On this date in 1839, the Chinese government provocatively beheaded an opium merchant before the European consulates in Canton.
Opium exports from India into China were a lucrative trade for the British Empire* — for those watching the macroeconomic books, it balanced Britain’s costly importation of Chinese tea — but the consequences for China were wealth hemorrhaging overseas and a growing population of addicts.
Qing decrees against the opium trade dated to decades earlier, but the English had simply smuggled the stuff in. Finally, in the late 1830’s, China began to move to enforce its prohibition.
The trading port of Canton — the English name for Guangzhou — under the administration of upright Confucian governor Lin Zexu (alternately transliterated Lin Tse-hsu) would become the tinder box for open war, by which Britain ultimately compelled China by force of arms to accept its unwanted product.
This day’s execution was one small escalation in that conflict.
Lin Zexu supervises the destruction of opium.
Late in 1838, Chinese police initiated drug busts and expelled at least one opium-trading British merchant. The beheading this date was of a Chinese dealer, but unmistakably directed at westerners given its placement before the foreign missions. The consular officials pulled down their flags in protest of the affront.**
But greater provocations were to follow anon, and by year’s end open hostilities were afoot.
** This period would also mark Canton/Guangzhou’s eclipse as a trading port. Britain seized Hong Kong during the Opium Wars and relocated its foreign offices. Most European powers followed suit, making that city the far eastern entrepôt of choice.