‘A splendid income’: The world’s greatest drug cartel
England’s national flower is the red Tudor rose. But the prickly truth is that the English owe much of their wealth to another blood-red flower; the poppy (pavot or coquelicot).
The poppy is much more than just the symbol of remembrance of fallen soldiers on the battlefields of Europe.
The British empire was bankrolled by the milky fluid of the poppy flower; opium.
During the 1800s the empire managed a massive drug cartel based in British India that was both state-sponsored and under Royal patronage.
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.
These lithographs below, published in the Scientific American in 1882, show the British opium factory in Patna in the eastern state of Bihar. The first is entitled The Drying Room. The football-like shapes in the foreground, stretching back as far as the eye can see, are tens of thousands of balls of opium. The second picture shows the Stacking Room and third, The Examining Hall.
Opium imports to China increased from around 200 chests (coffres) in 1729 to more than 40,000 smuggled chests (2,160 tonnes) in 1832. After the second Opium War this amount rose to as much as 80,000 chests (4,320 tonnes) per year.
The operation was managed by the British East India Company, a trading company owned by wealthy English merchants and aristocrats, which operated under Royal charter.
Why opium trafficking?
The imbalance in trade was somewhat similar to today. European demand for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain was soaring. However, the Chinese were relatively self-sufficient and demand for European goods was almost non-existent. The Chinese demanded payment in silver which began to put pressure on the British coffers.
The idea of using a narcotic to redress the imbalance in trade was conceived by the first Governor General of British India, Warren Hastings, in 1780. Within 10 years, demand for the highly addictive drug had begun to spread and multiply.
The British East India Company circumvented a Chinese ban on opium by sub-contracting opium transportation to ‘country traders’- a delightful euphemism for smugglers. These private traders were licensed by the company to take goods from India to China. They sold the opium to smugglers along the Chinese coast for silver and gold which was then paid to the British East India in China. The company then used the sliver and gold to purchase goods that could be sold profitably in England.
By the 1830s the balance of payments had swung back it favour of the British, but at a devastating cost for the Chinese. There were an estimated 12 million opium addicts in around the coastal regions, where an estimated 80 per cent of males under the age of 40 were addicted to opium. Society, business and government collapsed.
The reigning Emperor Dao Guand, whose three sons died from opium overdoses, denounced Britain as "a Christian nation devoid of four of the five Virtues”. He appointed the respected statesman Lin Ze-Xu as the Canton regional Commissioner.
Commissioner Lin calculated that in the fiscal year 1839, Chinese opium smokers consumed 100 million taels' worth of the drug while the entire spending by the imperial government that year was only 40 million taels. He wrote "if we continue to allow this trade to flourish, in a few dozen years we will find ourselves not only with no soldiers to resist the enemy, but also with no money to equip the army".
Lin forced the merchants to handover nearly 1,200 tonnes of opium stocks. It took 500 workers 22 days to destroy the opium. The British reacted swiftly and went to war; the first of the two Opium Wars, which the British won easily with their superior arms and ships.
The spoils of war were immense. China was forced to give over the island of Hong Kong (it remained under British control until 1997), open five ports to Western trade and residence, grant Great Britain most-favoured nation status for trade, and compensate the merchants whose opium had been destroyed.
They were also were forced to legalise the opium trade. It was the start of what Chinese historians refer as the “century of humiliation".
In India alone, it is believed opium production accounted for about 17-20% of Indian revenues during much of the 1800s. Unquestionably, the lucrative narcotics trade and war concessions bankrolled the British for many years to come.
In 1888 Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, wrote a short essay about production at the Ghazipur Opium factory. He finished his essay with this sentence:
“And this is the way the drug, which yields such a splendid income to the Indian Government, is prepared”.
Sea of Poppies (2008) is the first of three novels by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh which is set in India at the time of the first Opium War
The wearing of poppies on Remembrance Day, November 11 can be traced back to this poem called In Flanders Field by John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.