Britons in the 19th century had created an enormous market for Chinese tea; however, they were hard pressed to offer any British products that the Chinese were interested in exchanging. This presented a very real problem until the British discovered a commodity that China did want: opium.
Thanks to the poppy fields of India, the British had access to a vast supply of the narcotic, and began to aggressively pursue the trade. The Chinese government, however, became alarmed as opium addiction became widespread and the nation’s coffers were drained to pay for the imported opium. Emperor Chia Ch’ing and his successor, Tao Kuang issued edicts banning the opium trade throughout China, Whampoa and Macau.
The drug trade could scarcely be suppressed though, and a network of corrupt officials ensured its ongoing success. In 1839, Lin Xexu, the governor of Hunan and a man known for his integrity, faced off with the British garrison in Guangzhou. He surrounded the garrison, cutting off the British food supply until they turned over their stockpile of more than 20,000 bales of opium.
Captain Charles Elliot was British chief superintendent of trade at the time, and he responded by promptly cutting off all trade with China while he waited for orders from London. Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, sent off a force of 4000 men under the command of Rear Admiral George Elliot. He tasked them with pressing the Chinese government into yielding to a favourable trade agreement and providing reparations for the confiscated goods.
This sparked the beginning of the First Opium War, as the British forces first besieged Guangzhou, then sailed north, blockading and occupying ports and cities along the Yangtze River. When the British forces reached Shanghai and began to threaten Beijing, the Emperor realized the very real danger to his capital. He quickly sent out an envoy to negotiate with the British, offering Hong Kong Island in exchange for the British withdrawal from Northern China.
Ultimately, neither side truly agreed to all the terms of this offer, known as the Convention of Chenpui, though the British did take control of Hong Kong in January of 1841, hoisting the British flag at Possession Point. Hong Kong was, at the time, little more than a backwater. There were only around 20 tiny villages; however, its deep, sheltered harbour provided the British with a distinct advantage in the region.
Captain Elliot saw the island as an ideal foothold for the British Empire from which they could conduct their trade under complete British sovereignty. The British merchants in Guangzhou felt differently, however. They saw the tiny, barren island as scarcely the sort of victory that the British should have achieved. The following month, Captain Elliot took control of the Pearl River, the Bogue Fort in Humen, and laid siege to Guangzhou, refusing to withdraw until he exacted concessions from the merchants there.
Sir Henry Pottinger succeeded Captain Elliot six months later, and led a powerful force north, seizing Amoy, Ningpo, Shanghai, and other strategic ports. With the British closing in on the strategic city of Nanking, the Chinese were pressed into accepting the terms that the British offered.
When the Treaty of Nanking was signed, five “treaty ports” were opened to the British. British residents were free to establish themselves there, and foreign trade was allowed to thrive. British nationals were exempt from Chinese laws, and the island of Hong Kong was officially ceded to Britain “in perpetuity”. On June 26, 1843, Hong Kong officially became a Crown Colony of the British Empire.
When Hong Kong became a British Colony, it was very easy for Britons to find work there since visa and immigration procedures were almost non-existent. It became quite common for young working class Britons to turn to Hong Kong for employment, especially during economic low periods in England.
Interestingly enough, however, Britons never made up more than a small portion of Hong Kong’s population. While the mark left on the culture and institutions of Hong Kong was enormous, there were never a very large number of Britons there at any one time. This can be seen on the census of 1865, which notes Hong Kong’s population at 125,504, of which only 2,000 or so were European or American.