Apparently Commissioner Lin sent a letter to the young Queen Victoria exhorting her to acknowledge the laws of China that prohibited the importation and sale of opium, and warning that Chinese officials would order the seizure and immolation of any ships found engaged in the trade. Arthur Waley quotes this letter in translation:

I am told that in your own country opium smoking is forbidden under severe penalties. This means that you are aware of how harmful it is. . . . . So long as you do not take it yourselves, but continue to make it and tempt the people of China to buy it, you will be showing yourselves careful of your own lives, but careless of the lives of other people, indifferent in your greed for gain to the harm you do to others; such conduct is repugnant to human feeling and at variance with the Way of Heaven. . . . .

On receiving this, Your Majesty will be so good as to report to me immediately on the steps that have been taken at each of your ports.

That this is a noble letter no one will deny. Had the inexperienced young Queen received it she might well at first have doubted whether we ought to persist in what Gladstone called 'this most infamous and atrocious trade'. But [Viscount Lord] Palmerston would soon have damped her qualms by the accepted sophistry that it rested with the Chinese to stop the opium traffic by suppressing the consumption of opium; he would have explained that only by importing opium could the balance of trade be maintained; and that the cessation of this traffic would be disastrous to the finances of India. (pp. 30-31)

The trade with China, "balanced" by the importation of opium was also vital to the economy of Great Britain itself. Peter Ward Fay estimates that the duties collected by the government on leaf tea annually amounted to some three million pounds, about half the cost of running the Royal Navy!


Fay, Peter Ward. The Opium War 1840-1842. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Waley, Arthur. The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958.

Last modified 23 June 2006