but sustained Qing concession that other states had to be dealt with as equals in status, not just strength. This was reflected through Qing acquiescence to European concepts of international law regarding negotiating and formalizing a treaty. British representatives refused to start negotiations until a Qing official of sufficient rank and representative power was sent and accredited (i.e. Commissioner Keying). Also, Article II of the treaty effectively began the transformation of Asian maritime trade because it sparked what became the dismantling of the closed Canton trade system and opened up four other ports (Amoy, Foochow-fu, Ningpo, and Shanghai) for British trade, on British terms of access. Consequently, when the weakened Qing state proved unable to control its external trade any longer, other Western powers obtained the same concessions secured by the British, in subsequent treaties. Lastly, the Treaty of Nanking shed light on differences in attitudes towards economics, trade and commerce. Article V highlighted the perennial problem of the Hong merchants’ debt accrued through trade by noting “His Imperial Majesty further agrees to pay the British Government the sum of Three Millions of Dollars, on account of the debts due to the British Subjects by some of the said Hong Merchants (or Cohong), who have become insolvent, and who owe very large sums of money to Subjects of Her Britannic Majesty.” Insolvency as a consequence of unregulated Hong merchant trading underlined the indifference of the Qing court towards regulating international trade, which of course was the root cause of the dilemma the Chinese state found itself in, trapped by the unsupervised greed of regional private Chinese interests.

It is worth highlighting that the five ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow-fu, Ningpo and Shanghai were not selected at random. British merchants had been surveying the Chinese coastline for some time, looking for suitably profitably ports from which to develop a lucrative China trade. These outlets were in fact what the 1793 Macartney Mission sought to obtain, as British interests strove for decades to break free of the restrictive conditions imposed on them at Canton.

Some studies still describe the Treaty of Nanking as the pact that bestowed upon the United Kingdom the infamous rights of extraterritoriality and the status of the “Most Favored Nation”, but these were in fact conceded in a supplementary treaty, commonly known as the Treaty of the Bogue (1843). Hence, the Treaty of Nanking must be seen I combination with this supplementary treaty.

Scholars interested in interactions between Western and indigenous Asian agendas during the long 19th century, particularly in contacts between two apparently quite different self-defined world systems, will find the Treaty of Nanking and its negotiation process an important event upon which to reflect. In addition, scholars interested in the early stages of British colonialism in Asia or the historical experience of Hong Kong must note that the Treaty’s Article III stipulated that the island of Hong Kong was to be ceded in perpetuity to the United Kingdom for the purpose of establishing a naval supply base in the region for British state and private interests. It also allowed the British to govern the island inhabitants as they saw fit, paving the way for Hong Kong’s rise to the status of a Crown Colony after both British and Asian merchants flocked to this new secure port resting under the Union Jack and connected to the British world-system, with all that that entailed.

Treaty of Nanking — 1842

HER. Majesty, the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and His Majesty the Emperor of China, being desirous of putting an end to the misunderstandings and consequent hostilities which have arisen between the two countries, have resolved to conclude a treaty for that purpose, and have therefore named as their plenipotentiaries, that is to say: Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, sir Henry Pottinger, bart., a major-general in the service of the East India Company, &c., &c. And his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of China, the high commissioners Kiying, a member of the Imperial House, a guardian of the Crown Prince, and general of the garrison of Canton; and I'lípú, of the Imperial Kindred, graciously permitted to wear the insignia of the first rank, and the distinction of a peacock's feather, lately minister and governor-general, &c., and now lieutenant-general commanding at Chápú :-- Who, after having communicated to each other their respective full powers, and found them to be in good and due form, have agreed upon and concluded the following Articles:

ART. I. There shall henceforward be peace and friendship between Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and His Majesty the Emperor of China, and between their respective subjects, who shall enjoy full security and protection for their persons and property within the dominions of the other.

ART. II. His Majesty the Emperor of China agrees, that British subjects, with their families and establishments, shall be allowed to reside, for the purpose of carrying on their mercantile pursuit, without molestation or restraint, at the cities and towns of Canton, Amoy, Fuchau fú, Ningpo, and

Shanghai; and Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, &c., will appoint superintendents, or consular officers, to reside at each of the abovenamed cities or towns, to be the medium of communication between the Chinese authorities and the said merchants, and to see that the just duties and other dues of the Chinese government, as hereaftcr provided for, are duly discharged by Her Britannic Majesty's subjects.

ART. III. It being obviously necessary and desirable that British subjects should have some port whereat they may careen and refit their ships when required, and keep stores for that purpose, His Majesty the Emperor of China cedes to Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, &c., the island of Hongkong, to be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannic Majesty, her heirs and successors, and to be governed by such laws and regulations as Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, &C., shall see fit to direct.

ART. IV. The Emperor of China agrees to pay the sum of six millions of dollars, as the value of the opium which was delivered up at Canton in the month of March 1839, as a ransom for the lives of Her Britannic Majesty's superintendent and subjects, who had been imprisoned and threatened with death by the Chinese high officers.

ART. V. The government of China having compelled the British merchants trading at Canton to deal exclusively with certain Chinese merchants, called hong-merchants (or co-hong), who had been licensed by the Chinese government for that purpose, thc Emperor of China agrees to abolish that practice in future at all ports where British merchants may reside, and to permit them to carry on their mercantile transactions with whatever pcrsons they please; and His Imperial Majesty further agrees to pay to the British government the sum of three millions of dollars, on account of debts due to British subjects by some of the said hong-merchants, or co-hong, who have become insolvent, and who owe very large sums of money to subjects of Her Britannic Majesty.

ART. VI. The government of Her Britannic Majesty having been obliged to send out an expedition to demand and obtain redress for the violent and unjust proceedings of the Chinese high authorities towards Her Britannic Majesty's officer and subjects, the Emperor of China agrees to pay the sum of twelve millions of dollars, on account of the expenses incurred; and Her Britannic Majesty's plenipotentiary voluntarily agrees, on behalf of Her Majesty, to deduct from the said amount of twelve millions of dollars, any sums which may have been received by Her Majesty's combined forces, as ransom for cities and towns in China, subsequent to the 1st day of August, 1841.

ART. VII. It is agreed, that the total amount of twenty-one millions of dollars, described in the three preceding Articles, shall be paid as follows:

Six millions immediately. Six millions in 1843; that is, three millions on or before the 30th of the month of June, and three millions on or before the 31st of December. Five millions in 1844; that is, two millions and half on or before the 30th of June, and two millions and a half on before the 3lst of December. Four millions in 1845; that is, two millions on or before the 30th of June, and two millions on or before the 31st of December.

And it is further stipulated, that interest, at the rate of 5 per cent. per annum, shall be paid by the government of China on any portion of the above sums that are not punctually discharged at the periods fixed.

ART. VIII. The Emperor of China agrees to release, unconditionally, all subjects of Her Britannic Majesty (whether natives of Europe or India), who may be in confinement at this moment in any part of the Chinese empire.

ART. IX. The Emperor of China agrees to publish and promulgate, under His Imperial Sign Manual and Seal, a full and entire amnesty and act of indemnity to all subjects of China, on account of their having resided under, or having had dealings and intercourse with, or having entered the service of, Her Britannic Majesty, or of Her Majesty's officers; and His Imperial Majesty further engages to release all Chinese subjects who may be at this moment in confinement for similar reasons.

ART. X. His Majesty the Emperor of China agrees to establish at all the ports which are, by the second article of this Treaty, to be thrown open for the resort of British merchants, a fair and regular tariff of export and import customs and other dues, which tariff shall be publicly notified and promulgated for general information; and the Emperor further engages, that when British merchandize shall have one paid at any of the said ports the regulated customs and dues, agreeable to the Tariff to be hereafter fixed, such merchandize may be conveyed by Chinese merchants to any province or city in the interior of the empire of China, on paying a further amount as transit duties, which shall not exceed per cent. on the tariff value of such goods.

ART. XL. It is agreed that Her Britannic Majesty's chief high officer in China shall correspond with the Chinese high officers, both at the capital and in the provinces, under the term "communication;” the subordinate British officers and Chinese high officers in the provinces, under the terms "statement," on the part of the former, and on the part of the latter, "declaration;" and the subordinates of both countries on a footing of perfect equality; merchants and others not holding official situations, and therefore not included in the above, on both sides, to use the term "representation" in all papers addressed to, or intended for the notice of the respective governments.

ART. XII. On the assent of the Emperor of China to this Treaty being received, and the discharge of the first instalment money, Her Britannic Majesty's forces will retire from Nanking and the Grand Canal, and will no longer molest or stop the trade of China. The military post at Chinhai will also be withdrawn; but the islands of Kúláng sú and that of Chusan will continue to be held by Her Majesty's forces until the money payments, and the arrangements for opening the ports to British merchants, be completed.

ART. XII. The ratification of this treaty by Her Majesty the Queen of Britain, &c., and His Majesty the Emperor of China, shall be exchanged as soon as the great distance which separates England from China will admit; but, in the meantime, counterpart copies of it, signed and sealed by the plenipotentiaries on behalf of their respective sovereigns, shall be mutually delivered, and all its provisions and arrangements shall take effect.

Done at Nanking, and signed and sealed by the plenipotentiaries on board Her Britannic Majesty's ship Cornwallis, this twenty-ninth day of August, 1842; corresponding with the Chinese date, twenty-fourth day of the seventh month, in the twenty-second year of Táukwáng.


(L.S.) Kiying (in Tartar)

(L.S.) I'lípú (in Tartar)

The Chinese Depository

Annotated by Wilfred Teo Weijie