The first Opium War (1840–1842) was a defining moment in Anglo-Chinese relations, and since the 1840s the histories of its origins have tended to be straightforward narratives suggesting that the British cabinet turned to its military to protect opium sales and to force open China trade. Whilst the monetary aspects of the war cannot be ignored, this book argues that economic interests should not overshadow another important aspect of British foreign policy—honor and shame.
British cabinet officials worried less about the danger to economic interests than the threat to their honor and the possible loss of power in Parliament.
Palmerston’s government recognized that failure to act with honor generated public outrage in the form of petitions to parliament and loss of votes, and as a result was at pains to take such considerations into account when making policy. Accordingly, British cabinet officials worried less about the danger to economic interests than the threat to their honor and the possible loss of power in Parliament. The decision to wage a drug war, however, made the government vulnerable to charges of immorality, creating the need to justify the war by claiming it was acting to protect British national honor.
Melancon, Glenn. Opium and Honour: The British Cabinet's Decision to Wage War on China, 1839-1840, International History Review, vol. 21.3 (December 1999): 855-874.
Melancon, Glenn, Peaceful Intentions: The First British Trade Commission in China, 1833-1835, Historical Research: The Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, vol. 73, no. 180 (February 2000): 33-47.