Hong Kong and the Opium Wars

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 5

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850

Curriculum topics: The British Empire

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the sources reveal about the causes of the First Opium War? How do the documents infer issues around trade, ports, and the expansion of the British Empire?

Potential activities: Read up on news and information about modern-day Hong Kong since the 1997 transfer. What has been happening? How do you think today’s political events are linked to Hong Kong’s colonial history?

Download: Lesson pack

How did Hong Kong become part of the British Empire?

In 1997, Hong Kong stopped being a British colony after more than 150 years of British rule. Authority over Hong Kong was transferred to China. Many see this moment as the end of the last significant colony in the British Empire.

Hong Kong became a British colony through two wars: the First and Second Opium Wars. The First Opium War broke out in 1839. It is called the ‘Opium War’ because of one of its major causes: the British were smuggling opium from their Indian colonies into Chinese ports against the wishes of the Chinese government. This was to help pay for the large amounts of Chinese tea that they were importing – by the early 1800s, tea was a popular drink with the British public. Britain also wanted more control over their trade with China, as they could only trade with certain officials called Hong merchants.

The Opium Wars resulted in two treaties, each expanding the size of Britain’s Hong Kong territory. These treaties were followed by a 99-year lease in 1898 that allowed Britain to control even more land – a lease that ran out in 1997.

Use this lesson to find out the causes behind the First Opium War and how Hong Kong became part of the British Empire. How important were economic factors in the growth of the British Empire? How can we explain the unique position of Hong Kong in the world today?


1. Maps of Hong Kong over time

Look at sources 1a – c. These three maps show what Hong Kong looked like at three different points in history: 1841, 1868, and 1899.

  1. ‘Hong Kong Island’ – which is just one small part of today’s Hong Kong – is present in all three of these maps. Can you find it?
  2. In each map, identify which is the British territory and which is the Chinese territory.
  3. What do you think has happened in between each of these maps to change the borders?
  4. Look at a map of Hong Kong today. How similar is it to Source 1c?
  5. Today, Hong Kong Island is the political and economic centre of Hong Kong. Looking at these maps, why do you think that is?

2. The importance of tea

These two sources both show how popular tea had become in Great Britain in the 19th century.

  1. Look at Source 2a (the advertisement). Based on the wording in the tagline, do you think tea in the 1800s was a common or occasional purchase?
  2. This advertisement depicts a fictional woman whose style and surroundings incorporate stereotypical elements of both China and Japan. Why do you think she has been used to sell tea?
  3. Now look at Source 2b (the table). By looking at the table, can you list three goods that were imported from China into Britain in the early 1800s?
  4. Look at the numbers at the very bottom of the table. Based on them, can you tell which item was the most popular and most profitable?
  5. What does this table tell you about the British East India Company and their role in British trade at this time?
  6. By looking at Source 2a and b together, how would you describe Britain’s relationship to tea in the 1800s?

3. Opium smuggling and growing tensions

Sources 3a and 3b are both translated from Chinese, and show Great Britain’s opium smuggling and the ensuing increase in tensions between the two countries.

  1. Look at Source 3a. Who do you think wrote it and who do you think translated it?
  2. Based on this text, name two reasons why the opium smuggling is a problem for the Chinese government.
  3. What is the author implying by listing the places where the opium is coming from?
  4. Look at Source 3b. Who do you think wrote it, and who do you think it’s addressed to?
  5. According to this letter, what are the British doing? Why is the Chinese government unhappy with this?
  6. The First Opium War started about two years after this letter. Does it give us any clues about why the war started? What do you think might have happened in those two years?

4. Extract from Nanking treaty

This is an extract from the Nanking Treaty. This is the treaty signed after Great Britain defeated China in the First Opium War.

  1. What is this source? What is its purpose?
  2. What does article 3 give to Britain? Why do you think Britain wanted this?
  3. What does article 5 give to Britain? Why do you think Britain wanted this?
  4. How does this source show the importance of trade to the British Empire at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign?


In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Britain was experiencing a problem with its trade with China: it bought more than it sold. Chinese goods such as silk, porcelain, and especially tea were very popular. However, Chinese merchants did not want to buy British goods in return. As a result, Britain had to pay silver for the goods that it was importing, eventually risking a silver shortage.

Britain’s solution to this trade imbalance was opium. Opium is an addictive and dangerous drug made out of plants. Britain started growing opium in its Indian colonies and exporting it to China, where it spread through the population. China now started experiencing its own problems: it was losing silver, and there was a rapidly growing rate of opium addiction amongst its people. In response, opium was completely banned in China in 1796. However, British merchants kept illegally smuggling opium into the country.

At the same time, the British were unhappy with the restrictions on who they could trade with in China. All foreign trade in China had to go through the Hong merchants. This was a group of officials who made sure that foreign traders followed rules and regulations. British merchants could only trade with the Hong merchants at the southern port of Canton (now Guangzhou), which was close to Hong Kong.

By the early 19th century, the drug problem in China was worsening. It was spreading across the country and the British were smuggling in over 1,000 tonnes of opium per year. Suggestions to ease the prohibitions were rejected and by 1838, opium smugglers risked the death penalty.

In 1839, Chinese official Lin Zexu was tasked with stopping the opium smuggling. He famously seized large amounts of opium from foreign ships and threw it into the sea. He then introduced a system where traders would only be allowed to enter China if they signed a bond stating that they had no illegal goods. The British Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot, ordered British merchants not to sign.

Other events around this time further heightened tensions – including the murder of Lin Weixi, a villager from Tsim Sha Tsui, by British merchant sailors. Elliot ordered the arrest of the sailors and refused a request from Lin Zexu to turn them over to Chinese authorities. In retaliation, Lin put up a blockade against Macau, where the British had been staying, causing them to be expelled and move to Hong Kong. Lin also prevented food from being sold to the British.

The First Opium War eventually broke out on 4 September 1839 when Elliot issued an ultimatum stating that, if the British would not be allowed to trade for food with locals in Kowloon, British ships would open fire.

Britain won the war in 1842, leading to the Treaty of Nanking. This treaty gave Hong Kong Island to Britain, allowed for free British trade with any merchants in China, and forced China to pay damages for the destroyed opium.

However, Britain was not completely satisfied with the treaty and demanded that it be renegotiated. Among other things, they wanted the opium trade to be legalised and the whole of China to be open to foreign trade. This led to the Second Opium War breaking out in 1856. China was defeated once again, ending in the Treaty of Tientsin, which gave Britain the area north of Hong Kong Island called Kowloon.

The final expansion of British Hong Kong came in 1898. This was the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, a lease signed between Britain and China. This lease granted Britain the territory above Kowloon that is today known as the New Territories – but only for 99 years. Britain likely did not think they would ever need to return it.

However, 99 years later, China did indeed demand this land back. By this point, most of Hong Kong’s population lived in the New Territories, and it was not possible to separate it. On 1 July 1997, Britain officially transferred authority over Hong Kong to China, ending over 150 years of British rule. This is known in the English-speaking world as the ‘handover’.

Today, Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. One of the conditions of the 1997 transfer was to maintain the existing colonial systems of government and economy for 50 years. This is known as ‘one country, two systems’.

Teachers' notes

This lesson looks at why the Opium Wars happened and how Hong Kong became a British colony. It shows the importance of ports and trade routes for the British Empire around this time, and how economic factors were linked to its growth.

Please note that this lesson includes two sources that deal directly with the opium drug trade.

To begin with, students examine three maps of British Hong Kong. The first map shows what Hong Kong looked like after the First Opium War, when it was just Hong Kong Island. The second map shows what Hong Kong looked like after the Second Opium War, when Kowloon was added. Finally, the third map shows what Hong Kong looked like after the 1898 lease, which added the New Territories – this map is identical to what Hong Kong looks like today.

Sources 2a and 2b show students the importance of tea in Britain during the 1800s. Source 2a is an advertisement for tea in the late 1800s, showing how tea was associated with an exotic and stereotypical vision of ‘East Asia’ around this time. It also shows that tea was marketed towards everyday people, reflecting that it was now part of daily British life and culture. Source 2b shows a table that records the amounts and values of different Chinese goods imported into Britain by the East India Company from 1811-1828. By following the numbers, students can clearly see how valuable tea was and the large amounts that were being imported.

Sources 3a and 3b are translated from Chinese and show China’s perspective on Britain’s opium smuggling. Source 3a describes the negative effects of opium, and that British colonies were the source of the drug. It also outlines the economic impacts of opium smuggling, draining silver from the Chinese economy and flipping the trade imbalance previously experienced by the British. Source 3b shows how Britain’s refusal to obey trade restrictions and the opium ban was leading to heightened tensions. The First Opium War broke out just two years later.

The final source shows extracts from the Treaty of Nanking, after Britain won the First Opium War. It shows two of the most important things that Britain gained – not just the territory of Hong Kong, but a lifting of trade restrictions for British merchants.

Further questions/activities:

  • Look closer at the treaty that resulted from the First Opium War. Treaty of Nanking (Catalogue ref: FO 93/23/1b)
    • What does it tell you about what Britain wanted through its treaties with China?
    • This treaty is often referred to as one of the first of the ‘unequal treaties’ in China. Why do you think that is?
  • Explore Hong Kong under British colonial rule. What was life like for Hongkongers under British rule? How did Hong Kong become known as a global financial centre in the latter half of the 20th century? Potential topics to cover can include:
    • Segregation in colonial Hong Kong
    • The 1894 Hong Kong plague
    • Protests in the 1960s against the colonial government
    • The unique history of the Kowloon Walled City. Why was it not colonised in the same way as the rest of Hong Kong? How did its story end?


1a. Hong Kong, surveyed by Captain Sir Edward Beleher, 1841. Catalogue ref: FO 925/2293

1b. Hong Kong Sun-on District, 1868. Catalogue ref: CO 700/HONGKONGANDCHINA3A (1)

1c. Map of Hong Kong and of the Territory leased to Great Britain under the Convention between Great Britain and China signed at Peking on the 9th of June 1898. Catalogue ref: MPG 1/796

2a. Phillips and Co’s Teas, Coffees and Cocoas, 1886. Catalogue ref: COPY 1/74/28

2b. Printed Accounts, etc. of the East India Company’s China trade, 1830. Catalogue ref: PRO 30/9/4/38

3a. Chinese translations on opium, 1836. Catalogue ref: FO 228/4

3b. Letter from Commander-in-Chief of the Naval Forces in Fukien, 1 September 1837. Catalogue ref: FO 682/2462/41

4. Treaty of peace and friendship, commerce, indemnity (Treaty of Nanking), 1842. Catalogue ref: FO 93/23/1b

External links

Overview of the First Opium War from the National Army Museum.

Resource for teachers on the First Opium War from Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.

Resource for teachers from the BBC about the causes behind the First Opium War as part of the BBC series The Story of China.

Blog from The National Archives on photos of Hong Kong in our collection.

Connections to curriculum

Key Stage 5

  • Edexcel:
    • Britain: losing and gaining an empire, 1763–1914
      • The changing nature and extent of trade
  • OCR:
    • From Colonialism to Independence: The British Empire 1857–1965
    • China and its Rulers 1839–1989
      • Key topics:
        • China and the wider world
      • Depth studies:
        • The First Opium War and its impact
  • AQA:
    • The British Empire, c1857–1967
    • The Transformation of China, 1936–1997
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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 5

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850

Curriculum topics: The British Empire

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the sources reveal about the causes of the First Opium War? How do the documents infer issues around trade, ports, and the expansion of the British Empire?

Potential activities: Read up on news and information about modern-day Hong Kong since the 1997 transfer. What has been happening? How do you think today’s political events are linked to Hong Kong’s colonial history?

Download: Lesson pack

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