Many empires at their zenith have ravaged other nations in anger, revenge or pride but there is only one instance in history where a great power crippled another great nation through the forcible sale of drugs.
In the heyday of their global empire, Britain enforced systematic export of opium on the people of China employing her dominating navy, extensive administrative skills and immense imperial reach. When the Chinese promulgated laws and took punitive actions to restrict this trade, Britain conducted two wars against them, the famed Opium Wars, forcing them to legalise import of the drug.
I will narrate here specifics of this trade that caused tragic consequences to people who were forced to accept its import. The profits from the trade enriched the government of the UK, colonial officials, shareholders of the British East India Company (BEIC) and Indian traders who facilitated the growth, transportation and sale of the drug.
In the 18th century, the BEIC traded British woolen and Indian cotton textiles for Chinese tea, porcelain, and silk. Tea imports soon became the single largest item in Britain’s trading account. Conversely, the export to China of British and Indian goods began to decline. The trade imbalance between Britain and China tilted heavily against the former. The shortage of silver to pay for the tea imports forced the British to seek other commodities to compensate for the loss and to bring in profits. They discovered opium, a highly lucrative commodity. By 1820, opium had become the most lucrative export from India to China. According to historian and novelist Amitav Ghosh, the initiative of opium export started during the time of the very first British Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings. Though the BEIC was responsible for most opium production in India, the actual business of selling opium was conducted through private agencies, with the connivance of corrupt Chinese officials.
In its bare essentials, the opium trade was a masterstroke by the directors of the BEIC to maximize their profits through negligible investment. The opium cultivated in India was sold in China for silver, which was used to procure tea in that country. The tea was sold in the UK and the US for cash. The liquidity enabled the Company to procure sugar and cotton from the nations of the new world. Cotton was processed into cloth in the textile mills of Manchester. The cloth was then sold in colonies, including India. This completed the trade cycle that brought a tidy profit to the BEIC at each step of this worldwide chain. Trade figures for the 1820s show that 22 million pounds sterling worth of Indian opium and cotton went to China, 20 million pounds worth of Chinese tea was exported to Britain and 24 million pounds of British textiles and machinery went back to India. This made the import of tea free for the BEIC, besides creating employment for hundreds of thousands of British workers in the textile, shipping and machinery industries. The fact that this cycle of greed killed millions of Indians due to disruption in the grain growing cycle, and converted the Chinese nation to opium addiction, was merely considered collateral damage. Indirectly, the trade also involved the great tragedy of the slave trade from Africa to the sugarcane and cotton farms of US.
In the first Opium War, in 1840, Britain invaded Canton in southern China to protect ‘free trade’
In the early 1800s, the BEIC was importing about 25 million pounds of tea annually, which progressed to fifty-three million pounds by 1844. This was quite an improvement for a Company that made its first order in 1667 for the importation of 150 pounds of tea through their agent in Bantam in West Java. Correspondingly, opium imports in to China climbed from under 50 tons in 1650 to 6,500 tons by 1880. The trade was mostly and firmly in the hands of the BEIC, though private traders from Portugal, France and US also indulged in it to reap tidy profits. The trade enabled the Company to collect silver in payment for its opium in China, only to turn around and pay for its tea with the same silver. The silver circulated, but stayed where it was; only tea moved out and opium flowed in. In other words, while a vast multitude of Chinese smoked themselves to death, the BEIC carried away tea out of the country.
It is evident from above that the BEIC, with the active backing of the British Crown and Parliament, had woven a worldwide web of greed and exploitation that persisted for over a century and a half. It was the opium trade that financed the British rule in India.
As the drug flooded the mainland, it inevitably became a major cause of concern for the Chinese government. A conscientious Chinese official in Canton, the largest port city in the southern China, ordered the confiscation of some 20,000 chests of opium from English ships in 1839 and refused to pay indemnity to the British traders. The opium was worth £ 2 million (£ 200 million in today’s money. The incident triggered the first Opium War in 1840 with Britain invading Canton to protect what they termed as ‘free trade’. The British Madras Infantry was heavily used in this conflict by the BEIC. The war lasted two years and caused Hong Kong to be ceded to the victorious Britain and five Chinese ports including Canton and Shanghai to be opened to foreign traders. In the aftermath of the second Opium War, fought in 1856-58, Britain forced China to legalise the opium trade. These wars set off foreign interventions, civil strife, financial penalties, burning of parts of Peking, unfair treaties and occupations; an era that has been dubbed as the ‘Century of Humiliation’ for China.
World opium production in 1907 stood at 41,624 tons – over ten times the current supply
In India, opium was planted in Bihar and Malwa. The former came under the firm control of BEIC after the Battle of Buxar in 1764, and the latter under their loose control after the Treaty of Amritsar in 1809. Bihar opium was exported through Calcutta, whereas the Malwa opium transited through Rajasthan to Karachi and then via sea to either Portuguese Daman or British Bombay. The Indian end of the trade was controlled by the BEIC at Calcutta, and by the Jewish and the Parsi communities at Bombay. These two cities truly emerged as the opium capitals of India. Historian Amar Farooqi notes in his 2006 book Opium City: The Making of Early Victorian Bombay that of the 42 foreign firms operating in China at the end of the 1830s, 20 were fully owned by Parsis. Of the nearly one hundred ships deployed in this trade from Calcutta, six were owned by Cowasjees. The shipbuilding industry of the Wadia family received orders from opium traders as well as from the Royal Navy to protect the trade. The Parsis developed the elite areas of South Bombay with the opium profits.
Farooqi writes that ‘for two decades the opium trade at Bombay was dominated by Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1783-1859), who partnered the largest opium trade network in China. He was the first Indian to be knighted (1842) and the first to be made a baron (1857). Apart from owning ships, agents and commercial clearing houses, he was also one of the six directors of the Bank of Bombay.’ Because his business interests included manufacture of bottles, he was known as ‘Mr. Battliwalla’. He used his enormous opium profits in philanthropy to finance the construction of Mahim Causeway (named after his wife ‘Avabai’), Sir JJ School of Art, Sir JJ School of Architecture, Sir JJ School of Applied Arts and Seth RJJ High School, besides donating to 126 notable public charities. He also established Sir JJ Hospital Bombay, which is one of the oldest institutions in India teaching modern medicine. It is now a 3,000-bed teaching hospital with an annual intake of 200 undergraduate and 100 postgraduate students, treating 1.2 million outdoor and 80 thousand indoor patients. Money earned from drugs that killed millions of Chinese at last found its way into some humanitarian objectives in India.
Besides Sir JJ Batliwala, other prominent Parsis to flourish from opium trade were Wadias, Tatas, Readymoneys and Camas, to name a few. The landmark Sasson Library in Bombay, too, was financed by the Sasson Jewish family from the proceeds of the opium trade.
The sufferings and humiliation of the Chinese will be recounted as long as the written word remains. The number of opium smokers in the country increased from 3 million in the 1830s to 13.5 million in 1906, a full quarter of its adult male population. As a comparison consider that UN estimates the current worldwide opium users to be around 4 million, when the population has gone up by a factor of over 4. Due to the huge demand for the drug in China, world opium production in 1907, the first year of systematic survey of opium, stood at 41,624 tons – over ten times the current world opium supply. The opium imports into China peaked at 7,000 tons in the late nineteenth century, which combined with an equal local production – all adding up to some 15,000 tons of use per year. In some towns, there was little traffic on streets because almost everyone was drugged, including the government officials. The farmlands around these towns lay untilled, ruining the agrarian economy.
As for the poppy fields in India, at its peak in the late nineteenth century, a million registered workers planted nothing but poppies for the BEIC on a 500-mile long stretch of land around the Ganges on 500,000 acres of the rich alluvial plains of central India. An equal area was under poppy cultivation in the princely states of Malwa. According to Nathan Allen in his 1853 study of the opium trade, “by 1830, BEIC sold 40 thousand chests of the drug at $500 to $900 each.” The trade was therefore worth $20 million to $36 million at the time, which translates into two to four billion US dollars in today’s money. These figures doubled by the end of the century. In some years, the profits earned by BEIC through opium exceeded the total GDP of the US. The land use in India for non-grain purposes left no reserves for the failed monsoons and was the cause of many a famine that led to death of millions of Indians.
Gradually the opium trade started losing profits and imports to China started declining. A nation debilitated by drug addiction didn’t remain productive enough to support its expensive habit. The barbaric and brutal trade, however, continued legally till 1917 and illegally till 1948, when the Communist Party finally cut it off completely. The website ‘Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding’ states that “the new government immediately set about coping with the monumental problem. Peasants were persuaded to plough in their opium crops and sow wheat or rice instead. Families of known addicts were educated not to blame their addicted members, but to encourage them to seek help. Addicts themselves were impressed by the fact that they were not blamed for their addiction. Many of the ex-addicts were hired by the government to work with other addicts. The dealers who surrendered were accepted by the community, re-educated, trained for meaningful work and given jobs. The rest were packed off to prison, and the worst offenders were executed.”
By 1956, the People’s Republic of China had virtually eliminated its two-century-old drug problem. The opium fields in Bihar and Malwa were planted with wheat and rice. The Parsis moved on to respectable businesses of sugar, steel and shipping. Britain and other colonial powers left China, India and the region. An ignominious chapter of world history came to an end.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org