E12: Opium

A significant development occurred in the mid 18th century when Robert Clive won a military victory in northeast India. This gave the British control over Bengal, which was the major centre for the production of opium. Opium had first been found by Arabs to be of great medicinal value as an ingredient in concoctions for pain relief, but as we all know, its addictive properties led to it becoming increasingly valuable as a commodity to trade. Though chewed by the natives in India, the Chinese were shown how to smoke it. As the number of Chinese addicts accelerated rapidly, the demand for opium fuelled a massive expansion of trade. The British were in a perfect position to exploit it through the East India Company, which enjoyed a monopoly position sponsored by the British government. The purchase of large quantities of porcelain, tea and silk from China was thus financed by shipments of opium that was being produced in hundreds of tons in the poppy fields of British Bengal. The Chinese tried hard to halt the trade, release its citizens from the hopeless addiction and halt the drain of silver from its economy. The British, on the other hand, did not see opium as harmful, but viewed it as a legitimate item for trade. In faraway Britain, some £6 million was being received annually, via India, as a result of shipments of opium. Thus, rather like taxes on fuel or alcohol today, the sums of opium money were something that British Chancellors of the Exchequer came to rely upon. More notable is the irony of history in today’s struggle by Western cultures to stem the tide of heroin and cocaine from people (and perhaps countries) who consider it a legitimate way to earn money.

Although the opium trade was to open up the commercial activities very significantly, it also had a deleterious effect in relations between the countries and resulted in wars between them. Not for the first time was opium to be the reason for military action.