Lin Zexu, Catalyser of First Opium War, dies

Lin Zexu, Catalyser of First Opium War, dies

“On this day in 1850, Chinese scholar, Qing dynasty official, and anti-opium activist, Lin Zexu, died. His opposition to the opium trade was the primary catalyst for the First Opium War, and Zexu is today considered a national hero in China.

Zexu was born in 1785 in Fujian province to a poor family. His father, a teacher, gave Zexu a strong grounding in Confucian philosophy, a good education, and a natural inclination for civil service. By 1837, he had risen through the ranks and was made Governor-General of Hunan and Hubei provinces. During his ascent, Zexu became alarmed over the growth of the opium trade between Britain and China (which the British used to reduce the trade deficit), both because of the moral effects of the drug and because the imports were being paid for with Chinese silver. A skilled bureaucrat known for his opposition to opium, Zexu was sent in 1838 by the emperor to Guangzhou (Canton) to stop the illegal import of opium from the British. After a long journey, chronicled in his personal diaries, Zexu arrived in spring of 1839 and exerted considerable pressure on the illegal import within a matter of months. According to historical reports, he arrested more than 1,700 Chinese opium dealers, confiscated more than 70,000 opium pipes, and pressured merchants to surrender over a million kilograms of opium, which 500 hired workers destroyed by mixing it with lime and salt and dumping into the ocean over the course of 23 days. Zexu also wrote an open letter, published in The Times, urging Queen Victoria to end the opium trade. The bold message, which was never delivered to the Queen, asserted that China provided Britain with valuable commodities while Britain sent only “”poison”” in return.

The letter enraged Britain and in 1839, hostilities broke out between the two countries. The naval skirmish was to be the first act of war in what would later be known as the First Opium War. Although Zexu had prepared for a British attack and had warned neighbouring provinces of an impending invasion, they failed to heed his advice and the Chinese were easily defeated. Zexu was made a scapegoat for the defeat, stripped of his position, and exiled to the remote Western Xinjiang province, where, nonetheless, his competence was recognised and he was appointed governor-general of Yunnan-Guizhou, a much less prestigious post.

On 22 November 1850, en route from Guangxi, where he was sent to put down the Taiping Rebellion, Zexu died at the age of 65.

Today the scholar and anti-opium activist is regarded as a national hero in China. The day he confiscated opium chests, 3 June, is celebrated as Anti-Smoking Day and 26 June, the day his workers dumped the last of the illegal opium in the ocean, is International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, in honour of Zexu’s work.”

Credit: Alamy BH7JYM, Corbis WK015470
Caption: It took 23 days for Lin Zexu’s hired workers to dump over 1 million kilograms of illegally-imported opium into the ocean.