Both blessing and curse

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by Hans Dembowski

In human history, opium was always an important commodity

If you want to know why the concept of “free trade” does not inspire great enthusiasm in China and India, you might find a new book about the history of opium quite revealing. Among the many things Lucy Inglis discusses in the “Milk of paradise” are the two opium wars of the 19th century. She also provides interesting insights into how organised crime became deeply entrenched in the USA.

The book spans the millennia. Inglis starts with the first appearances of opium, an early cultivar of human communities, somewhere in the Mediterranean region more than 5000 years ago. Her final two chapters deal with recent poppy cultivation in ISIS-held areas of Afghanistan and the impacts of opioids on modern western culture.

An overarching message of the book is that opium is at once a blessing and a curse. Opioids are the most effective painkillers humankind has, and modern medicine has no substitute for them. On the other hand, addiction destroys people and can badly affect their families and communities, while organised crime thrives on black markets.

I’ll happily confess that I did not read the entire book. In my eyes, chapters 5 to 7 are the most interesting. Chapter 5 is about the opium wars. Inglis recounts in considerable detail how the imperial powers, led by Britain in particular, forced the Chinese Empire to open up its borders to opium imports. The Chinese authorities were aware of huge segments of their population being addicted, so they wanted to get a grip on the problem.

However, British merchants had developed a large-scale scheme according to which they imported tea from China to their home country. On the return trip, they first brought textiles from England to India, and then opium from India to China. The opium trade ensured that they did not only spend money in China on tea, but could also generate the revenues they needed for doing so.

Indeed, the scheme was so attractive that British companies made many Indian farmers cultivate opium rather than staple food stuffs. When harvests were bad, this policy resulted in famine. Both the large-scale cultivation of the drug and the export to China were done according to the doctrine of “free trade”. It implied that whatever was good for the merchants, could not be opposed.

In the early 19th century, China did its foreign trade at the Port of Guangzhou, the major city in the Pearl River Delta, which Europeans called Canton. A limited number of western merchants was doing business with a limited number of Chinese counterparts. Corruption was rife. In 1939, the Chinese emperor banned opium imports by decree. The attempt to enforce that ban triggered the first opium war.

It ended three years later, after the British Navy had proved far superior. China was forced to open four more harbours to international trade, and Hong Kong became a permanent British outpost in the Pearl River Delta. Apart from Britain, other Imperial powers became involved in the China trade, which implicitly meant opium trade. The 2nd opium war from 1856 to 1860 reinforced the predominance of the imperial powers, especially Britain and France, over China. Opium was imported to China from many places, including the Philippines and Indonesia.

China was brutally exploited, masses of people toiled away in misery, and many found some comfort – though not sustenance – in opium consumption. According to estimates, up to a quarter of the people were addicted. As China increasingly lacked commodities to trade in, it began to export slave-like labourers, and these “coolies” brought along their opium habits to the countries they were shipped to.

As chapter 7 elaborates, opium spread in the USA along the railway lines that Chinese coolies built. China towns – whether in big cities like San Francisco or in small settlements in the then wild west – had opium dens. The police and other government agencies found it hard to communicate with the Chinese, but illegal drugs crossed linguistic borders just as easily as they did state borders. When the USA later outlawed alcohol in the early 1920th, moreover, Mafia organisations became involved in the trafficking of all kinds of intoxicating substances. Often, illegal goods were shipped in from Mexico.

It was the Civil War, however, that really introduced opioids to the USA. This is the topic of chapter 5 in the book. Masses of soldiers were atrociously wounded in battle and desperately needed painkillers. After the war, many veterans were not only traumatised. They were addicted, and the demand for the kind of narcotics they wanted proved to be lasting. Attempts to curb it failed. Similar patterns, of course, became evident later in the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Today, opioid addiction is again haunting the USA, and the authorities seem clueless.

Inglis’ book does not offer solutions for problems like this. Its strong point is to show that opium, a dangerous but important drug, was always a commodity with great relevance in international trade and/or illegal trafficking.

By the way, should you be interested in fiction about the first opium war, I can recommend Amitav Ghosh’s "Ibis trilogy". Ghosh is an impressive writer who has a great ability to make readers empathise with all the Asian, African and European characters he invents.


Lucy Inglis, 2018: Milk of paradise - A history of opium, London: Macmillan.

Amitav Ghosh, 2008: Sea of poppies, London: John Murray (Ibis trilogy I).
Amitav Ghosh, 2011: River of smoke, London: John Murray (Ibis trilogy II).
Amitav Ghosh, 2015: Flood of fire, London: John Murray (Ibis trilogy III).

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