The opium wars were a series of armed encounters and stand-offs that took place in the middle of the 1800s. The original conflict was between Britain and China, while in the second war France, Russia and the USA joined Britain in the fray.
The Chinese Emperor Dao Guang had banned opium in China because of its supposed deleterious social effects. Meanwhile, the British Empire considered the sale of opium in China as a useful means of redressing the British trade deficit, which had come about largely owing to the import of tea - a crop over which China still possessed an unbroken monopoly at the time.
Events of the Wars
The trigger for the first Opium War was the impounding and ceremonial incineration of a quantity of British-owned opium by Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu.
The key event of the conflict was the arrival of a number of steam-powered British ironclads, whose might the Chinese military was incapable of withstanding.
The Chinese were forced to sign treaties granting the British a lease on the Island of Hong Kong and the right to establish trading posts in a number of cities. Chinese nationalists have continually stressed the supposed unfairness of these treaties ever since, though it can also be argued that they merely represent a true reflection of the power relations between the West and China at the time. Many countries followed Britain's example and forced China to sign further treaties conceding land and trading rights.