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Britain’s Opium Trade

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The pod of the Lachryma papaveris produces a milky latex that is opium.

The pod of the Lachryma papaveris produces a milky latex that is opium.

The Trafficking of Opium into China

The Honourable East India Company was granted a monopoly on trade in Asia by the British Crown in 1600, but it’s hard to find much honour in its businesses. Among its trading activities was the trafficking of opium into China, which had a devastating impact on the country’s people.

Asian Trade Expansion

By the end of the 17th century, the East India Company had established a powerful trading presence in India and protected its business with its own professional army and navy.

The company expanded into China in 1699, shipping cotton from India and buying porcelain, silk, and tea that would be sent to Britain. But there was nothing that Britain had to balance the three-way trade other than silver, and this was costing the company dearly.

Some other currency was needed, and the merchants hit upon opium as a suitable alternative (at least, for them). By shipping opium into China, the balance of trade turned around, and China was paying silver to Britain.

The coat of arms of the East India Company. The motto reads “By the authority of the King and Parliament of England.”

The coat of arms of the East India Company. The motto reads “By the authority of the King and Parliament of England.”

China banned the importation of opium, so the company and other actors from Portugal and the United States smuggled the drug in.

The British Library records that “opium was a valued medicine which could deaden pain, assist sleep, and reduce stress. But it was also seriously addictive, and millions of Chinese became dependent on the drug.” And, of course, the dependency led to the early deaths of many Chinese people, and “the very fabric of Chinese society was threatened.”

The balance sheets of the East India Company did not contain a column for the collateral damage caused by the highly lucrative trade.

Opium Growers

While opium was killing Chinese people, it was doing no favours for the Indian peasants who were growing it. By the late 18th century, the East India Company had carved out a monopoly on opium; poppy farmers could only sell their product to the company. With only one buyer for their crops, the growers had to accept whatever price was set, and it was not enough to cover their input costs.

There was a bureaucracy of 2,500 working to administer the business and an Opium Agency that ruled over the peasant farmers. Soon, the growers were trapped in a cycle of loans and contracts they could not get out of.

Rolf Bauer is a history professor at the University of Vienna. After studying poppy-growing in India, he has concluded that farmers were exploited and impoverished by the trade. He told the BBC that “Poppy was cultivated against a substantial loss. These peasants would have been much better without it.”

The Opium Wars

Under the governance of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese wanted the opium trade stopped, so, in 1839, the traders were ordered to surrender their supplies of the drug. A government official, Lin Zexu, also seized opium and had it destroyed.

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These assaults on the opium trade angered the company and other traders; there was money at stake. As U2frontman Bono has remarked “Capitalism is not immoral―it’s amoral.”

Chinese opium addicts.

Chinese opium addicts.

That page of Chinese history was one of humiliation and sorrow.

China’s president Xi Jinping

The response from Britain was to send warships to China’s coast in an example of what was called gunboat diplomacy. Bombardments and battles followed and the Chinese came out of the affair badly.

China was forced to compensate the British for their losses and to cede control of Hong Kong to the British Crown. And, of course, the brisk trade in opium continued and increased.

“In 1856, a second Opium War broke out and continued until 1860, when the British and French captured Beijing and forced on China a new round of unequal treaties, indemnities, and the opening of 11 more treaty ports. This also led to increased Christian missionary work and legalization of the opium trade” (The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada).

Chinese junks were totally over-matched by British naval power.

Chinese junks were totally over-matched by British naval power.

Legacy of the Opium Trade

In Britain, William Gladstone became Prime Minister. He was a man with a stronger moral compass than some of his predecessors and he opposed the opium trade, which he called “most infamous and atrocious.” However, Gladstone was still up against the powerful mercantile interests and, in politics, they always win. It wasn’t until after Gladstone’s death that Britain restricted the opium trade in 1906.

The result of the opium trade and the military defeats was catastrophic. China lost its standing in Asia and the weakened imperial government became vulnerable to overthrow and, eventually, to the supremacy of the Communist Party.

Yang-Wen Zheng is a professor of Chinese history at the University of Manchester, England. She says the “sense of injury” caused by the opium trade affects Chinese thinking today. She believes this “is prompting China to do a lot of things today on the world stage, because it’s still angry with the West—because the West never apologized for what it did to China.”

Opium imports into China (1650-1880)

Opium imports into China (1650-1880)

Bonus Factoids

  • The Sumerian civilization 5,500 years ago grew the opium poppy and called it hul gil, the “joy plant.”
  • Afghanistan is the world’s biggest grower of opium, producing 9,000 metric tonnes of the drug in 2017. This, despite the United States spending $1.5 million a day since 2001 to eradicate the crop.
  • According to the World Health Organization, about 27 million people are suffering from some sort of opiod addiction and that this results in about 450,000 deaths a year.


  • “Opium and the Expansion of Trade.” British Library, undated.
  • “How Britain’s Opium Trade Impoverished Indians.” Soutik Biswas, BBC, September 5, 2019
  • “The Opium Wars in China.” Jack Patrick Hayes, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, undated.
  • “The Opium Kings.” PBS Frontline, undated.
  • “Dark Legacy of Britain’s Opium Wars Still Felt Today amid Fight against Drug Addiction and Trafficking.” Lam Woon-Kwong, South China Morning Post, March 2, 2017.
  • “Modern China and the Legacy of the Opium Wars.” Monique Ross and Annabelle Quince, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 2, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


Ann Carr from SW England on September 27, 2019:

Yes, we were all taught that the British Empire was good! As for the multinational corporations, II can't see them doing much better! Depends how much they get out of it I suppose. Cynical? Never!


Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 26, 2019:

When I was schooled in England in the 1950s, the colonial government of India was always held up a fine example of how the British way of life was a blessing for brown people. I'm not just picking on the Brits; all colonial occupiers behaved badly. Their role has since been taken over by multinational corporations.

Ann Carr from SW England on September 26, 2019:

Interesting and informative. No good can ever come from drug trafficking. To affect China to such a massive proportion is terrible. I had no idea of the scale of this sequence of events and the long-term consequences on that society.


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