History, Review

Did British Merchants Cause the Opium War?

A review of Song-Chuan Chen’s Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press (January 12, 2017) 240 pages.

The war had a name even before its first shot. The first recorded use of the moniker, the ‘Opium War,’ was in an 1839 piece in the London Morning Herald; within months it would be echoed across the benches of Parliament and across the carronades of the fleet sent to punish the Chinese crackdown on British trade. The war’s nomenclature revealed from the beginning the multivalent views the British public held towards the war: it was at once the “unjust and iniquitous” Opium War — to use Gladstone’s well-known phrase — as well as the patriotic ‘China War,’ as its proponents wanted it to be called. The historiography of the war is similarly divided among varied lines. Some see the war as reflective of China’s failure to catch up to Western technologies; others emphasize the British desire to avenge their slighted national honour as the prime motive for the conflict. A wide array of scholars have placed a central focus on the role of opium, while some prefer to see the war in the context of imperial and economic expansion. Song-Chuan Chen’s Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War is a worthy addition to these voices.

Chen’s portrait of the Opium War places the role of British traders and their lobbying efforts in the foreground by arguing that it was British knowledge of China, as transmitted via the merchant class, that contributed to the ‘making’ (in the sense of both manufacture and execution) of the war. Chen asserts that it was the decade-long campaign of bellicose editorials and pamphlets on the part of the Canton merchant intelligentsia, as well as an accumulation of knowledge on the details of China’s coastal defences and overall military strength, that made it possible for Britain to both conceive of and win the war. The book casts, as its main actors, the ‘Warlike Party,’ a group of British merchants in Canton who lobbied for military intervention to expand the Canton System of trade, and the ‘Pacific Party,’ who opposed the war and criticised the diffusion of opium as an illicit and immoral drug. By narrowing his focus towards the production of knowledge, Chen also elevates the importance of language. A chapter of the book is devoted to a summary of the ‘Barbarian’ controversy – the disagreements and narratives spun around the British choice in translating the Chinese character 夷 (Yí) as ‘Barbarian,’ rather than ‘Foreigner.’

Chen’s account is thus of a battle as much between China and Britain as an internal conflict within the British public sphere. Though Chen is careful to nuance his depiction of the war by overlaying the many causal factors detailed by existing scholarship, his book makes two main arguments, which, in the words of the author, are new to the field: firstly, that the decisive factor in the war’s escalation was due to the machinations of the Warlike Party; and secondly, that the Canton System represented a ‘soft border’ through which the British were able to secure intelligence on the Qing state, without a reciprocal exchange of knowledge.

Written in engaging, lucid prose that presents its ideas clearly, if repetitively, Chen’s monograph is studded with riveting selections of his primary source research, drawn from the National Archives, UK, the First Historical Archives of China, the National Palace Museum, the British Library, SOAS Library, and Cambridge’s Jardine & Matheson archive. These quotations are often reproduced at generous length from the Warlike Party’s Canton Register and the Pacific Party’s Canton Press, and they provide a revealing account of the vigorous rhetorical strategies employed by the two camps.

Though the book’s introduction levies an impressive tour d’horizon of the existing historiography on the reader, the successive text infrequently engages with these works. Chen is right to criticize one-dimensional depictions of the Opium War, but by so minutely focussing on the role of lobby groups and by arguing that they were the decisive cause of the conflict, he loses sight of the wider historical canvas. Wars are not waged unilaterally; if he were to be truly convincing in his assertion that knowledge networks were the igniting spark of the war, Chen may have wished to expand his book to include the Chinese perspective. Scholars such as Frank Dikötter, Lars Laaman and Zhou Xun have drawn illustrative portraits of the relationship between the Qing state and Chinese opium culture. Previous scholarship has shown the many factions within the Qing court and amongst Chinese popular opinion regarding the war, as well as the chaotic assembly of China’s military-diplomatic response. An integration of these accounts would bolster Chen’s account of the Opium War’s casus belli.

Chen is prone to a declarative style that encourages dissenting critique: “The Warlike party played its role at every turn. Its wishes, knowledge, initiative, and determination led to the war being waged.” However, Chen himself acknowledges that other political factors were at play: Lord Palmerston only agreed to military intervention after the Whig government of the day was unable to form a majority in parliament without the support of pro-war parliamentarians. John Wong’s 1998 work, Deadly Dreams, uncovers Lord Palmerston’s dependency on revenue procured from the opium trade; other scholars have detailed the extent to which opium was the only thing keeping British balance of payments with China from deficit.

Motivation is a difficult question for historians to answer, being more the domain of psychological guesswork than empirical evidence. Chen’s thesis links the Warlike Party’s rhetorical strategies to Lord Palmerston’s political decisions, but his evidence is relational rather than causal. Here, Chen’s account strays into the marshes of perception, mentalités, and the histoire de la vie privée; approaches that favour more personal documents — diaries, journals — than the newspaper clippings Chen has assembled. A more rigorous theoretical framework that addresses the various problems associated with historical writings on perception would be a helpful addendum to Chen’s introductory chapter. Though Chen cites Jürgen Habermas’ work on the public sphere in passing, he does not dwell on the various theoretical and methodological issues at stake when writing about the ‘maritime public sphere’ — as Chen describes it — in Canton.

Chen’s book, however, is ultimately convincing in the overall thrust of his arguments. The passages in which he compares the detailed plan for war composed by Jardine, Matheson, et alii, to its identical execution during the war provides empirical evidence of the Warlike Party’s influence in the war proceedings. The Warlike Party’s data on everything from Chinese gun placements to troop strength are shown to have been used by the military to secure British victory. Eventually, even the Warlike Party’s suggestions for peace terms and its recommendation for a permanent trading settlement — Hong Kong — were followed.

Chen’s main contribution to the field is to highlight the importance of knowledge networks in Sino-European relations. Particularly thought-provoking is his concept of a ‘soft border’ that gave an unequal distribution of knowledge to European traders. Chen’s emphasis on issues of perception delineates a potential research area that should be explored beyond the usual comparative, literary approaches taken by Chinese and British scholars when analyzing the changing perceptions Europeans had towards the Chinese. With more carefully-laid theoretical groundwork and with further work on primary sources more amenable to analyses of the period’s mentalité, Chen’s thesis may yet be proved.

Jeffery C. J. Chen is a PhD student in history at Stanford University. He received his first graduate degree, an MSt in British and European history, from the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the commercial networks bridging Qing China and eighteenth century Europe.


  1. John says

    It is extremely doubtful that a ‘more carefully laid theoretical ground work will prove any thesis let alone the thesis in this book, which is a worthwhile contribution to the historiography. Theory has little to offer in complex history other than to confuse and bore readers.

    There can be little doubt that the causes belli in what was christened the Opium War was trade and that the machinations of traders such as Jardine and Matheson and their associates added to the tensions between the Daoguang Emperor and the British authorities. Yet, the heavy handed actions of Lin Zexu also added to the failure of the Emperor’s policy of avoiding conflict and Britain’s policy of keeping the relationship smooth. Yet, underlying much of the problem was the drain on the world silver supply caused by China’s unwillingness to broaden out the trading relationship into a freer system. In the circumstances, aggressive British and western trading merchants faced with a declining silver supply would seek other goods and services which China would buy. Opium was just the ticket. It was widely used in China and in high demand and this led to its adoption as specie, a fact demonstrated by the value attached to the unauthorised promissory notes issued for opium by Captain Elliott on behalf of the British government. In 1839-40 the outcome was always going to be the voluntary or forced integration of China into the world economy. The real cause of the trade in opium leading to the forced opening of China’s economy was Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ dragging officials, merchants and rulers on both sides into a war that opened up China to the world economy, a reality China is now dominating.

    • r321 says

      Great to see some Latin, but you could have gone all the way with “casus belli”. . .

      (Or typo)

    • ga gamba says

      The real cause of the trade in opium leading to the forced opening of China’s economy was Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ dragging officials, merchants and rulers on both sides into a war that opened up China to the world economy, a reality China is now dominating.

      Correct. Long before the disputes China was receiving opium as tribute from Siam – it was worth its weight in gold then. The East India Company entered India in 1608 and was exporting opium to Qing China a hundred years later. For a period of seven decades the Qing allowed the import of opium transported by British traders, and then after criminalising it, did almost nothing for another 40 years. Unenforced law isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

      Qing used both copper and silver currency, and latter was used to pay tax. Qing relied on the salt trade for the lion’s share of state revenue. The government decreed neither gold nor silver could leave the realm, but its coastal border was porous and enforcement of trade was difficult. Typically the transaction was opium for silver and then spend that silver for tea, silk, and other goods, so though being transferred into British traders’ hands, it then retransferred into Chinese hands. However, when opium earnings exceeded the transfer of silver back into China for its goods this reduced the supply of silver and created inflationary pressure. With more tax payers complaining about the high cost of silver Qing then got serious rhetorically about its own “war on drugs”, but still the ability to enforce was lacking.

      After a street brawl between some British sailors and locals in which one Chinese was killed, the Governor-General then decided to act against opium when the British refused to hand over the sailors involved for execution. (More about Qing law below). It is obvious that the drugs trade thrived because of complicity by Han and Manchu at every level of society, from officials to smugglers and secret societies to users.

      On 21 August 1840, the emperor chastised Governor General Lin Zexu, who had been lying about Qing military victories, harshly: “Externally you wanted to stop the [opium] trade, but it has not been stopped; internally you wanted to wipe out the outlaws [opium smugglers and smokers], but they are not cleared away. You are just making excuses with empty words. Nothing has been accomplished but many troubles have been created. Thinking of these things, I cannot contain my rage.” Lin was sent into exile.

      Today you’ll hear progressives denounce the British export of opium as immoral and then a few moments later they’ll denounce America’s import of cocaine and its “war on drugs”. This has nothing to do with drugs, or even the morality of it, but rather the double standards they hold which has them despise a particular group.

      FWIW, I’ve smoked opium several times and it’s a sensationalised drug because of its association with heroin and Hollywood drug fiends. Sure, it may be addictive, but so too may be alcohol. Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun, authors of Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China state the smoked opium of 19th-century China, “did not have significant harmful effects on either health or longevity”. Most of the opium consumed in China in the 19th-century, initially imported from Bengal but later produced domestically, contained relatively low quantities of morphine. Moreover, between 80% and 90% of this active ingredient was eliminated by smoking, which was the favoured mode of consumption by Chinese. During the same time opium was widely used in India, Persia, Turkey, Europe, and America, none of which had the reports of cadaverous addicts ruining the country – this suggests the use of opium didn’t poison the users so much as it poisoned history. Historians of modern China are victims of an “opium myth”. This myth feeds on unfounded beliefs, such as opium was an exclusively Chinese affair, that the user was physically or socially ruined by it, that it inevitably led to ever-increasing compulsive consumption, and that white people were poisoning Chinese and other Asians.

      The 19th-century’s war on drugs was led by many of the same Evangelical Christian busybodies who led and won, temporarily, the war on liquor that established Prohibition in the US. For its part, the CCP uses the Opium War for propaganda. The history of opium as scapegoat not only includes the Qing imperial elite, but also the Chinese nationalists, the Chinese communists, as well as the anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist street mobs and academics.

      Chen’s main contribution to the field is to highlight the importance of knowledge networks in Sino-European relations. Particularly thought-provoking is his concept of a ‘soft border’ that gave an unequal distribution of knowledge to European traders.

      This is not a contribution; it’s PoMo over-egging the idea of power imbalance. Are we to believe the Qing officials, the Bannermen, and the Green Standard Army (ethnic Han troops) had less knowledge of their own turf, of their own cities, of their own rivers, of their own fortifications, and everything else of their dominion than the British who had been stuck on a small sliver of Canton? C’mon!

      Let’s not forget the Qing, before they became the Qing, spent years studying the conquest of the Han by the three foreign invaders to understand what was successful and what led to their respective downfalls, and then these Manchu devised a comprehension plan of invasion and post-conquest administration to keep the Han under their thumb.

      The Opium War’s first battle occurred in 1839 and then nothing happened until 1841. The British expeditionary force, comprised of Brits and Indian sepoys, arrived in June of 1840 and promptly fell horrifically ill. The common causes of British casualties and fatalities were fever, malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, sunstroke, even malnutrition – these all ravaged the foreign troops. Thus, for the period between 13 July and 31 December 1840, when non-combat illness and death were especially severe, official hospitalization figures recorded 5,329 admissions and 448 deaths. An English military account published in 1842 similarly observed, almost in passing, that “at one time as many as 1,100 men were in hospital; and in the 37th Madras regt. out of 560 men, only 50 were fit for duty. Many men and officers were obliged to be invalided.” (source: https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/opium_wars_01/ow1_essay_03.pdf)

      So much for that balance-shifting knowledge.

      Most battles were fought well beyond the “soft border’ of Canton. Shanghai had been a closed city to foreigners, and it quickly fell to the British who certainly wouldn’t have had the same amount of time to reconnoitre it as they had in Canton. Wusong fell virtually without resistance.

      I encourage people to read Mark Elliot’s account (pdf) of the British taking Zhenjiang, which is far from Canton.

      … one must recall that, for bannermen, their military status was intimately tied to their ethnic status. This aspect of garrison-town relations became apparent, for example, when troops of the Manchu Eight Banners were ordered temporarily to take over the Zhenjiang garrison in 1659. A Han Chinese official touring the area memorialized that this was not desirable because the population
      stood in great fear of the “habitual fierceness and cruelty” of Manchu troops, who tended, he said, to be “uncontrollable.”

      The first British ships reconnoitered Zhenjiang on 16 July 1842.

      Daily, more and more people decided to leave while the leaving was good, even at the risk of being robbed by bandit gangs prowling the roads leading from the city. […] Apart from the threat posed by the nearing foreign warships there was significantly more behind the Zhenjiang exodus: this was the standing order given to all bannermen to ferret out hanjian (Han traitors). […] bannermen began “picking people off the street, calling them hanjian … throwing them into jail and putting them in chains. No appeals were allowed.” Banner soldiers took the opportunity to loot as they patrolled, the allure of rewards for the capture of spies leading as well to other indiscriminate crimes: “Whenever women or children saw banner soldiers, they became frightened and tried to run away. The soldiers chased and killed them, then reported their ‘achievements’ to the commander to collect their rewards;” […] Anybody caught on the streets at night, anyone who spoke with a nonlocal accent, was liable to arrest; merchants from other towns, laborers, monks and priests, servants, beggars, any “unfamiliar face,” risked prison or even summary execution if he was so unfortunate as to be questioned on the street by a garrison soldier.

      Why did the Bannermen turn on the people?

      As it first emerged in Guangzhou, the discovery of widespread treachery served handily to explain the court’s failure to stop the barbarians. By believing that without the help of quislings the foreigners would never have advanced as far as they did, reassurance grew that the English were not so powerful after all. Blame for defeat could then be thrown on those who treated regularly with foreigners, especially merchants, who were mistrusted by both gentry and officials. At a later stage in the war, however, Jiangnan regional biases had produced a slightly different amalgam of the same attitudes. Suspicion fell not only on merchants, but on Cantonese as a group (and here the definition of “Cantonese” ought probably be interpreted loosely to mean anyone from southeast China). “Traitor fever” in Jiangnan [province] was distinctive also in that it began before the British arrived on the scene. Unlike Guangzhou, where it was largely retributive, in Zhenjiang the hunt for hanjian was preventive in intent. […] the official reports on the fall of the Zhapu garrison acquire particular significance: they said that when the British attacked there, traitors rose within the city to join them, firing rockets upon the Manchu bannermen, causing them to disperse. The [earlier] massacre of the Zhapu garrison [the Bannermen fought to the end, killing their wives and children before committing suicide] we know, weighed heavily on Hailing’s [Bannerman commander] mind. Apart from offering a preview of the probable fate awaiting him and his men, one surmises that the reported turning of the city against the garrison at Zhapu reminded Hailing of his status as a Manchu soldier in a Chinese city, stirring in him fear of a massacre at Zhenjiang.

      The outcome? Depends on who’s telling the story. The Qing proclaimed the Bannermen martyrs for fighting to the end. And the Han’s version? One of them goes:

      … the entire population of Zhenjiang turned against the garrison commander, “arising in a fury and surrounding him,” at which point Hailing had his troops open fire. In the end, the mob is said to have taken justice into its own hands and put Hailing to death. The drama of this imaginary jacquerie strengthens the impression of the breakdown of social order and underscores the polarization within the city . . . . the evidence in the British reports would tend to indicate that Hailing in fact died in the line of duty.

      Qing law treated Manchu Bannermen and the Han very differently – they were judicially segregated and these boundaries were created and largely sustained to distinguish conqueror from conquered. Though the Manchus were not given carte blanche, for example they were restricted to military and civil service, there were so many benefits set aside for them that this is the real example of privilege the progressives whinge about today. In the case of criminal acts, Han magistrates were limited to only discovery, which had to be done with a Bannerman, and the magistrate had to defer to the Banner’s commander. The accused was handed over to the Manchus for trial, and if convicted, usually lightly punishment. The special Banner prisons were soon filled with non-Bannermen that the officials felt it was unjust to incarcerate Bannermen with them. In the offices of the civil commissioner special cells were reserved for Bannermen so wouldn’t have to share cells with others. In the 1830s the Bannerman in Taiyuan were so lawless the Han called the city Liangshan bo, referencing a fictional outlaw hideaway well beyond of the reach of law. (source: The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial Chinaby Mark Elliott)

      The British in Canton knew this segregated system and decided that extraterritoriality, where they too would fall under preferential law of their own making, suited their purposes. Qing China had a long tradition of according foreigners on China’s borderlands extraterritoriality rights, such as to resolve disputes and violence amongst their subjects. Russians and Central Asian traders had been granted such privileges in the northern and western borderland regions. This philosophy of legal pluralism, based on cultural, ethnic, and, with the conquest of Xinjiang, religious distinctions, was a core principle in the main legal code of Qing. It was certainly not one law for all. Such was the era.

      Lastly, some interesting outcomes of the Opium Wars. India got its tea business and China later started growing opium poppies.

  2. LiuChan in-line Chinese dictionary reports: 夷 yí: non-Han people, esp. to the East of China; barbarians; to wipe out; to exterminate; to tear down; to raze

    The Chinese have always viewed themselves as the center of the world (a more accurate translation than the silly literal translation of “middle kingdom”) and viewed all others as lessers.

    Sure, the British were the aggressors, but the Chinese were such arrogant shits it’s hard to feel sorry for them. They refused to trade, insisting on payment in silver for everything. They could have traded, but who would do such a thing for barbarian goods? Supreme cultural arrogance. Then they found out real fast that the British were really, really good at organized violence and made treaties to save their own power.

    Funny that a trade deficit would result in such a drastic outcome, given that we’re constantly assured that America’s back-breaking trade deficits around the world are no problem and there’s nothing to see here. Likewise the idea that a country should be able to set its own policies without the world breaking in and forcing them to trade on its terms.

    Hong Kong was NOT wanted by the British. They wanted Zhoushan Island, off the coast of Zhejiang province. That was a developed port with a great location. Hong Kong was a deserted island with no infrastructure. The Queen was pissed that her plenipotentiary had brought back such a worthless prize, though her children were delighted with such an odd name for their new possession.

    • r321 says

      I imagine that current floating exchange rates and a fiat currency might disconnect us from the deflationary consequences of trade deficits that they faced under a metallic currency system.

      • Knollan says

        @r321 I would think a metallic currency would resist deflation compared to a fiat. However, I’m not knowledgeable about these thing so I would be interested in an elaboration on this.

        • r321 says

          I’m not that familiar either.

          The term “trade deficit” seems to imply that Chinese merchants would accept payment in silver for their exports, and that supplying opium instead would conserve silver (but this implication probably has to be wrong for the offered explanation for the war to make sense). The alternative would seem to be to just keep sending silver, until all the silver in the world is inside China. As silver becomes scarcer outside China prices of all other goods in terms of silver will have to fall which would be deflation.

          With modern currencies we don’t get that effect: we just keep printing the currency and collapsing its rate of exchange until we decide we can’t afford any more tea from China, or, more relevantly, the Chinese decide they don’t want to hold any of our worthless notes. Which is where we started from.

  3. dirk says

    And the barbarians in the West were the -ci-, also not worth the trade with, except maybe some exports of local goods (ceramics). organised by those barbarians, yes. About 600 yrs ago, a large flotilla with giant ships visited the East coast of Africa (Malindi) but couldn.t find anything of value, Ivory was imported without much difficulty in other ways. The ships went back home and were demolished, and ever since, no more discovery over the oceans into western spheres, China had it all itself, a large country with varying climates and soils and natural resources. But look now what happens in Africa. Decolonized by the West, new failed states, western guild, due to slavery and that colonialism, but the Chinese influence there in mining , trade and agriculture grows by the day, with astonishing growth figures. They have learned the lessons that the West did not.

    • dirk says

      I just see that guild is something else as guilt. So, what I meant was,of course,guilt. Western guilt, the Christian heritage, but one wonders whether it is , in the end, something positive. In fact, I really doubt so. But am not a Chinese! And wonder what the people there think and feel about it! We will never know, because, journalism has also its limits!

    • dirk says

      Or, instead of -ci-, better maybe -xi-, though the pronounciation of that -x- is more like in -citron-. Example; xi-zhuang, costume, western dress, yes, but why is president Xi always dressed up in a xi-zhuang, and not in some mandarine outfit?
      Other examples of that xi=western: xihongshi=tomato, in fact, and precisely, described as:the red jujube (date plum) of the west. Yes, and they export tomatopaste now in large quantities to Italy, thus the West. Because it’s cheaper to grow and pick the fruits there, in Italy the minumum salary is too high!

  4. r321 says

    Great to see some Latin, but you could have gone all the way with “et aliis” instead. . .

    (M. Ablative plural)

  5. Pingback: The Opium War « Quotulatiousness

  6. Fran says

    ga gambas’s analysis jives with what I read when preparing a course on substance dependence 30 years ago. Most of the 20th C American literature demonised the British for selling opium. However, the Americans also tried to get access to Chinese markets selling Turkish opium. Its quality was so much lower than that produced in Bengal that they could not compete. (Incidentally, those opium plantations supplied most of the world’s legal opiates until Australia entered the market in the late 20th century.) In the US, the first legislation controlling opiates was municipal regulations banning opium prepared for smoking, a direct attack on the Chinese communities left over from the days of grand railroad building. Courtwright’s Dark Paradise: Opiate Addiction in America Before 1940 (1982) is an interesting analysis of actual use in pre-antibiotic days based on analysis of pharmacy records. It was, basically, the Valium of the 19th century, with a small number of Civil War vets using purified morphine.

    In the US, several interesting accidents of history underlie the anti-opium smoking legislation. First, the Chinese communities tended to be near railway stations, as were the gambling and prostitution rackets. It is probably due to simple proximity that smoking opium became common among prostitutes and associated criminals. Thus, it was percieved as fundamentally different from usual use of oral preparations by a large proportion of the population. This gave christian groups that wanted access ti China by their missionaries public traction against the British who had the most access to China. In 1914, the US supported an international regulation of opiates. At the same time, heroin had just been introduced as a cough medicine, and it could be vaporised as substitute for smoking opium – injection was a much later development.

    Real control of opiates in the US developed under criminal law in parallel with Prohibition, and when prohibition ended in 1933, criminal groups already had distribution networks looking for something to distribute. Heroin, already well established in the criminal mobs was a sitter. In contrast, in Britain and Commonwealth countries, controls over opiates developed within the framework of medicine, and addiction remained a medical matter. The US established 2 prisons specifically for anyone caught using heroin, and from Lexington Kentucky came the first scientific investigations of opiate addiction, and of opiate antagonists. The Canadian Ledain Report (1973) into non-medical use of drugs describes opiate withdrawal, very much the horrible thing the public perceives, but notes that these descriptions derive from men who had been imprisoned for involuntary withdrawal, and the worse symptoms described, the more lenient the enforced tapering. Conditioned withdrawal, when subjects were given an antagonist in is double blind manner was first noted there,

    From a pharmacological perspective, the brain attaches the reason for use to the effects of drugs that alter concioness and mood. Thus, if the only experience of opioids is in the context of pain control, no craving for use for pleasure – even the euphoria that is commonly observed in pain treatment is interpreted in terms of pain control. On the other hand, if opioids are used for pleasure/intoxication, the effects are interpreted in this context. It is obvious to me that the current ‘over-prescription problem’ is a misinterpretation of the situation. Young adult men are the most likely to have experimented with various drugs, and also among those most likely to sustain physical injury requiring pain management. If such an individual discovers he can exaggerate and prolong his pain needs, and maybe do a bit of double-doctoring into the bargain, of course he will abuse the situation. In fact, he might even get enough to sell some on. When he has to go back to the illegal market, he has to take his chances with heroin mixed by amatures with highly potent synthetics. The so-called fentanyl crisis is due to the fact that the variability between doses is so great. The same young man, whether in a legal or therapeutic setting, will point to the medical prescriptions as the cause of his addiction. This is much more socially acceptable than admitting he had been taking drugs prior to the accident that resulted in a medical prescription – he is a victim rather than a fool or weakling.

    • ga gamba says

      I enjoyed reading your comment, Fran.

      …the Chinese communities tended to be near railway stations, as were the gambling and prostitution rackets. It is probably due to simple proximity that smoking opium became common among prostitutes and associated criminals.

      The opium dens arose for several reasons. Firstly, preparing opium to be smoked is a laborious process. The customer was provided an attendant who prepared each ball and the pipe. Amongst the wealthy there were those who had an opium boy on household staff – I reckon he had other tasks too. Secondly, opium smoking was a social activity and the gambling was usually mahjong. As for onsite prostitutes, opium was believed by Oriental medicine doctors to delay ejaculation; to put it crudely, more bang for the buck. Opium was smoked across all social strata.

      Much of the Western public’s thoughts about opium were also due to sketches and photos of its users lying on the floor or an opium bed, as if incapable to rise and left incapacitated. This had little to do with the drug’s effect and a lot more to do with the pipe’s length and weight and the lamp used to heat the chamber.

      In China opium was used in two ways. The first, mixed with tobacco and called majak, was burned in a pipe. Burning destroyed much of the morphine, opium’s active ingredient. Bengali opium sold in China was from 10 – 12% morphine, and, as dealers often do to extend their profits, was cut with other ingredients such as horse dung; heroin is about four times stronger. The Chinese later developed a technique where the opium was vapourised inside a chamber heated over a small lamp and it was inhaled. Less morphine was burnt and destroyed in this method.

      Oral use delivered more opium into the user’s system but often made the person constipated, which is why smoking it was the typical method.

      Opium dens were decorated much like today’s restaurants and clubs are; some were very opulent and others quite sparse. The hellish opium dens we see depicted commonly in Hollywood films are unlike the actual ones that existed in China.

      I reckon those most at risk to develop an addiction would be the den workers who inhaled the smoke during the entirety of their shifts.

      One problem we have is a lot of the accounts about opium and opium dens were written by Western missionaries who were on a holy tear against any type of vice. Many churches required their members to be free from alcohol and opium, and those using it impeded missionary work of saving souls. The reports back to their congregations are filled with one tragedy after another and then users being saved. There’s no middle ground. Their reports have to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

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