8/19/09 - opium

In today's excerpt - opium and the British business of trading opium for Chinese tea. The British were buying so much tea from China that they had a balance-of-payments crisis. The solution was ingenious—grow opium in India and smuggle it into China for sale:

"For several thousand years, humans have dried the juice of the common poppy, Papaver somniferum, into opium. As with many modern crops, the poppy is a cultivar, that is a cultivated variety that does not grow easily in the wild which suggests that agricultural societies take their drugs as seriously as their food.

"Humans probably first extracted opium for consumption in southern Europe, and the Greeks and Romans used it extensively. Arab traders transplanted the poppy to the more hospitable soils and climates of Persia and India, and then to China where its use is recorded as early as the eighth century after Christ.

"For almost all of recorded history, no particular opprobrium was attached to consuming opium as a painkiller, relaxant, work aid and social lubricant. The Dutch in Indonesia were the first to smoke opium, in the early 1600s, when they began adding a few grains to a recent New World import, tobacco. The Chinese probably acquired the practice from the Dutch base in Formosa, whence the opium pipe rapidly spread to the mainland. As early as 1512, [the Portugeuse apothecary] Tome Pires observed opium commerce in Malacca, (south of Singapore) centuries before the British and Dutch became involved in the trade. This indicates that the drug was a high-volume item in Indian Ocean emporium commerce well before the English came to dominate it.

"Nineteenth-century Europeans swallowed enormous amounts of opium, whereas the Chinese smoked theirs. Since inhaled opium is more addictive than opium taken orally, it was considered much more dangerous in China than in the nations of the West. In England, horticultural organizations awarded prizes for particularly potent domestically grown poppies (although most opium used in Britain came from Turkey), and opium was consumed guiltlessly by both high and low, most famously by Samuel Taylor Coleridge ('Kubla Khan'), Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an Opium Eater) and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The drug could be purchased freely in England until the Pharmacy Act of 1868; other Western nations did not restrict its use until around 1900. ...

"By the end of the eighteenth century ... [Britain's East India Company(EIC)] sold its high-end branded opium to private traders who shipped it to China's mountainous Pearl River estuary island of Lintin, where they based themselves on easily defended floating hulks just off its shore. Local smugglers brought the contraband upriver and slipped it past Canton's customs inspectors. The smugglers paid Chinese silver to the English private traders who then exchanged it at EIC offices for silver bills drawable by them on Company accounts in Calcutta and London. The EIC in turn used the silver obtained from the private traders to pay for tea.

"The popular image of an entire Chinese population and its economy ravaged by opium is a misconception. In the first place the drug was quite expensive and largely the province of the mandarin and merchant elite classes. Second like alcohol it was catastrophically addictive in only a small proportion of its users. Even the infamous opium dens did not live up to their seedy reputation. ...

"Academic research [bears out that] opium was largely a social drug that harmed only a tiny percentage of users. One modern scholar estimates that although as many as half of men and one-fourth of women were occasional users, and in 1879 only about one Chinese person in a hundred inhaled enough opium to even be at risk of addiction. ...

"The [Chinese] emperor and the mandarins did express some moral outrage over the debilitation caused by opium, but they were far more concerned about the drug's damage to their balance of trade. China subscribed to European-style mercantilism as faithfully as any seventeenth-century Western monarchy. Before 1800, the tea trade was, at least in the terms of the mercantilist ideology of the day, grossly favorable to the Chinese. The EIC's records pinpoint 1806 as the year when the silver flow reversed. After that date, the value of opium imports exceeded that of tea exports, and Chinese silver began flowing out of the Celestial Kingdom for the first time. After 1818, silver constituted fully one-fifth of the value of Chinese export goods."


William J. Bernstein


A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World


Grove Press and imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.


Copyright 2008 by William J. Bernstein


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