Overview of the Second Opium War

Painting from Le Figaro of French commander Cousin-Montauban leading a charge during the Second Opium War in China, 1860.

In the mid-1850s, the European powers and the United States sought to renegotiate their commercial treaties with China. This effort was led by the British who sought the opening of all of China to their merchants, an ambassador in Beijing, legalization of the opium trade, and the exemption of imports from tariffs. Unwilling to make further concessions to the West, the Qing government of Emperor Xianfeng refused these requests. Tensions were further heightened on October 8, 1856, when Chinese officials boarded the Hong Kong (then British) registered ship Arrow and removed 12 Chinese crewmen.

In response to the Arrow Incident, British diplomats in Canton demanded the release of the prisoners and sought redress. The Chinese refused, stating that Arrow was involved in smuggling and piracy. To aid in dealing with the Chinese, the British contacted France, Russia, and the United States about forming an alliance. The French, angered by the recent execution of missionary August Chapdelaine by the Chinese, joined while the Americans and Russians sent envoys. In Hong Kong, the situation worsened following a failed attempt by the city's Chinese bakers to poison the city's European population.

Early Actions

In 1857, after dealing with the Indian Mutiny, British forces arrived at Hong Kong. Led by Admiral Sir Michael Seymour and Lord Elgin, they joined with the French under Marshall Gros and then attacked the forts on the Pearl River south of Canton. The governor of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, Ye Mingchen, ordered his soldiers not to resist and the British easily took control of the forts. Pressing north, the British and French seized Canton after a brief fight and captured Ye Mingchen. Leaving an occupying force at Canton, they sailed north and took the Taku Forts outside Tianjin in May 1858.

Treaty of Tianjin

With his military already dealing with the Taiping Rebellion, Xianfeng was unable to resist the advancing British and French. Seeking peace, the Chinese negotiated the Treaties of Tianjin. As part of the treaties, the British, French, Americans, and Russians were permitted to install legations in Beijing, ten additional ports would be opened to foreign trade, foreigners would be permitted to travel through the interior, and reparations would be paid to Britain and France. In addition, the Russians signed the separate Treaty of Aigun which gave them coastal land in northern China.

Fighting Resumes

While the treaties ended the fighting, they were immensely unpopular within Xianfeng's government. Shortly after agreeing to the terms, he was persuaded to renege and dispatched Mongolian General Sengge Rinchen to defend the newly returned Taku Forts. The following June hostilities recommenced following Rinchen's refusal to allow Admiral Sir James Hope to land troops to escort the new ambassadors to Beijing. While Richen was willing to allow the ambassador's to land elsewhere, he prohibited armed troops to accompany them.

On the night of June 24, 1859, British forces cleared the Baihe River of obstacles and the next day Hope's squadron sailed in to bombard the Taku Forts. Meeting heavy resistance from the fort's batteries, Hope was ultimately forced to withdrawal with the aid of Commodore Josiah Tattnall, whose ships violated US neutrality to assist the British. When asked why he intervened, Tattnall replied that "blood is thicker than water." Stunned by this reversal, the British and French began assembling a large force at Hong Kong. By the summer of 1860, the army numbered 17,700 men (11,000 British, 6,700 French).

Sailing with 173 ships, Lord Elgin and General Charles Cousin-Montauban returned to the Tianjin and landed on August 3 near Bei Tang, two miles from the Taku Forts. The forts fell on August 21. Having occupied Tianjin, the Anglo-French army began moving inland towards Beijing. As the enemy host approached, Xianfeng called for peace talks. These stalled following the arrest and torture of British envoy Harry Parkes and his party. On September 18, Rinchen attacked the invaders near Zhangjiawan but was repelled. As the British and French entered the Beijing suburbs, Rinchen made his final stand at Baliqiao.

Mustering over 30,000 men, Rinchen launched several frontal assaults on the Anglo-French positions and was repulsed, destroying his army in the process. The way now open, Lord Elgin and Cousin-Montauban entered Beijing on October 6. With the army gone, Xianfeng fled the capital, leaving Prince Gong to negotiate peace. While in the city, British and French troops looted the Old Summer Palace and freed Western prisoners. Lord Elgin considered burning the Forbidden City as punishment for Chinese use of kidnapping and torture, but was talked into burning the Old Summer Palace instead by other diplomats.


In the following days, Prince Gong met with the Western diplomats and accepted the Convention of Peking. By the terms of the convention, the Chinese were forced to accept the validity of the Treaties of Tianjin, cede part of Kowloon to Britain, open Tianjin as a trade port, allow religious freedom, legalize the opium trade, and pay reparations to Britain and France. Though not a belligerent, Russia took advantage of China's weakness and concluded the Supplementary Treaty of Peking which ceded approximately 400,000 square miles of territory to St. Petersburg.

The defeat of its military by a much smaller Western army showed the weakness of the Qing Dynasty and began a new age of imperialism in China. Domestically, this, coupled with the flight of the emperor and the burning of the Old Summer Palace, greatly damaged the Qing's prestige leading many within China to begin questioning the government's effectiveness.




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Hickman, Kennedy. "Overview of the Second Opium War." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/second-opium-war-overview-2360837. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 25). Overview of the Second Opium War. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/second-opium-war-overview-2360837 Hickman, Kennedy. "Overview of the Second Opium War." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/second-opium-war-overview-2360837 (accessed April 2, 2023).