Reading Roy Moxham's Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire...
I never realized how intimately connected the tea and opium trades were. The British, to fuel their growing addiction to Chinese tea, poured silver into China, as the Chinese were not interested in Britain's manufactured goods. Cotton, which the British also had, was sometimes traded for tea, but never in the quantities of silver. The problem with trading your silver in an era when silver was the basis for currency is that you could debase your own money. The answer for the British was the Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. For some reason, and one that baffles Mr. Moxham, the Chinese were quite beholden to India's poppy, even though Papaver somniferum would have grown quite nicely in native Chinese land. As the British began to export opium to China the balance of trade shifted, which would precipitate more aggressive Chinese action against foreign trade. This led to direct conflict with British citizens, and the British government responded by launching a war against the Chinese. William Ewart Gladstone, one of Britain's most influential statesmen, said this of the war:
"A war more unjust in its origins, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I
do not know and I have not read of.'
Gladstone was in the minority, however, and war commenced. Of tea, and trade, and opium, and war, what a tangled jumble history is.