Suppressed history: Opium Inc

EducationWorld June 2022 | Books Magazine

Opium Inc, written by Thomas Manuel, published by Harper Collins piblications is priced at Rs.599. The book is an The Crown, Indian farmers, merchants, ship-builders and sepoys were heavily involved in the opium trade forcibly imposed on imperial China

It’s a matter of speculation whether the intractable issue of demarcation of the 484-km Sino-Indian border which stretches from Kashmir all the way down to Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east, is connected with a strong, ineradicable memory of the opium wars of the 19th century which Chinese historians unanimously describe as its century of humiliation. The plain truth is that although the subcontinent was under the rule of the East India Company and later the Crown, Indian farmers, merchants, ship-builders, and sepoys and police were heavily involved with the opium trade forcibly imposed upon imperial China.

In this fascinating history of British India’s opium trade with imperial China, then the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous country — a dominant status that the 100 million-strong Communist Party of China (CCP) is determined to re-establish — Thomas Manuel, modestly described as a journalist and playwright, but a historian par excellence, skilfully connects the triangular opium trade between Great Britain, India and China which resulted in two opium wars, to the discovery of camellia sinensis (aka tea), the cup that refreshes but does not inebriate, in 17th century England.

When Catherine Braganza, the neglected consort of King Charles I, made the fragrant beverage the most fashionable drink in the country, the demand for tea then grown only in China “became a national obsession”. But as Manuel recounts, while tea imports into Britain soared, “the Chinese had no particular interest in British manufactures or cloth that could balance the (trade) equation”. China’s Qing dynasty emperor “would accept only silver, the equivalent of cold hard cash”. Therefore, the Brits had to “find something the Chinese wanted and as much as they, the British, wanted tea”.

That something was opium, the sticky gum harvested from the poppy plant. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the East India Co and later the British Raj, transformed the prosperous agriculture economies of Bengal and Bihar into “opium producing machines”. And for almost two centuries, they forcibly dumped huge quantities of this addictive narcotic in China, with devastating effect upon the hapless Chinese masses, to earn the silver for importing tea into Britain and colonies of the Empire, explains Manuel.

This highly profitable drug trade made the East India Company fabulously rich and built the fortunes of numerous company officials and shareholders who flooded English banks with deposits which funded the Industrial Revolution and the British conquest of India. But in the process, the flourishing farm economies of fertile Bengal and Bihar were transformed into monoculture opium producing geographies, ruining their soil and mixed farming cultures, from which they have never recovered.

Alarmed by the soaring number of people wrecked by opium addiction, in 1729 imperial China banned the import and use of the narcotic in the country. Undettered, the East India Co’s agents in Calcutta smuggled the drug on private ships to merchants in Canton, who bribed government officials to look the other way, as huge cargoes of opium flooded the country.

Meanwhile in Calcutta, the company established a lucrative business purchasing poppy seed from officially appointed zamindars who paid captive farmers rock-bottom prices. The produce was processed and packed in the company’s factories in Bengal and Bihar, and auctioned to “chummy millionaires” in Calcutta who financed shipping expeditions to Canton.

The vast profits earned by Calcutta’s mercantile community prompted enterprising Indian traders in Bombay to start cultivation of poppy in the Malwa region ruled by Maratha confederacy chieftains.

In the third chapter of this engrossing history, Manuel traces the rise of Bombay into the country’s commercial capital to the opium trade. Inspired by the success of Calcutta’s mercantilism, they began running shiploads with “higher potency” opium to Canton. In a chapter titled the Bombay Boom, Manuel details the huge profits made by Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy who partnered with the Hong Kong-based firm Jardine Matheson and Bombay’s Jewish Sassoon family, whose charitable institutions remain landmarks of India’s urbs prima indis.

With opium dens and addicts multiplying exponentially in China where an estimated 20 percent of the population had become addicted to the drug by the mid-19th century, the Peking-based emperor ordered a severe crackdown on this illegal trade. Large cargoes of opium were seized from merchants and traders in Canton (latter day Guangzhou) and publicly burnt.

The massive loss suffered by mercantile communities in Calcutta, Bombay, London and Hong Kong and their demands for indemnity, prompted deployment of the British navy and the first Opium War of the 19th century resulting in the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. The imperial Chinese government was forced to pay the price of the opium destroyed, war reparations and cede the island of Hong Kong to the British.

Subsequently after the Second Opium War (1879), the Chinese were forced to legalise import of opium in the cause of “freedom of trade”, interference with which was severely punished by British warships raining heavy artillery fire on the country’s ports and riverine cities.

Meanwhile the atrocities of the two Opium Wars in China and menacing opium addiction in Britain turned public opinion in Britain against the trade. Curiously, fearing widespread bankruptcies and loss of business, public opinion in India was lukewarm about declaring trade in this debilitating narcotic illegal. India’s Congress party passed its first resolution against the opium trade as late as 1924, 11 years after 13 nations signed the International Opium Convention (1913) banning cultivation of poppy and outlawing the opium trade.

There is much more in this absorbing and curiously ignored history of the hypocrisy and cruelty of the first global drug wars and epidemics. In several other interesting chapters, the author draws parallels between the opium and concurrent global trade in cotton, sugar and slavery.

The demand for cheap cotton in Britain and Europe prompted the capture and export of black slaves from Africa to work without pay on American cotton plantations, and the demand for sugar resulted in the export of Indian indentured labour devastated by the end of the opium trade, to sugar plantations around the world.

Opium Inc is yet another brilliantly researched and detailed history of unrestrained avarice and cruelty of British imperialism and colonialism, buried all these years under the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the white man’s civilising mission and burden.

Dilip Thakore

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