The Chinese attempt to retake Canton by force failed. New British commanders took charge and would accept nothing less than total Chinese capitulation. They captured cities all the way up to Nanking, forcing the Emperor to negotiate. He had no choice but to accept an unequal treaty, kicking off a period of subservience to Europe which China still remembers today as the Century of Humiliation.
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Disappointed in the treaty, the Daoguang Emperor replaced Qishan with three new commanders. One of them wanted to buy time and modernize the army, but the Emperor insisted the British be repelled immediately. They assaulted Canton from across the river, firing cannons and sailing fire ships at the British fleet. Their efforts fell far short, and soon the British controlled the river again. The Chinese were forced to pay them an indemnity to leave Canton, but in their wake riots and looting plagued the city anyway. Elliot still led the British forces, but upon returning to Hong Kong, he learned that he was now being replaced. His replacements had no interest in the compromises he’d tried to establish. They pushed immediately towards Beijing. In each new fort they captured, they found evidence that the Chinese resistance had ironically been weakened by crippling opium addiction. As the Chinese attacks grew more desperate, British retaliation grew more brutal. Finally, they stood ready to seize Nanking. With it would come control of the Yangtze River on which all of China depended, so the Emperor was forced to negotiate. They had no bargaining power, and gave the British nearly everything they wanted: a huge indemnity, new trade ports, no more Hong monopoly, generous tariffs, consulates, and sovereignty over Hong Kong. The only two matters they refused were Christian missionaries and legalizing opium, but the latter would only lead to the Second Opium War with similar results. These “unequal treaties” would go down in Chinese history as the beginning of what the Communist government later called “The Century of Humiliation.” The spectre of this shame and forced subservience to European interests continues to shape politics today, as this history is often invoked or used as a rallying cry during dealings with the West.
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