Lin Tse-hsü destroys 1.2 million kg of opium confiscated from British merchants, providing Britain with a casus belli to open hostilities, resulting in the First Opium War.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the demand for Chinese goods (particularly silk, porcelain, and tea) in the European market created a trade imbalance because the market for Western goods in China was virtually non-existent; China was largely self-sufficient and Europeans were not allowed access to China’s interior. European silver flowed into China when the Canton System, instituted in the mid-17th century, confined the sea trade to Canton and to the Chinese merchants of the Thirteen Factories. The British East India Company had a matching monopoly of British trade. The British East India Company began to auction opium grown on its plantations in India to independent foreign traders in exchange for silver. The opium was then transported to the Chinese coast and sold to local middlemen who retailed the drug inside China. This reverse flow of silver and the increasing numbers of opium addicts alarmed Chinese officials.
In 1839, the Daoguang Emperor, rejecting proposals to legalise and tax opium, appointed viceroy Lin Tse-hsü to solve the problem by abolishing the trade. Lin confiscated around 20,000 chests of opium (approximately 1210 tons or 2.66 million pounds) without offering compensation, blockaded trade, and confined foreign merchants to their quarters. The British government, although not officially denying China’s right to control imports of the drug, objected to this unexpected seizure and used its naval and gunnery power to inflict a quick and decisive defeat, a tactic later referred to as gunboat diplomacy.