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HomeContentsThemes > Second Chinese Opium War (1856-1860)

Warning: The photographs within this theme and the sections on individual wars are of a graphic and violent nature - if you are sensitive to these issues then you should not view this theme.
Disclaimer: This section of the website uses examples from wars and rebellions to highlight the works of photographers - this is not to make a political point but to appreciate that there are different global perspectives on each event. If there is a general point it is about the inhumanity of war.
We are always interested in improving the content on this website so please get in contact if you have any suggestions...
The First (1849-42) and Second Chinese Opium Wars (1856-1860) reflect one of the most unethical aspects of the foreign policy of the British Empire and the American, French and Dutch traders who were involved in the distribution of opium.
The wars were fought to prevent the Chinese government clamping down on drug use and the export of opium. British merchants needed opium as part of a global trade network and were perfectly prepared to fight for it. The catalyst for action was when the Chinese searched the British ship 'Arrow' on suspicion of piracy and shipping opium - as the ship was Chinese owned they had a right to do this but as it was registered in Hong Kong the jurisdiction was open to dispute. The French joined the British using the execution of a missionary, Father August Chapdelaine, as the justification.
The allies began operations late in 1857 and the Chinese soon agreed to terms and signed the treaties at Tientsin (1858) that opened China up for foreign trade and missionaries. Considerable pressure was applied to force the Chinese to accept imports of opium. The Chinese didn't ratify the treaties and hostilities resumed.
Felice Beato used multiple wet collodion plates to create panoramas of important sights including the ships and camp at Hong Kong preparing for the North China Expedition (taken 18-27 March 1860). The French and British forces landed at Pei Tang on 1 August 1860 and moved on. During this period Felice Beato documented the campaign and recorded the aftermath of the attacks with the Western allies on the forts at Taku, near Tientsin, on 21 August 1860. The photographs show the ravaged ramparts of the fort strewn with Chinese dead. It has been suggested that Felice Beato moved corpses around in order to get a more dramatic image - a practice that still continues today with the more unethical war photographers. A contemporary account said:
"I walked round the ramparts on the West side. They were thickly strewn with dead - in the North-West angle thirteen were lying in one group around a gun. Signor Beato was there in great excitement, characterising the group as ‘beautiful‘ and begging that it might not be interfered with until perpetuated by his photographic apparatus, which was done a few minutes afterwards.."
D.F. Rennie 1863 ‘British Arms in North China and Japan‘ Shanghai p.112
The allied forces marched on and by 26 September they arrived at Bejing and the city fell on 6 October 1860. The war ended with the Convention of Peking on 18 October in which the Chinese agreed to the western demands.
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