Alternate Author Name(s)

James F. Miskel, Jr.

Document Type


Date of Award



Opium trade, China, History, Public opinion, Great Britain, Commerce

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Melvin Shefftz

Second Advisor

Charles E. Freedeman

Third Advisor

Robin S. Oggins


This dissertation deals with the reaction of the British public to the opium trade during the period of the so-called Opium Wars between Britain and China. There were several key elements in Victorian society whose views on the opium trade and the opium habit were widely publicized in Britain and which greatly influenced the overall reaction to the opium trade.

These groups were the medical profession and British citizens who had some first hand knowledge of China or the opium trade. The latter group was composed of missionaries, businessmen, and consular or military officials.

The basic view of the medical profession was that opium abuse was a serious health hazard. In the absence of comprehensive research into the nature of drug addiction, the physicians concluded that opium abuse was caused by moral weakness and there was little that medical science could do to cure addiction other than to alleviate the trauma of withdrawal. Opium abuse was recognized as a significant health problem in England as well as China. Although most of the medical discussions of the habit dealt with it in its English context, the physicians assumed that their observations also applied to China. These attitudes strongly reinforced the prevailing beliefs that the only solution to the Chinese opium problem was missionary endeavor, not governmental intervention.

Of all the groups of British citizens with experience in China, the missionaries were the most vocal. Their evaluation of the opium trade and the opium habit were widely publicized and were the main inspiration for British critics of the opium trade. In the early 1840s, the missionaries in the field and their parent societies advocated some form of action by Her Majesty’s Government against the opium trade or opium production in India.

By the time of the second Opium War, however, the missionaries had concluded that no governmental action would solve the opium problem and that the opium trade should be legalized. This position was fully congruent with the missionaries’ belief that the only way to solve the problem was to christianize the Chinese who used opium because of their “inadequate” religious beliefs.

An analysis of missionary writings on China and the opium trade indicates that their major objection to the trade was that British involvement in it contributed to their relative lack of success at converting the Chinese to Christianity. It also appears that the missionaries’ emphasis on the obstacles presented by the opium trade was largely an excuse for their failures. For example, while the missionaries repeatedly described the trade as the “Great Stumbling Block” to the introduction of Christianity, they rarely denounced the trade to the Chinese people.

The British consular and military officials in China shared the missionaries’ view of opium abuse as a dangerous habit. While they agreed that the British government could not solve the opium problem, they tended to argue that the forces of a free trade market in China would eventually reduce opium demand and consequently solve the problem. Many East India Company employees took a somewhat different approach. They argued that the Company’s monopoly restricted supply and thereby prevented the opium habit from spreading even farther.

The general reaction of the British public closely paralleled the reactions of the missionaries. Criticism of the trade peaked after the start of the first Opium War and subsided into a general acceptance of legalization by the start of the second war. This was particularly true of Lord Shaftesbury, the head of the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade. In 1843, Shaftesbury had introduced an anti-opium motion in the House of Commons. By the late 1850s, he was much more critical of the Chinese and admitted in Parliament that he no longer advocated suppression of Indian opium production. His major concern was to remove the missionary “stumbling block” by disconnecting the British government from the trade.