A Letter to Queen Victoria

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A Letter to Queen Victoria

INTRODUCTION Lin Zexu's letter was an attempt to persuade Queen Victoria to ban the export of opium to China. The attempt failed—most likely, Lin's letter never reached the Queen—and Lin's other efforts to stop the traffic led to the Opium War (1839–1842).

Opium had long been used in China, but it was not smoked until the late 1600s, when opium imported from India was mixed in pipes with another import—tobacco. British merchants promoted the drug in China after about 1720, largely to avoid having to pay in silver for their rapidly growing purchases of Chinese tea. The opium trade grew steadily, but consumption remained largely restricted to bored members of the upper class. In 1815 China's opium imports would have supplied about 125,000 addicts (China's population was about 375 million). Around that time, East India Company officials developed a cheaper and more addictive blend of opium, and sales soared. By 1839 China imported enough of the drug to supply as many as 10 million addicts. The outflow of silver to pay for the drug played havoc with China's bimetallic currency system, affecting millions more.

Though many Chinese officials had previously favored legalizing the drug, opinion now swung solidly behind a crackdown, and Lin, who had a reputation for absolute incorruptibility, was chosen to carry it out. His tough punishments for Chinese addicts seem to have had some success, but when he confiscated the opium stocks of a group of English merchants, they were able to persuade their government to go to war in support of their right to "free trade." The superior mobility and firepower of the British Navy (especially their ability to sail up the Yangtze and get behind fixed gun batteries) led to a decisive British victory. ∎

After a long period of commercial intercourse, there appear among the crowd of barbarians both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of heaven and are unanimously hated by human beings. His Majesty the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me, his commissioner, to come to Kwangtung, and together with the governor-general and governor jointly to investigate and settle this matter.

All those people in China who sell opium or smoke opium should receive the death penalty. If we trace the crime of those barbarians who through the years have been selling opium, then the deep harm they have wrought and the great profit they have usurped should fundamentally justify their execution according to law. We take into consideration, however, the fact that the various barbarians have still known how to repent their crimes and return to their allegiance to us by taking the 20,183 chests of opium from their storeships and petitioning us, through their consular officer [superintendent of trade], Elliot, to receive it. It has been entirely destroyed and this has been faithfully reported to the Throne in several memorials by this commissioner and his colleagues.

Fortunately we have received a specially extended favor from His Majesty the Emperor, who considers that for those who voluntarily surrender there are still some circumstances to palliate their crime, and so for the time being he has magnanimously excused them from punishment. But as for those who again violate the opium prohibition, it is difficult for the law to pardon them repeatedly. Having established new regulations, we presume that the ruler of your honorable country, who takes delight in our culture and whose disposition is inclined towards us, must be able to instruct the various barbarians to observe the law with care. It is only necessary to explain to them the advantages and disadvantages and then they will know that the legal code of the Celestial Court must be absolutely obeyed with awe.

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [three li equal one mile] from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries—how much less to China!