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Opium: The drug that gave colonialism a real high

The history of the world is inextricably linked to the history of trade, in particular, the widespread trade of goods obtained on the back of atrocities and those capable of shaping our entire monetary system. In Tracking the Trade Winds, we look at the seismic importance of goldsugar, silk, oil and more in connecting civilisations, enriching empires and facilitating the migration of people and resources.

In February 1793, British ambassador to China George Macartney boarded the East India Company (EIC) ship Hindostan for a special visit to the Chinese emperor. The purpose was twofold. First was to offer greetings to Emperor Qianlong for his 83rd birthday on behalf of the King of England, George III. The other was a far more pressing concern — to convince him to open up China for trade.

At stake was the British love and addiction for Chinese tea. The English had been obsessed with tea since the 1650s when they were first introduced to it. Author Thomas Manuel in his book Opium Inc (2021) notes that “at its peak, at the beginning of the 19th century, the duty on tea accounted for 10 per cent of Britain’s total revenue”, which was an extraordinary situation. The increasing appetite for tea in Britain caused a challenging situation for its balance of payment situation. The Chinese were only interested in trading silver in return for their tea, and by the close of the 18th century, the British treasury was fast running out of the precious metal.

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Macartney’s purpose in China was to open up to trading for the large range products that Britain had at their disposal. Manuel in his book describes the huge amount of expense and manpower that was employed to make Macartney’s mission a success. “Ninety wagons, forty barrows, 200 horses and 3000 workers were used to carry all of the various objects into the capital city of the Chinese empire,” he writes. There were telescopes, barometres, clocks, hot-air balloons, swords, textile, pistol and much more. However, the emperor was not impressed and stood firm on the decision that they had no need for British products. Macartney was forced to sail back to England at the end of an unsuccessful mission.

The British were in desperate need to find a product that would be irresistible to the Chinese. It was during this time that they looked towards the jewel of the empire, India, to find a product that the Chinese would be forced to buy even if they did not want to. The heady opium, carefully harvested from the poppy plant, came to their rescue. It could be chewed, smoked or drunk, and caused such addiction that once one started using it, there was no going back. As Manuel explains, over the course of the 18th century, the British transformed the entire farming economies of Bengal and Bihar into opium-producing machines. Their agents smuggled the opium into China illegally in return for tea, and all of a sudden the British found their treasuries filling up again. The great opium triangle had been established. “The British were enabling the longest running drug deal in the history of the world,” writes Manuel. They were knowingly getting millions of people addicted both in China and India, even as they passed laws against opium use in their own country.

The British trade in opium would transform dramatically the nature of the colonial economy. “The two Opium Wars and the vast wealth in silver it generated for the British government and traders probably gave rise to a lot of London’s great institutions and architecture,” says anthropologist Nicholas Saunders who has authored the book The Poppy: A Cultural History from Ancient Egypt to Flanders Fields to Afghanistan (2013). “I personally think colonialism would be somewhat different without the opium trade,” he adds in an interview with

But the British were hardly the first to find value in opium. Its usage goes as far back in time as the fifth century BCE when it was first discovered in central Europe. Its impact can be seen and felt till as recently as the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur. Among the many factors of resentment among the Kukis in the hill districts is the war on drugs campaign by the Manipur government that has destroyed thousands of acres of poppy farms on which the tribes depended for their livelihoods. The poppy’s foundational role in global politics and economy can hardly be overemphasised.

The ancient trade of poppy

Poppy is known to have originated somewhere in central or eastern Europe, possibly in the Balkans or around the coast of the Black Sea. Historian and author Amitav Ghosh in his recent book Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories notes that “the flower appears to have forged, very early on, a special relationship with human beings: indeed, it is possible that the plant developed its chemical structure precisely to ensure that humans would propagate it.” This, he believes, might be the reason why there are no wild varieties of the opium poppy.

The beginning of opium trade.

Ghosh’s views are echoed by Saunders who concludes that “the poppy seems to like the growing conditions of disturbed earth- where people grow crops, build settlements, bury their dead, and so have a close physical relationship with humans.” He goes on to suggest that pre-modern societies and even some native communities today had a much stronger understanding of the natural world and “so pain relief and hallucinatory dream-like experiences of poppy infusions and sap (opium) would have been widely known and used in curing practices and treating various pains.”

One of the earliest archaeological references to poppy is a terracotta figure with three poppy shaped hairpins on her head. Known as the ‘Poppy Goddess’, she was discovered by a Greek archaeologist in Crete and is currently kept at the Iraklion Archaeological Museum. The Poppy Goddess is part of the pantheon of deities from the Minoan Civilisation (3rd century BCE) in Crete.

Saunders explains that the earliest evidence of poppy usage (in the form of seeds) thought is from around 5700 BCE at La Marmotta by Lake Bracciano, northwest of Rome in Italy. Then there were poppy capsules found in a cave in southern Spain dated to around 4700 BCE. Poppy seed cakes dated to a similar time period were also found at Lucerne in Switzerland. The plant in these regions was valued for its medicinal properties as well as for its psychoactive effects.

Historian David T Courtwright in his book Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (2002) explains that “opium may have spread to the southeast either accidentally in contaminated grains, or deliberately, as an exotic trade good.”

Whatever be the case, by the beginning of the Common Era, poppy usage was well known in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, and throughout the eastern Mediterranean Littoral.

Greek and Roman physicians would use opium preparations to combat gastrointestinal and other ailments. Courtwright in his book notes that the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was known to have habitually taken opium to sleep and also to deal with emotional distress. The drug is mentioned by Homer, Vigil, Livy, Pliny and Ovid.

The armies of Alexander the Great are known to have carried opium to Iran, which, writes Ghosh, is perhaps the reason why the Persian and Arabic words for opium, ‘afyun’ are derived from the Greek, ‘opion’. Even in the Middle East, opium was mostly used for medicinal purposes.

Poppy usage in Greece and Egypt.

It was the Arab traders who brought opium to India and China by the eighth century CE, and it was also the Perso-Arabic term ‘afyun’ that gave birth to ‘afeem’ widely used in the Indian subcontinent, as well as the Chinese terms ‘afyon’ and ‘yapian’. It is in the East, specifically in India and China, that would go on to become one of the biggest centres of opium production and consumption.

Popularity of opium in the East

There are many reasons why opium came to acquire such widespread popularity in the east, despite the plant not being a native to the region. Courtwright in his book cites Sir William Moore, a British physician with long experience in India who explained that sustained commercial production requires ample water, good soil, manuring and more critically access to skilled labour. South and East Asia with its dense populations offered an abundance to such labour. There was also the aspect of religion. While Islam prohibited alcohol, opium smoking was seen as a more acceptable alternative. There was also the factor of climate. Moore had reasoned that opium smoking among Easterners was also common to relieve one of the scorching heat and secure longer and deeper sleep.

Alexander the Great bringing opium to Iran

In India, the earliest reference to opium in Sanskrit dates back to the eighth century which coincided with the Arab conquest of Sind. With the Mongols coming to power in the 14th century over a contiguous empire stretching connecting China, northern India, Iran, the Levant and Anatolia, opium usage got a chance to flourish and propagate. Ghosh in his book writes that the oral consumption of opium in various forms was popular among Mongol rulers and in their courts, and the practice was then passed on to their successors, the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires.

By the 16th century, opium was being widely consumed by the courtly elites of Northern India, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Ghosh explains that the Mughal emperors Babur, Humayun and Akbar were enthusiastic opium consumers. Jahangir, he writes, is reported to have taken ‘six draughts of alcohol each evening with a pill of opium’. Among Rajput rulers too opium use was widespread and was also part of their social customs and rituals.

Emperors and their courts aside, the usage of opium was fairly limited among the ordinary people. Ghosh believes that since the cultivation and processing of opium was a complicated affair, it was also expensive and beyond the reach of ordinary people.

Arab traders brought opium to India

In India, poppy was cultivated in two parts of the subcontinent. The most important among them was the Gangetic plain, around Patna in Bihar. The other area was Malwa in west-central India. Ghosh in his book estimates that the total amount of opium produced in Bihar through the 17th and 18th centuries was less than 5,000 chests. Malwa on the other hand produced about 4,000 chests. Almost half of this was exported so the amount available to the 150-200 million Indians at that time was fairly miniscule. Although British colonial officials and writers of the 19th century often gave the impression that opium was a traditional drug in India, widely consumed by all classes of people, as Ghosh emphasises through the figures of opium production, it could not possibly have been the case.

Of all the Asian regions, it was actually in China that opium smoking was most prominent. Courtwright explains that the Chinese began smoking opium in the early 17th century. Initially it was restricted to being a passtime for the wealthy. By the late 19th century though, it had become common among soldiers, merchants, labourers, and even the peasantry. Courtwright writes that by 1906 an estimated 16.2 million Chinese were dependent daily smokers of opium. “Perhaps half of the adult population smoked opium at least occasionally, to celebrate festivals or ward off diseases,” he writes.

Opium cultivation in India

But for opium use to become so widespread in China, there had to be an increase in supply from outside. This is where colonial trade stepped in, and created a historic nexus between India, China and Europe.

Opium and colonial trade

In India, opium was in fact just an ordinary crop, not a major trade. The European colonisers, and most importantly the Dutch, made opium a primary object of trade. Although the British had frequently maintained that the Europeans were merely taking over a practise that was already in existence under the Mughals, historians say that there is no evidence to show that the Mughals ever had a state monopoly over opium trade. The Mughal rulers used opium for recreation and obtained their supplies from private traders.

It was the Dutch who were truly responsible for building up demand for opium in the east. They first expanded a practise of gifting opium in regions and kingdoms with whom they traded for spices such as nutmeg and pepper like in Malabar. Soon they realised that the demand for opium grew so strong that they could use it as a currency. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) gradually extended the practise of using opium as currency throughout the East Indies, and also established trade monopolies on it. Ghosh explains that by the mid of the 18th century, opium from eastern India was among the most important items of trade in ports like Batavia and Riau.

East India Company and opium trade

Many of the Southeast Asian rulers tried to restrict the inflow of opium into their territories, against which the Dutch were often forced to engage in a series of mini opium wars. This template would be followed on a much larger scale by the British in China.

The EIC officially entered the trade in the 1700s. The British not only expanded the trade in opium to China in return for tea, but also perfected the system of monopoly. Courtwright notes that the system proved so lucrative that opium furnished one-seventh of the total revenue in British India, with the lion’s share of the crop going to China.

The EIC was not alone in making profits from this large scale drug trade. The private merchant houses that shipped or smuggled opium also prospered enormously. Courtwright gives the example of James Matheson, a partner in Jardine Matheson & Company, who made enough money from the opium trade to become the second largest landowner in Britain. There were also American entrepreneurs who participated. Warren Delano Jr. who was grandfather of US president Franklin Roosevelt, is known to have built up a fortune smuggling illegal opium to China.

By 1729, the Chinese emperor in Peking, being fed up with the excessive opium smoking among his people, instituted a complete ban on the product. While the British obeyed the law on paper, it allowed the smuggling of opium by private ships.

With increased dependence on opium from the Gangetic plains, the British instituted a large and complicated bureaucracy to manage opium production. “Thousands of farmers cultivated and harvested the milk of the poppy- sometimes freely, often coerced, always trapped in cycles of indebtedness,” writes Manuel in his book. From the farms the poppy milk was sent to factories for testing and packaging. Here a small army of children were employed to maintain the drug till it was sent off to Calcutta where it was auctioned to millionaires who agreed to finance the ships to China.

By the 19th century, the EIC was faced with a strong competitor in the trade and it was no European colonial mission. Rather the competition came from indigenous producers of the Malwa opium. Historian Amar Farooqui, in his extensive study of the Malwa variant, explains that unlike the Bengal opium that was promoted by Company efforts, trade in Malwa opium grew completely out of Indian initiative.

Almost all the Malwa opium was produced outside British ruled territory at this time. “The colonial rulers initially worked to stamp out this trade altogether,” writes Farooqui. By the 1830s, however, the Company gave up its attempts at ceasing the Malwa opium trade and allowed its transport as long as the merchant was willing to pay a transit duty. Farooqui writes that Malwa opium soon became the instrument through which, indigenous groups in western and central India carved out a niche for themselves within the overall economic and political system imposed by colonialism. “This was reflected in the far greater participation of indigenous entrepreneurs in the development of capitalism in Bombay as compared, say, to Calcutta,” he writes.

Opium most popular in China

The Parsi traders were the first to mark their presence in this trade. Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy became one of the richest men in the country, having worked with the largest opium dealers of the time, Jardine and Matheson. With his new wealth Jejeebhoy changed the face of Bombay, building roads, waterworks, and the famous JJ Hospital and the JJ School of Arts.

By the 1830s when the Ching officials in China attempted to curb the illegal trade, the British resorted to force and defeated the Chinese in the First Opium War between 1839 and 1842. After the Second Opium War of the 1850s, the British won complete legalisation of the trade. The volume of trade which was more than six million pounds by 1839, peaked at over 15 million pounds by 1879.

It is worth noting that apart from opium, the colonial trade had also introduced sweet potatoes, peanuts and other nutritious crops in China, which made possible a sustained population increase. It eventually resulted in large-scale migration of the Chinese. “Between 1848 and 1888 two million Chinese, mostly young men, left for the Malay peninsula, Indochina, Sumatra, Java, the Philippines, Hawai, California and Australia,” writes Courtwright. The diaspora soon became global with Chinese districts coming up in New York, Amsterdam and London. Opium smoking took root in each one of these places, laying the groundwork for a criminal drug subculture.

Opium in the post-colonised world

In the aftermath of the two opium wars, there was a slight shift in public opinion with regard to opium in Britain. It started out in the beginning of the 19th century when a fresh wave of Protestant missionaries from Britain and America made their way to China. More often than not, they traveled by the same ships carrying illegal opium since Christianity had been declared illegal by the Qing emperor almost a century back.

During their proselytising efforts in China, the missionaries were confronted with the harsh realities of what opium had done to the Chinese society. They also realised that opium was one of the biggest barriers to the introduction of Christianity in China. Manuel in his book takes the example of one of the first British missionaries in China, Walter Medhurst, who is known to have deplored the fact that when he approached potential converts, they responded with, “why do Christians bring us opium and bring it in direct defiance of our own laws? That vile drug has poisoned my son- had ruined my brother- and well nigh led me to beggar my wife and children. Surely those who import such a delirious substance, and injure me for the sake of gain, cannot wish me well, or be in possession of a religion that is better than my own.”

The two opium wars

While the missionaries went about crusading against opium usage in China, changing British opinion on the issue was a whole other matter. The question of opium had come up in the British Parliament as early as the 1830s when the House of Commons appointed a committee to investigate the trade. But it was concluded that opium had most definitely not led to any misery in China. The issue was raised in the House of Commons once again in the 1840s and yet again in the 1870s and 1890s, but each time the concerns of the agitators were shot down.

In India, on the other hand, as the winds of Independence started blowing from the turn of the century, the nationalist leaders were confronted with the opium issue. The matter was tricky since a choice had to be made between the economic gains to be made from opium and the humanitarian cost of the drug. Historian Bipin Chandra in his book The rise and growth of economic nationalism in India cited an editorial from The Hindu that said, “opium may be a great evil, but national bankruptcy is a greater evil.” One of the only nationalist leaders to openly criticise England for its role in creating the opium menace was Dadabhai Naoroji. He had said, “the opium trade is a sin on England’s head, and a curse on India for her share on being the instrument.”

It was only in 1913 that the opium trade finally came to an end. In 1909, the first of its kind International Opium Convention was held in Shanghai to investigate the opium problem. Representatives of more than a dozen countries were part of the conference which included France, Germany, Russia, Siam, Persia, along with the three most important players: Britain, China and the USA. A few years later China and Britain signed a new agreement which closed in on a termination date for the opium trade. Soonafter, the British shut down the Patna factory and cut down poppy cultivation by two-third.

Finally, in 1913, the last cargo of opium from India reached China. In a symbolic gesture, the Chinese set it on fire. The great opium trade had finally come to an end.

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In the ensuing years an anti-drug campaign emerged in the global stage that was largely dominated by the rhetoric of America’s War on Drugs.

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At present Afghanistan has taken over as the largest producer of illegal opium in the world. According to a report by the United Nations in 2022, opium supplies from Afghanistan comprise more than 80 per cent of the global demand, and that the cultivation of the drug in the country increased by 32 per cent since the Taliban took over in August 2021.

The end of opium trade

Legal production of opium for medicinal purposes is currently allowed in 21 countries among which France, Spain, Australia, Turkey and India are the largest exporters. India is the only legal producer of opium that still uses the traditional opium farming method which includes scraping it from the poppy head and collecting by hand.

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Although the production of opium in India today is strictly controlled, there are more than 60,000 farmers holding opium licenses in the country. As Manuel notes, despite being involved in a state-sponsored activity, these farmers constantly live under a cloud of criminality, always suspected of feeding into an illegal drug trade.

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