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How the British Raj's trade in opium remade the world

Thomas Manuel’s new book surveys the historical costs of mass opium addiction, and its troubling legacy in the 21st century

The whole saga of opium wars came to be described as the ‘century of humiliation’ in China.
The whole saga of opium wars came to be described as the ‘century of humiliation’ in China. (Wikimedia Commons)

It is the late 1660s and London’s high society is in the grip of a new fad. The recently installed queen—an “exotic” foreigner from Portugal, Catherine of Braganza—can’t get through her days without a cuppa. It may be the stress of court life, filled with Protestant courtiers who detest this “Catholic import”. Or it may be nostalgia for her homeland (Portugal was the first European nation to “discover” tea in the East, as Spain did cocoa in the West—both products of an early wave of colonisation in the garb of exploration).

Whatever the reason for Catherine’s love for tea, this homesick queen would set off a national obsession that would transform the world. In the 17th century, tea was expensive. It grew only in China. And China wanted nothing in return except silver.

With its stock of precious metal depleting fast, by the mid-1700s Britain had hatched a plan to avoid what’s known in modern parlance as a balance of payments crisis. This cunning scheme, which would have inter-generational repercussions that last to this day, is the sweeping historical canvas that Thomas Manuel’s Opium Inc. tries to penetrate.

Although opium had reached China almost a thousand years earlier, via Turkish and Arab traders, it was used mostly as medicine. By the 18th century, however, not-so-great Britain had decided that inducing mass opium addiction in China was essential to maintain the tea obsession back home. What began as a small-time smuggling operation, meant to procure the silver necessary to buy highly-valued Chinese goods, would quickly transform into the greatest drug trafficking operation in history.

In the 19th century, the British Raj was a narco-state—a country sustained by trade in an illegal drug, writes Manuel. By the 1760s, the fertile provinces of Bengal and Bihar had fallen into British hands as the Mughal empire went into terminal decline. India became a test-bed for poppy cultivation. Britain got tea. China got opium. And India got colonialism.

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Strangely, very little of opium’s sordid history has ended up in India’s school textbooks. If there is any mention at all, it’s predominantly in the context of the First Opium War (1839-42). There is a plausible explanation for this (more on that later).

By the 1830s, the historical setting for Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea Of Poppies, over 1.3 million peasant households in northern India were involved in poppy cultivation. Thousands of other Indians were involved in procuring, processing and transporting the harvest. Only a few participated out of choice. Most Indian peasants were co-opted into the trade, either by force or through that magical instrument of modern finance—debt (an “advance” was paid at the start of the season but it never covered the cost of production). At the apex of it all sat a mere 2,500 clerks, manning the colonial Opium Agency. The annual output was roughly equivalent to that of modern-day Afghanistan’s illicit opium industry (responsible for 90% of the world’s supply of heroin, a refined version of the milky sap-like substance produced by poppy buds).

What the British Raj’s “triangular trade” in narcotics did to China is fairly well documented. And Opium Inc. does go into it in some depth—the shenanigans at the European “factory” town of Canton (now Guangzhou); the moral conflicts of Lin Zexu, an honest bureaucrat sent by the celestial Qing dynasty emperor to root out the illegal trade; the wars that followed; and the failed attempts at appeasement which, among other measures, involved the ceding of Hong Kong. The whole saga came to be described as the “century of humiliation”, a historical period that still has deep resonance in contemporary Chinese society and politics.

Opium Inc. By Thomas Manuel, HarperCollins India, 288 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Opium Inc. By Thomas Manuel, HarperCollins India, 288 pages, 599.

The book’s failing, if it can be described as such, is on the Indian end of this state-sponsored smuggling operation. While the administrative machinery that was behind opium cultivation is set out in some detail, very few characters emerge. That’s because Manuel’s account, for the most part, is not based on original research that draws upon oral history or long-lost records from the British Archives. The book is more of a compendium; the work is that of a careful curator.

Unlike China, which was at least nominally free, Bihar and Bengal were under the direct control of the Raj. Very little of what the opium trade did to millions of ordinary Indians is widely known. Indian sepoys even participated in the bombardment of coastal forts all along the East China Sea, as Company ships from Bengal were dispatched to impose “free trade” on China. The names and lives and moral quandaries of these men are lost to history and Opium Inc. does little to remedy this.

This gap in historical memory is unfortunate because opium-induced injustice and indebtedness left a lasting impact on the subcontinent. In many ways, it birthed the seeds of Bihar’s backwardness, which lasts to this day. The opium factories at Patna and Ghazipur—an otherwise unremarkable town nestled on the border between eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—were the nerve centres from which a century of agrarian poverty and distress radiated across northern India. The opium model of cultivation would soon be replicated with another cash crop, indigo. What followed needs no repetition. It would catapult a man named Mohandas Gandhi into the global limelight.

The few Indians who are named in Opium Inc.’s pages are rich businessmen who traded in the drug, such as Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (after whom Mumbai’s JJ hospital is named) or Appa Gangadhar (a trader well connected with the Scindia branch of the Maratha Confederacy). The parallel opium trade from the “free” Maratha territories, which came to be known as Malwa opium, was the source of wealth for many. Mumbai was the epicentre of this parallel route to China.

Bihar’s misfortune and Mumbai’s fortune are both inextricably linked to narcotics. If only we looked closely, we would find opium’s footprint all around us even today.

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This is where questions of complicity and the treatment of the subject in modern-day textbooks comes in. One of the most poignant chapters in Manuel’s account is the difficult position that India’s early freedom fighters were thrust into. Was the opium trade good or bad? It was clearly immoral, but it brought in public revenue. Opium was the second-largest source of income for the colonial government after land. If Indians rose up in protest against opium cultivation, would that automatically mean reduced spending on public welfare (which was already minuscule)?

In 1889, The Hindu newspaper wrote, “Opium may be a great evil, but national bankruptcy is a greater evil.” It took the stridency and moral clarity of a man like Gandhi to nudge the Indian National Congress towards a publicly stated anti-opium stance. The year was 1924, about 125 years after the triangular trade had begun. By then, thousands of lives had been lost to addiction; many farmers had lost their meagre holdings to debt. Is this, in part, the reason why Indian textbooks are loath to look back at this period?

Ultimately, why does all this matter anyway? Because the pattern set in motion by opium has played out time and again. There might as well be books called Sugar Inc, Cotton Inc, Oil Inc and Banana Inc. Increased access to all those commodities in some societies resulted in cycles of violent oppression and injustice. By the end of the 21st century, will we be writing books titled Cobalt Inc and Lithium Inc?

In the 1800s, during the heyday of industrialisation, British factory workers would get a short break in the middle of their 12- to 13-hour shifts to gulp a cup of tea laced with sugar for a quick burst of energy. The practice would slowly spread all across the empire, giving birth to the “tea break” we know so well.

Cheap mill-made cotton clothes, sugar, and even social media have all played a similar role—offering some “relief” to a class of workers. But, as the opium saga teaches us, not without consequences. It’s a lesson that is particularly relevant in a year when many types of workers all across the world have faced long hours, burnout and job dissatisfaction.

The canny empire, the unscrupulous factory owner, and the dubious corporate honcho have always found ways to tamp down rebellion in their ranks by doing the bare minimum. Even as we snack and shop and scroll through our days, it may be worthwhile to spend a moment to reflect on these questions: What is today’s opium? What are we enabling?

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