In the early 19th century, Britain and China experienced a massive trade imbalance; demand for Chinese exports such as tea, silk and porcelain was increasing, but the ruling Qing dynasty saw no need for European imports, requesting only silver in return. Foreign traders were confined to the city of Canton and were not treated on fair terms by the Chinese. Frustrated at the Celestial Empire’s intolerant attitude and the growing scarcity of silver, the British East India Company used Indian-grown opium to fix the deficit. A highly lucrative drug, it created millions of addicts. The Qing government disapproved of the trade, and an official crackdown was launched in 1839.
The resulting conflict lasted for three years 1839-1842, and was centred around the issue of free trade. For soldiers of the British Army and East India Company, combat in the First Opium War involved amphibious assaults against Chinese coastal fortifications and walled towns, as depicted above. Based on a picture by M A Hayes, the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment are in full dress uniforms, complete with shakos and knapsacks, and armed with new percussion muskets; heat and fever was a consistent problem throughout the conflict. Led by a conspicuously-dressed officer, the troops have just landed after a naval barrage, and are clearing out any remaining opposition amidst the smoke.
Qing forces, on the other hand, were severely disadvantaged; although possessing strong defences and sizeable numbers on paper, corruption and conservatism meant the average Chinese soldier was poorly-disciplined and poorly-equipped. The armoured commander rallying the troops (left) is a Bannerman serving under one of eight military units or ‘banners’. He is dressed in traditional quilted body armour with small metal plates; lightly-armed Tigermen skirmishers (centre) are dressed in tiger-like costumes to emulate the namesake animal’s fierceness. The rest of the Chinese troops are dressed in silk hats and jackets, with unit identifications on an embroidered circle patch; many have been killed or wounded by British artillery fire, and are trying to form a last-ditch defence against the advancing redcoats. The kneeling matchlock man wears a surcoat and waist belt containing charges for his obsolete firearm. The dead artillery crew in the background have proven to be ineffective in battle, often utilising poor quality gunpowder and improvised projectiles.
By Ibrahim Zamir
Barthorp, Michael (1987). The British Army on Campaign (1): 1816-1853. Oxford, England. Osprey Publishing.
David, Saul (2009). The Encyclopedia of War. London, England: DK Publishing.
Knight, Ian (1990). Queen Victoria’s Enemies (4): Asia, Australasia and the Americas. Oxford, England. Osprey Publishing.
McNab, Chris (2016). The Soldier’. Bath, England. Parragon Books.