Friday, 8 March 2013

The Disgusting Dealings of the Intoxicant Importers

                     Poppies have been used in Chinese medicine since the seventh century CE, they are mentioned in a pharmacopoeia by Liu Han, Ma Chih and others, where the seeds of the poppy – ying-tzŭ-su – are described as being useful for those who have been taking mercury in the belief that it imparts immortality, if the seeds are mixed with bamboo juice boiled into gruel. Wang Hsi, who died in 1488, wrote, 
Opium is produced in Arabia from a Poppy with a red flower … the capsule, while still fresh, is pricked for the juice.” 

Opium Poppies

In the latter years of the Ming dynasty, in the seventeenth century, Spanish and Dutch merchants introduced tobacco from the Americas into China through the Philippines, and the practice of smoking a mixture of opium and tobacco began. Edicts against tobacco smoking were issued, but the habit spread too rapidly to be effectively restricted by law. The Chinese habit was to smoke their tobacco in pipes, and it spread throughout the entire country, across all classes and was enjoyed by men and women alike. 

Chinese Opium Smokers

It was not until 1729 that the first edict restricting the use of opium was issued, but this was also ineffectual, due to the widespread use of the drug, not least amongst those in positions of power. The punishments were not inflicted on the smokers, but on anyone involved in the sale and distribution, and were very harsh indeed. The sellers were imprisoned for several months and then strangled, their assistants were beaten with one hundred blows and subjected to a banishment of one thousand miles. 

Chinese Merchants

Runners, magistrates, police, boat-keepers, indeed anyone bar the smoker (who, it was felt, had suffered enough with their addiction), were all severely dealt with, as it was attempted to remove the scourge from China. In a report to the British parliament of 1783, it was reported that any vessel caught importing opium to be used for smoking would be confiscated, the opium would be destroyed and any Chinese members of the crew would be executed. 

A Wife tries to destroy an opium smoker's pipe

Nevertheless, contraband opium continued to be smuggled into the country and as more opium entered the market, more addicts were created, and more addicts meant further opium was needed to feed their habit, resulting in a terrible self-replicating circle. The main reason for the failure of the official policy was the great number of corrupt of Viceroys, Governors, Customs Officers and so forth, who were far to easy to bribe, either with silver or even with opium itself, compounding the problem still further. It is estimated that Dutch and Portuguese traders were importing no more than two hundred chests of opium per year at the time, and the edict was intended to stop the smoking of opium, rather than restricting its import for medical use. 


In 1773, the Dutch trade ended and English merchants, trading from Calcutta, took over the importing of opium into China, until the East India Company in turn took over the trade in 1781, and by 1790 the imports had risen to four thousand chests per year. As the smoking of opium spread throughout southern China, the Jiaqing Emperor issued an edict banning its importation and smoking, together with the cultivation of poppies, and opium became a contraband cargo. 

The Great Wall over the Hills

The British, trading through the East India Company, bought vast amounts of goods from China, including tea and porcelain, for which they paid in silver but the Chinese imported very few goods from the west, resulting on a drain in hard currency from Europe. 

Smoking Opium

The opium trade reversed this situation, as silver began to ooze out of China, to the consternation of the Emperor, who needed funds to suppress internal revolts in his realm. British vessels shipped the opium to Lintin Island, where it was unload and the ships proceeded into Canton with their legitimate cargoes, whilst smaller native vessels smuggled the prohibited drug ashore later. It was a cash trade on an open market, and demand continued to grow, from an average of about five thousand chests in the 1810s, which had doubled by the following decade. 

Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu

From 1820 on, the new Dauguang Emperor issued many more edicts banning opium and sent his Commissioner Lin Zexu south, to enforce the edicts. Lin arrived in Canton (now Guangdong) in March 1839 and had an immediate effect. He was an tremendously efficient bureaucrat and administrator, and was noted for his honesty and morality, and he confiscated over 20,000 chests of opium (over one million kilograms) which he had destroyed, arrested over 1,700 opium dealers, and seized over 70,000 opium pipes. 

Crates of Opium awaiting destruction

But Lin Zexu did something else in his attempt to stamp out the opium trade. I will tell you what that was tomorrow.

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