This Day in History – January 20th, 1841

QueenVictoria-BrideSome of the earliest items sold to China in exchange for tea were British clocks, watches and musical boxes known as “sing-songs”. These were not enough to compensate for the trade imbalance caused by the massive quantities of tea exported and the insistence by the Chinese that it be paid for in silver. After the 1757 territorial conquest of Bengal in India, the British had access to opium, which when mixed with water was used in western society as an analgesic tincture. The Chinese, on the other hand, smoked opium in an addictive narcotic manner. Since a large fiscal deficit existed in Bengal, opium exports became a British government means to raise tax, even though it meant an increase in the number of Chinese people addicted to the drug. Lin Zexu, a special Chinese commissioner appointed by the Qing Daoguang Emperor, wrote a letter to Queen Victoria in 1839 taking a stance against the acceptance of opium in trade. He confiscated more than 20,000 chests of opium already in Hong Kong and supervised their destruction.

The Queen saw the destruction of British products as an insult and sent the first expeditionary force to the region. The First Opium War (1839–1842) began at the hands of Captain Charles Elliot of the Royal Navy and Capt. Anthony Blaxland Stransham of the Royal Marines. After a series of Chinese defeats, Hong Kong Island was occupied by the British on January 20th, 1841. Sir Edward Belcher, aboard HMS Sulphur, landed in Hong Kong on 25 January 1841. Possession Street still exists to mark the event. Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer raised the Union Jack and claimed Hong Kong as a colony on January 26th, 1841. He erected naval store sheds there in April 1841.

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The island was first used by the British as a staging post during the war, and while the East India Company intended to establish a permanent base on the island of Zhoushan, Elliot took it upon himself to claim the island on a permanent basis. The ostensible authority for the occupation was negotiated between Captain Eliot and the Viceroy of Liangguang, the Manchu official Qishan. The Convention of Chuenpee was concluded but had not been recognised by the Qing Dynasty court at Beijing. Subsequently, Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking, when the territory became a Crown colony.

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