History of Opium

July 23, 2014

Talking Drugs has released the first article in a three part series that will examine the shift in attitudes towards opiate users in UK society. The first part deals with the history of opium, including its medicinal use in Ancient Greek and Ancient Egypt, the Opium Wars between China and The British Empire, and the proliferation of opium in mainstream Victorian society, both in its raw form and in the form of an alcoholic tincture. I have included a preview of the article below, though the whole article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be republished freely with proper attribution.

Part I: Opium Wars, Crown Drug Pushers and Victorian Indulgence
Talking Drugs - July 23, 2014 (Author: Liam Deacon)

Britain's history with the opium trade, along with its attitude toward domestic use of opiates, is both shameful and hypocritical. Nearly 200 years ago the country was waging bloody wars in the east to push the drug and bankroll a growing Empire while allowing its use at home. Now, the government fights an entirely different kind of war -- one that has in recent decades both stigmatized and criminalized users, pushing many dangerously to the fringes of society and stoking health crises among these affected groups.

In this three part series we examine that stark attitudinal shift toward opiate users; how our culture went from degrees of acceptance, to despising them as an underclass of society.

For the first piece we explore the sordid history of state drug pushers who operated in the name of the Crown and "free trade" to engineer markets in the east, while supplying its own one in the UK.

Opium and its derivatives have been in use for thousands of years, administered as far back as the Ancient Egyptian era to "prevent the excessive crying of children," and utilized medicinally by Ancient Greek physicians, among them Hippocrates.

In the far east, the opium poppy was reportedly first introduced some time between 600 and 800 A.D., following which recreational use of the drug rose in China. Roughly 1,000 years later, use had increased to such an extent that the sale and smoking of opium was outlawed in 1729 as the country's leaders deemed the societal impact too dangerous. During this era, much of the opium entering the Chinese market was coming from British controlled India, and the British Empire was keen to ensure the drug be accepted as a tradable commodity due to the rising importance of China as a trade partner. It's new illegality presented a considerable obstacle to this.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries China was exporting a seductive array of luxury goods that the British couldn't get enough of; silk, porcelain, and that most archetypal of English drug, tea. The problem for British traders was that China was declining to buy anything in return, accepting only silver as payment for their goods. Thus, a trade deficit emerged for the British.

As was typical of colonial hubris at the time, however, the British remained undeterred in pushing their offerings on China. Indeed, the country may have had no need for Britain's "strange and useless objects ... [and] manufactures," as Emperor Qianlong penned to King George II in the 18th century. What it did have, though, was a thriving domestic market for opium, and so, Britain became one of the world's greatest drug pushers, intentionally seeking to get the Chinese population hooked in order to maintain a market.

Continue reading at Talking Drugs...

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