I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The British, Dutch, French, and other colonizing powers found opium to be a convenient way of subjugating local populations and raising revenue. Opium had always been a part of life in south-east Asia, but it took Victorian capitalists to bring it to industrial production and to use it as a political weapon.
The Dutch East Indies
The Dutch were the first to recognize the value of opium as a way of expanding their colonial conquests. The United East India Company known by the acronym of its Dutch name VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) was active in south-east Asia before the British and French. It was formed in 1602 and its traders did business in what are now Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and surrounding areas.
However, the company found there was almost no demand for European goods in south-east Asia, so they turned their attention to opium. They established a trading post in Bengal and began growing opium poppies. They traded the narcotic product throughout south-east Asia under a system called Opium Regie.
In places such as Java, smoking opium became a daily habit among large sections of the population and was “a source of considerable profit to the Dutch colonial state” (James R. Rush, Journal of Asia Studies). The trade enabled the VOC to become a hugely powerful entity, with its own military punch.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the British had built up their forces in south-east Asia and were ready to challenge the Dutch supremacy. Soon, the Dutch were kicked out of Bengal and were cut off from the supply of opium.
Former journalist Garry Littman writes that “The British empire was bankrolled by the milky fluid of the poppy flower; opium . . .
“The British controlled massive fields of poppy farmed by forced Indian labour and built industrial-scale opium factories. They then smuggled hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the highly addictive drug into China during much of the 19th century.”
In 1888, Rudyard Kipling visited an opium factory near Benares (also known as Varanasi) in northern India. The factory was run by British staff using Indian labour. In an essay entitled In an Opium Factory Kipling described the process of making cakes of the drug that were destined for sale in China. He concluded by noting that “This is the way the drug, which yields such a splendid income to the [colonial] Indian Government, is prepared.”
The whole operation was run by the British East India Company, which had received a royal charter to conduct its business. Opium generated huge wealth for aristocrats and rich merchants who had shares in the company.
[Opium is] at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful.”
Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies (2008)
More than a million Indian peasants worked under contract to grow poppies, but they were largely impoverished by the trade. University of Vienna professor Rolf Bauer has made an in-depth study of the opium business.
The East India Company advanced interest-free loans to the farmers so they could plant crops. However, the company set the selling price for the poppy resin and it was less than the cost of growing it. As the company was the only buyer, the peasants were trapped in what Dr. Bauer called a “web of contractual obligations from which it was difficult to escape.” Added to this were some strong arm tactics such as arrests of those who balked at growing poppies.
The French in Indo-China
Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were under French control by the 1880s. As with other colonizers, France prettied up its seizure of sovereign countries by calling it mission civilisatrice―civilizing mission. It was a burden, willingly accepted by advanced nations, to bring technology, democracy, and social reforms to backward peoples, so they said.
This façade of noble motives disguised the real purpose which was economic exploitation. Land was taken from peasants and packed in large plantations owned by French settlers. Rice and rubber were the cash crops cultivated by the dispossessed farmers at near-starvation wages.
France annexed Saigon in 1862 and, within a few months, they set up an opium business as a way of making the colony pay its own way. A French doctor, Angélo Hesnard, described the city as being “filled with the infamous odour of ‘boiled chocolate’ ” that came from opium factories.
Opium poppy growing became a lucrative business for colonists and officials in Indo-China. Alpha History notes that “Not only were local sales of opium very profitable, its addictiveness and stupefying effects were a useful form of social control.”
And the trade went on for decades. The Inter Press Service reports that “At the beginning of World War II the French administration continued to rely heavily on its opium monopoly. Indochina’s 2,500 opium dens were maintaining more than 100,000 addicts and providing 15 percent of all tax revenues.”
Decline of the Opium Trade
In the latter decades of the 19th century, people were beginning to learn that opium was not a harmless drug that creates euphoria and banishes anxiety. Realizing this, people of conscience began campaigning to stop the trade.
But, some colonial governments were as addicted to the revenue from opium sales as many users were to the highs of taking the drug. Those who profited howled that a ban on opium would cause an economic collapse just as they had done over the abolition of slavery and child labour.
As Georgetown University Assistant Professor, Diana Sue Kim, points out it was those who administered the opium trade who worked to put an end to it. She writes that “these bureaucrats designed anti-opium reforms that outpaced and went deeper than what their superiors, moral crusaders, or international community sought. These state actors developed commonplace philosophies about how a state should be run, the legitimacy of its authority, as well as the nature of vice and its proper regulation.”
Those at the top of the political food chain eventually recognized that a band-wagon was passing by so they decided to jump aboard rather than get crushed under its wheels. Governments began enacting bans on opium commerce and the trade passed into the hands of organized crime.
- In about 3400 BCE, the Sumerians cultivated the opium poppy. They called it Hul Gil, meaning “joy plant.”
- It wasn’t until 1947, when India became independent, that Britain’s monopoly on opium ended.
- Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is prescribed by physicians or manufactured illegally. The Centers for Disease Control reports that “From 1999–2018, almost 450,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids.”
- “In an Opium Factory.” Rudyard Kipling, 1888.
- “ ‘A Splendid Income’: The World’s Greatest Drug Cartel.” Garry Littman, Bilan.ch, November 24, 2015.
- “How Britain’s Opium Trade Impoverished Indians.” Soutik Biswas, BBC News, September 5, 2019.
- “French Colonialism in Vietnam.” Jennifer Llewellyn et al., Alpha History, January 7, 2019.
- “VIETNAM-DRUGS: Colonial Era Opium Trade Still Haunts Hanoi Today.” Serguei Blagov, Inter Press Service, July 16, 1996.
- “Opium in Java: A Sinister Friend.” James R. Rush, Journal of Asian Studies, March 23, 2011.
- “A Tale of Two Global Corporations.” Hans Derks, 21st Century Global Dynamics, November 14, 2019.
- “From Vice to Crime.” Diana S. Kim, Aeon, July 9, 2020.
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.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 09, 2020:
Hi He Talks.
I don't think anybody connected to the corporate structures that traded in opium lost any sleep over the destruction of the lives of people. Just as I'm sure the organized criminals that run the trade today entertain any moral qualms. It's business; it's not personal.
Hetalks on August 09, 2020:
This article brings shame to the organizations involved in the opium trade. Do you think they would care? I am still in shock after reading. Why am I forced to surmise that all these biggies have been built on blood money?
Ann Carr from SW England on August 09, 2020:
So many sad activities went on in those imperial days, in the name of trade and prosperity for all. I knew that it was Britain and the Dutch who had a big hand in its rise but did not know all these details. Shame those who had a moral conscience didn't act earlier and with more force. Money is a great slave of course.
Interesting background facts about this hideous trade, Rupert. Thank you.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 07, 2020:
This is why I commented in a thread few days ago, that those white men on the grab and kill did not feel the soul of say, a black person. Thanks.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 07, 2020:
Hi John. They never taught us about this during my schooling in England. The subjugation of all those Indigenous folk by the kind and enlightened Brits was for their own good, don't you know? A greedy grab for resources? Poppycock.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on August 07, 2020:
This was a very interesting read, Rupert. I knew opium was widely used in Asia especially, but had no idea of the extent and that it was force farmed and use was proper gated by the Dutch, British and French. Thank you for the education.