The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

China: The Historical Setting of Asia's Profitable Plague


I wish to thank the following for their help: first and foremost, Nina S. Adams; Leonard and Elizabeth Adams, David Buxbaum, Roger DesForges, Anne Everett, Jayne Werner Freeman, Fred Coss, John Hall, Stephen Headley, Mark Selden, Bernard and Nettie Shapiro, and Jonathan Spence. I am also grateful to the staffs of the following institutions: in London, the Public Record Office, the India Office Library, the London Missionary Society Library, and Mr. John Williamson of the Karl Marx Memorial Library; in Paris, the Archives d'Outre-mer and Miss Annick Levy of the Centre du Documentation sur I'Asie du Sud-est et le Monde Indonesien.-L.P.A.

ASIAN TRADE during the early nineteenth century was a picturesque affair. As Britain built her great eastern empire, the India-China route developed as the hub of commercial activity. Enterprising Europeans ran swift clipper ships to colorful Chinese ports, where cargo was often transferred to smaller boats, including: "scrambling crabs," built for speed, that bristled with dozens of long oars. Yet the romantic image of the China trade is marred by some unpleasant realities: the crucial commodity shipped from colonial India to China was opium, and fast Chinese boats were needed because China's imperial government prohibited the importation and use of the drug.

Britain, the Great Provider

By the late eighteenth century, opium had been used in much of Asia for several centuries. The drug had been taken as a medicine in China since Arab traders brought it from the Middle East in the seventh or eighth century A.D. Spaniards introduced the habit of smoking tobacco to the Philippines, and it spread from there to China about 1620. (1) The Dutch in Formosa smoked a mixture of opium and tobacco to combat the effects of malaria, and a small number of Chinese acquired this habit as Well. (2) Gradually, some of those who smoked omitted the tobacco from this narcotic blend and changed to opium, most of which was imported from India by Portuguese traders. The reasons for opium smoking varied considerably: for the rich it was primarily a luxury, a social grace, while the poor sought in it a temporary escape from their condition.

Although small amounts of opium were harvested in many parts of Asia, India was the chief producer of the drug for international trading. During the Mogul era, a number of her rulers attempted to tax opium sales for government profit. (3) But as of the 1770s no single government possessed the will, the organization, or the political and naval power to foster new markets and to internationalize the Asian drug trade on a large scale.

Britain's move to colonize India changed this situation dramatically. In 1772 Warren Hastings was appointed governor of the recently conquered territory of Bengal and faced the task of finding a dependable source of tax revenue. Given the Mogul precedent, he proceeded to sell the concession that granted the buyer the exclusive rights to oversee opium production, buy the harvest, and deliver the product to the British opium factory at the port of Calcutta, where it was auctioned off to wholesale merchants for export. (4) The drug, Hastings piously declared, was not a consumer necessity "but a pernicious article of luxury, which ought not to be permitted but for purposes of foreign commerce only. (5) And so it was. The British in India not only permitted but encouraged foreign sales of opium. (6) The Indian opium concession, which later became a directly administered government monopoly, brought the government over half a million pounds sterling during Hastings' term in India alone.(7) Opium exports, primarily to China, provided roughly one-seventh of the total revenue for British India. (8) British officials and others objected to the trade, largely on moral grounds. But for policy makers from Hastings' era to the early part of the twentieth century, the morally questionable nature of the traffic was outweighed by the enormous profits it yielded.

In this early period, competition for British-supervised opium, variously known as Bengal, Benares, or Patna, came mainly from Malwa opium, which was grown in central and northwestern Indian states not under direct British rule. But during the early nineteenth century the colonial government gained control over most of the routes and ports used for shipping Malwa opium. This gave them the power to tax and thus regulate Malwa exports. The British also increased the production of Bengal opium, attempting both to undercut competition from Malwa and to take advantage of the rising demand in China. (9)

British officials justified this increased production with arguments whose tone would be echoed by many subsequent rationalizations of Britain's role in the trade. As one of Hastings' successors noted, the policy of increasing Bengal production to the limits of the market would mean a reduction in the profit per unit of opium sold, but it will not tend to increase the consumption of the deleterious Drug nor to extend its baneful effects in Society. "The sole and exclusive object of it is to secure to ourselves the whole supply by preventing Foreigners from participating in a trade of which at present they enjoy no inconsiderable share-for it is evident that the Chinese, as well as the Malays, cannot exist without the use of Opium, and if we do not supply their necessary wants, Foreigners will." (10)

The "foreign" threat to British hegemony in the opium trade soon became more imagined than real. Portuguese traders dealing in Malwa opium were rapidly outclassed. The American role in the China opium trade was never very great, although those involved often made substantial fortunes. For a time Americans monopolized the shipment of Turkish opium to China, but the cost of transport made serious competition impossible.(11)

Opium not only became a bulwark of the tax base of colonial India, during much of the nineteenth century it served as the economic pivot around which the whole China trade revolved. Prior to about 1800 the British traded mainly their own and Indian goods, especially raw cotton, for Chinese tea and silk. But the relative self-sufficiency of China's economy, which perennially frustrated foreign traders, meant that China sold more than she bought, and Western merchants were forced to bring silver to China to make up the balance. After about 1800 the British increasingly substituted another currency: Indian opium. (12) The Chinese paid for opium in silver at the port of entry. Merchants then exchanged this silver for Chinese goods to be sold elsewhere in Asia or in Europe. Opium shifted the balance of the China trade: the situation became economically as well as socially unfavorable to the Chinese.

Although the British gave the opium traffic their official blessing, the Chinese did not. Opium smoking was prohibited in 1729; smoking, cultivation, and importation of opium were specifically banned in 1800. (13) But by the beginning of the nineteenth century the once powerful Ch'ing dynasty had been seriously weakened politically and financially by official corruption and domestic rebellion. As the century wore on, China's internal problems were aggravated by Western attempts to force open the country for trade and, later, for industrial development. Opium speeded up the decay, for Chinese officials and soldiers, underpaid, discontented and often idle, were among the first to take up opium smoking, weakening their government still further.

The edict of 1800 closed Canton, the only port at which foreigners were then officially allowed to trade, to opium. But this ban, like most later defensive gestures, merely helped move the opium traffic beyond the area where it might have been supervised, however ineffectively. The market near Canton rapidly became glutted, and with the connivance of corrupt officials and merchants, drug sales by Europeans spread along China's southeast coast beyond government control. Many of the Chinese pirate gangs involved in opium smuggling on the coast and inland were organized as secret societies. (14) The link between opium, Chinese criminals, and secret societies, whose traditional role of political resistance made them perennially outlawed and feared by the central government, only strengthened the official revulsion toward foreigners and their "moral poison."

From 1811 to 1821 imports of both Bengal and Malwa opium averaged over 340 tons a year. (15) In the late 1820s and 1830s, because of the ease with which opium could be smuggled and the profits involved, the flow of opium became a flood. During the period from 1829 to 1839, annual imports from India averaged 3,683,542 pounds, or more than 1,841 tons, almost six times the average for the period 1811 to 1821. (16) British opium policy in India was the primary cause of this expansion. By the mid 1830s the British had acquired tax control over most of the trade routes used for shipping Malwa opium. But a decrease in the tax rate on Malwa, combined with a conscious effort to expand Bengal cultivation, increased the supply of opium tremendously. Also, there were now more foreign merchants to import the drug. (17)

The spectacular amount of opium entering China, the emperor's decision to-take a strong stand against it, and British demands for free trade and diplomatic equality resulted in the Opium War of 1839-1842. Although the British resented the term "opium war," it seemed altogether appropriate to the defeated Chinese. Opium not only provoked the war, it helped China lose it, although given Britain's firepower the outcome was never in doubt. During one battle, for example, an officer named Chang, who was in charge of important reserves, took time off to satisfy his craving for opium. The man smoked his pipe from dawn to dusk and finally, when his aides were still debating whether to advance or retreat, "the sound of cannon and musketry-fire drew closer and closer. Panic seized his troops and with one accord they fled. . . . Chang himself was still puffing away at his opium pipe. At last he staggered into a litter and was carried away." (18) A little less than one third of the 21 million dollar indemnity extracted by the victors was payment for the opium that the imperial commissioner, Lin Tse-hsu, had seized and destroyed at the beginning of the war. The British also won concessions to their principle of free trade, a principle upheld in practical terms largely for the sake of a monopoly-produced, illicitly sold narcotic.