CASE 4:  China and International Law in the 19th Century


Although economic interests certainly played a role in the Opium War, it would appear that the growing power of “national pride,” or nationalism, played a big role in motivating the British public to support such drastic action. We know that, following Napier’s death, the families of major opium traders urged the British government to put a stop to all commerce of the Qing, take possession of all armed vessels, and so on. Clearly this would all be to the advantage of companies wishing to make profits by selling addictive drugs in China. Public support for aggressive policies seemed assured considering how the fate of Lord Napier was perceived by the British subjects at the time. Both national leaders and the press were ready and willing to fan the flames of public indignation.

When Queen Victoria gave her speech to Parliament on 26 January 1842 to explain the necessity for the Opium War, she stated:

Having deemed it necessary to send to the coast of China a naval and military force, to demand reparation and redress for the injuries inflicted upon some of my subjects by the officers of the Emperor of China, and for indignities offered to an Agent of my Crown, I, at the same time, appointed Plenipotentiaries to treat upon these matters with the Chinese Government.

The injuries and indignities to which Queen Victoria referred encompassed not just material damage but, perhaps more importantly, issues of disrespectful address such as “the Barbarian Eye.”

The popular magazine Punch in Britain poked fun at the situation by fictionalizing the garter worn by the British nobility as an article bestowed by “the Barbarian Queen” or naming Shakespeare as the national poet of the “barbarian English.” Another cartoon from Punch, dated 4 November 1860, portrayed Lord Elgin as gesturing toward the Emperor of China to “come, knuckle down! No cheating this time,” while holding what seems like a cannonball in the right hand.


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