The Treaty of Nanking 1842

After taking part in the momentous events which led to the establishment of New Zealand as an official British colony, the Herald was ordered north, to support the fleet engaged in the First Sino British War. ‘Tour of Duty’, David McIntyre’s excellent description of the historical context to the journey of the Herald, describes the Treaty of Nanking as one which became recognised as the first of many ‘unequal treaties’ imposed upon China by foreign powers (Comber et al. 1999, p. 31).

The First Sino British War, or Opium War, was a clash between two vastly different cultures, one struggling to control trade rights, and the other desperate to limit the impact of foreign trade upon the local economy and populace. The HMS Herald sailed into this conflict late in 1840, and remained to see the island of Hong Kong annexed as a result of the Treaty of Nanking.

Outwardly, the cause of the war was opium. Opium had in the past been used in traditional Chinese medicine. However, with the introduction of opium smoking, addiction to the drug became a serious problem and as a result, the Emperor had attempted to stem the flow of opium by banning its trade in 1796.

However, smuggling by foreign merchants, including the East India Company, meant the trade in the drug continued to flourish. In response the Chinese placed an embargo on trade with western merchants, and blockaded the British factories in Canton in March 1839. 350 residents, including the British Government appointed Superintendent of Trade, Sir Charles Elliott, were effectively held for ransom, and eventually were forced to surrender their opium and withdraw to Macau.

The Britain of this era was not prepared to forego lucrative trade access rights so easily, and in August of 1839, struck back, sending an expeditionary force.  By 1842, Comber’s journal records that the force included 30 vessels, 7000 sailors and marines, and 11,500 soldiers.

The British forces wreaked havoc amongst the Chinese junks, disrupting their trade, as well as engaging in battle in Chusan, Canton, Amoy, Wusung and Chapu. By the time the Empire’s forces entered the Yangtze and were about to attack Nanking, the Emperor was forced to negotiate a peace. The Treaty of Nanking was signed in August of 1842, with the Chinese ceding Hong Kong Island to the British, as well as opening up various ports to trade, and paying over $21 million in silver.

Amongst the collections of UC Library are some fascinating accounts of the Opium War. Comber’s journal describes much of the action with relish, and expresses much disgust at not being able to play a greater role in various engagements. His account is supplemented by that of Captain Belcher of the HMS Sulphur, and the account of ‘The Nemesis in China’ by William Hall and William Bernard.

View extracts from Combers Journal relating to the Treaty of Nanking

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