Evidence of human activity in what is now Hong Kong can be traced back to prehistoric times. But when the 19th century opened, the territory was mainly known for a few small villages, mostly home to fishermen and pirates. Seldom had anything occurred there to earn notice in the Chinese annals. However, once Britain took possession following the Opium Wars, Hong Kong developed into an important seaport, though a sleepy backwater to some and seldom a commercial match for bustling Shanghai.
The Chinese Imperial Government attempts to suppress the opium trade, ordering British and other foreign merchants in Canton (Guangzhou) to destroy their stocks. Fearing trouble, the local British Superintendent of Trade order navy ships to take merchants' families on board and take refuge in the protected harbor of Hong Kong, a generally-neglected island of some 4,000 residents near the mouth of the Pearl River.
The British flag is raised over Hong Kong following China's defeat in the First Anglo-Chinese (Opium) War.
Hong Kong island is ceded to Great Britain by the subsequent Treaty of Nanjing. The first British governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, predicts it will become "a vast emporium of commerce and wealth," a view generally not shared in London.
A British colonial administration assumes authority, with an appointed Executive Council (Exco) and Legislative Council (Legco) whose wishes the governor can ignore. Bureaucratic departments are established to supervise public administration, sanitation and the law.
The first British merchants are appointed to Legco.
Chinese residents gain the right to join the government and to practice law.
An indication of some public attitudes is revealed when a Hong Kong baker sells arsenic-laced bread to British residents.
Following an Anglo-French campaign, the Treaty of Tianjin awards the Kowloon Peninsula up to Boundary Street and Stonecutter's Island to Britain.
After the Chinese government refuses to permit ratification of the 1858 treaty, an Anglo-French force occupies Beijing and loots the Manchu dynasty Summer Palace. The subsequent Treaty of Beijing formally cedes the tip of Kowloon and Stonecutter's Island to Britain. The opium trade is legalized.
The Hongkong & Shanghai Bank is established; it and two other banks are authorized to print notes as legal tender.
Ng Choy, a member of a leading Hong Kong family, is appointed the first Chinese member of the Legislative Council (Legco).
Land reclamation along the island's waterfront (completed in 1904) creates the modern Central District.
Complex negotiations between Beijing and leading continental powers, following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, award various territorial concessions to the Europeans. Britain then demands and wins a 99-year, rent-free lease till June 30, 1997 for the rest of the Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories. All subsequent Chinese governments denounce pacts that ceded territory to Britain as "unequal treaties", and refuse to accept them in law while generally honoring them in practice.