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To my current understanding, James Matheson in his "The British trade with China" argued that China might have originally had the right to refuse trading with Britain, but that they lost such right by consenting- even tacitly- to the Opium trade. One passage that I interpret in the above sense reads:
Without discussing the question, whether the Chinese are absolutely warranted, in justice to their fellow-nations, in shutting out all the rest of the world from any participation in the benefits of so prodigious a portion of the most desirable parts of the earth,-even when that participation would be attended with corresponding advantages to themselves,-it may be contended that China has long since surrendered such rights, and is no longer in a position to enforce them, as against the British nation; that her conduct, during the last century or two, has amounted, not merely to a simple permission to us to carry on our trade with her, but has conferred upon us perfect rights, such as are accompanied by the right-of compelling the fulfilment of the corresponding obligations.
Thence stems my question:
Were there no instances before the mid 19th century Opium wars of a national state legally banning harmful imports? Were the above arguments more than facetious excuses by the legal standards of the time? Hadn't Britain's Empire in particular ever banned from import any product that they thought harmful and dangerous and no longer to be tolerated?
Let's not go back to the time before the advent of Nations
Very rightly the term “national state” has been criticised. Unfortunately I am unsure how to better phrase this. My point is that Matheson (as far as I understand from my first reading) heavily draws upon Vattel's “The Law of Nations” for defending the supposed British rights. I seek examples of states that have accepted “The Law of Nations” but enacted similar trade bans as the Qing did.
"Banning harmful imports" was often done.
Prime example being the satanic brew.
Coffee was banned in Mecca, Italy, Contantinople/Ottoman Empire, Prussia.
Similarly: tea was banned in East Frisia, were and when it was already the national drink.
Like all other illict drugs today, they were thought of being too stimulating and foment free thought, and consequently upheaval and revolutions. That they were also expensive and imported and hence damaging the bullion in mercantilistic theory is an aspect not to overlook though.
- Stuart Lee Allen: "The Devil's Cup: Coffee, the Driving Force in History"
- Mark Pendergrast: "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It transformed our world"
Depending on definitions: Banning grout ingredients not natively growing in Bavaria was done in 1500s (See also this answer for prohobition of beer ingredients What drugs were used in England during the High Middle Ages? which could be interpreted variously as among other reasons: consumer protection from harmful substances and making trade of the herbs useless for Bavarian beer brewers, hence protectionist market policy)
More important is then the how England reacted to imports from China, like tea. As the Chinese demanded hard silver in exchange, English taxes on tea were one reaction, resorting to opium another, favoured by Matheson, obviously.
As the example of tea already showed, (international) trade was always a battle ground for ideologies. And as such these aren't bound to too much logic or stringency. The Stuarts of England introduced import and export controls for corn (meaning grains from oversea) and from 1815 on the Corn Laws prohibited and taxed imports (mixed system) in a manner of protectionism and precisely not 'free trade' for which Matheson argues.
Since The Law of Nations was published in English in 1760 these British actions would have run afoul of the ideas expressed therein. But the treatise is not as its title might suggest "a law" that 'nations did accept'.
As such one would have to look at what Francisco de Vitoria and David Ricardo wrote on free trade (Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, Adam Smith, François Quesnay, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot as well) and for example Paul Methuen did with Portugal. As such, the concept was emerging as a relatively newfangled philosophy. That it would be somehow even related to ius gentium, which is notoriously ill-defined and the result of complex interactions:
but rather customary law thought to be held in common by all gentes ("peoples" or "nations") in "reasoned compliance with standards of international conduct".
That means primarily for Matheson that he argues not much with any accepted law, natural law, or signed treaty. His line of argument is really just emphasising the tradition and customs of the English 'foot in the door'. Namely that 'it's the Chinese fault for allowing trade with England in the first place'. Such a granting of trade he now sees as given in perpetuity. And that conveniently the developments had the added effect of rendering the Chinese state incapable of effectively enforcing any such unilateral desires they might have.
That is not so much an accurate description of the sovereign rights of the Qing state. It is more to be read as an advertisement for the British and their parliament to pluck a ripe fruit from a neighbour's garden with impunity and more profits on the horizon.
Assuming you accept books as an answer (and your comment suggests that you do) there are at least two wiki pages that list books that have been banned by governments:
List of books banned by governments
List of authors and works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which is to say the Vatican's list.
As you will find from going through the list, books have a long tradition of getting banned (as in print or import) for all sorts of reasons: because they are seditious, or obscene, etc. Not all of the reasons were "bad", either -- the list contains at least one anti-semitic pamphlet that was banned in 1618 after triggering anti-Jewish riots in Krakow.
The earliest example of a book ban in the list seems to be the bible. Specifically:
Historically, some countries banned the Bible in certain languages or versions. [… ] In 1234, King James I of Aragon ordered the burning of Bibles in the vernacular.
(I've honestly no idea if the latter example truly was the earliest example of a book ban. Though I would note that Socrates was censured by way of the death penalty.)
For substances proper, alcohol seems to have had a long tradition of prohibition in some places. The Hammurabi code contains the following language, which prohibits trading in it except through barter:
If a beer seller do not receive barley as the price for beer, but if she receive money or make the beer a measure smaller than the barley measure received, they shall throw her into the water.
And there is of course Sharia law, from the 7th century, which prohibits alcohol and, more generally, intoxicants. One caveat: Muslims were relatively enlightened during the medieval era, so it's not entirely clear to me whether non-Muslims could relatively freely trade in and drink alcohol in countries ruled by Muslims.
In Europe proper and affiliated regions, the earliest examples of regulation and prohibition of substances seem to have occurred in the late 19th. The Pharmacy Act of 1868 in particular regulated the trade of opium in the UK -- i.e. 8 years after the end of the 2nd Opium War. The All-India Opium Act of 1878 followed shortly after.
[It] formalized social distinctions, by limiting recreational opium sales to registered Indian opium-eaters and Chinese opium-smokers and prohibiting its sale to workers from Burma.