The History of Opium

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The History of Opium

Opium has a long history dating back to thousands of years. People have known about Opium’s medicinal purposes and properties since at least 3400 B.C where the Opium Poppy was cultivated and grown in Mesopotamia. No one exactly discovered it but people have know about it since at least 3400 BC. The Sumerian passed their knowledge of Opium and Opium cultivation to the Assyrians who in turn passed it to the Egyptians and the Chinese.

Opium has been used for recreational purposes since at least the 15th Century in India, China and Persia. The Opium trade had become more common and regular in the 17th Century when it was blended with Tobacco and smoked. The Portuguese traders directed the trade flow of Opium to China. Ships from Great Britain would go to India and purchase Opium to ship back to Britain.

In the 1700s the Dutch introduced the practice of smoking the Opium and Tobacco mixture with a pipe. The Chinese traded usually Silver for the Opium. By then the addictiveness of Opium had already been known and the Emperor Yongzheng of China issued a order for the prohibition of smoking Madak (Opium/Tobacco) and its sale within the country, in 1729.

However raw Opium was still allowed and was permitted to be imported in China by the Europeans. Towards the late 1760s the Opium import to China has reached more then two thousand chests imported every year. Slowly, Opium had become a more and more restricted In 1799, Opium had become an illegal trade for everyone including the Europeans. Canton (present day Guangzhou, China) was the only port in China allowed to be opened for trade with foreigners.

Opium had been banned entirely. It was now illegal to trade and grow Opium poppies. In China, silver actually had to be smuggled out to pay for the Opium from the Europeans mainly the British.

There had been a trade discrepancy and imbalance which was very unfavourable to the British. Britain trades with China for precious commodities and treasures like Silk and Tea, but all the Chinese would want was Silver in return. China did not need to buy anything from Britain. The Chinese already had all that it needed so it didn’t not trade for anything else except Silver.

Britain had already adopted the Gold Standard which is a monetary system where a nation’s government allows its currency to be easily converted to amounts of gold and vice versa. Britain didn’t have a lot of silver to trade with the Chinese so they had to trade and buy from other countries in Europe and Mexico. To fix this trade discrepancy the British got the Chinese people addicted to Opium, which got the British a great deal of money from the Chinese. The British greatly profited from the drug trade.

During the nineteenth century, imperialism was on the rise and everyone wanted to get a part of China for themselves to make money and get more territory. In the dictionary, imperialism means “The policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.”
Imperialism is really just a policy or practice of, in simpler terms, building an empire by doing things like taking over and controlling other countries, starting colonies and making money off them. Britain was one of those countries who did that during the nineteenth century. The British Empire was the biggest empire in the world covering a quarter of the world at its peak. From Canada, British Guinea, South Africa, Australia to Hong Kong and India, Britain controlled thirty-three million, seven hundred thousand square kilometres of land. Not to mention the oceans because Britain has been the dominant sea power for centuries up until the Second World War. It was because of the influence of the British Empire that English is the second most spoken language in the world.

All Territories Owned By The British Empire At One Point Or Another. CLICK THE PICTURE FOR A MUCH BIGGER VIEW!

Anyways, the Chinese were tired of everybody smoking and being addicted Opium. In an effort to suppress the Opium trade, the Chinese emperor, Emperor Daoguang, commissioned Lin Zexu, a Chinese official, to go to Canton to try and end the importation of the illicit drug once and for all. Lin was a clever, wise, and a high moral person. He wasn’t corrupt like some other officials. He was a person that looked very wise and looked like he had a lot of common sense.

Most foreigners in China did not abide by the Chinese law at all, that will later have an effect on the consequences of both sides. Lin had even written a letter to Her Majesty Queen Victoria urging Britain to stop the Opium trade, but unfortunately the letter never reached her back in Britain.

He had demanded that all Opium be handed to the Chinese Government which included the Opium that were on the British clipper ships at Canton Bay. At first Commissioner Lin’s demands were not taken very seriously until he had his troops surround and blockade a Western neighbourhood in Canton, threatened to prohibit the purchase of Tea, Silk and other trade goods for and held them there until the Westerners had given up their Opium stocks and promised to not bring any Opium to China ever again (of course they probably did do it again). The British eventually but reluctantly gave up their Opium stocks up to the Chinese for eventual destruction.

In the next couple of months, the Chinese had confiscated over two million, five hundred thousand, pounds of processed Opium and had arrested hundreds of Opium dealers. Commissioner Lin was now tasked with destroying all the Opium. He had several ditches dug up near the ocean with the dimensions of about forty-six long by twenty-three wide and two meters deep into the ground.

For the next two weeks the ditches were filled with water first and then salt and lime after the Opium chests were smashed opened and hurled into the ditches.

Then on July 12, a Chinese local was killed by a drunken mob of British sailors running amok through the streets in Kowloon. Lin Zexu wanted the sailors to be handed over to him to be tried accordingly to Chinese laws. Charles Elliot, a British naval officer, and Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China, asserted since the sailors were British, they can only be tried under British jurisdiction. The British found all the men were found guilty of rioting except one was acquitted for the murder charge because of insufficient evidence. Elliot assured Lin that they will be properly punished when back in Britain. But they were all allegedly released after when back in Britain.

Lin Zexu was not content with the results and demanded again, but again the British answer was no. To force Elliot to comply with his demands he cut off the delivery of food such as meat, rice, and tea to the British ships at Macao and poisoned all the fresh water springs the British were using for their water supply. Lin then forced the Portuguese to expel the British ships from the harbour under threat of harsh trade restrictions.

On the 31st of August the British merchant ships were back in Hong Kong  but this time with a frigate of the British Royal Navy protecting the merchant ships. Lin was not frightened by the presence of the British warship probably because he underestimated the power of Western technology at the time.

Tensions escalated when five days after the British frigate came, two British merchant ships attacked and fired upon, three Chinese junks trying to supply themselves water at Kowloon, Hong Kong. Lin had been falsely informed that his junks sunken or severely damaged the British ships. He had forwarded the report to the Emperor of China who was pleased to hear. Lin had also been preparing to evict and remove the British presence in Hong Kong. He had assembled a mighty fleet of junks and fire-ships at the mouth of the hustling Pearl River near Hong Kong.

Charles Elliot had also demanded that British merchants be allowed to buy the recent season of Chinese tea. Lin promptly rejected that demand and told them that the British can not have the benefit of any opportunities of trade until they agree to obey the Chinese laws and stop the illegal importation of Opium. Elliot stubbornly refused to accept Lin’s words.

In early November, another British frigate came into Hong Kong with the rest of the merchant fleet and sent a letter to the Chinese demanding supplies and demanding the resumption of trade again. The Chinese refused to comply with the British demands, the British responded and open fired on the fleet of Chinese ships anchored nearby and sank five ships and damaged more. By then it was clear the two countries were at war with one another.

The three year war brought the Chinese a string of defeats and forced them to sign the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which was the first of China’s unequal treaties it sign because of its defeats against foreign aggression. Opium traders were now protected from Chinese law. The Chinese were obliged to pay twenty one million silver dollars for compensation of the destroyed Opium and the cost of the war. China was also forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain which would remain in British hands for the next one hundred and fifty-five years. Another five Chinese ports were also to be open for foreign trade because of the treaty. After the war Lin Zexu was exiled to a distant province in China.

More trouble came to China another fourteen years later when the Second Opium War broke out. It didn’t really involve Opium much despite its name. The Western powers were beginning to feel discontented about the conditions of their treaties with China.   This time the French and Americans would be joining the British in the war. The war started because Chinese officials boarded a Hong Kong registered ship, named the Arrow and arrested twelve of the Chinese crew on charges of piracy. The British challenged the Chinese action claiming that the ship was registered British and protected under the Treaty of Nanking. The British also claimed the ship was flying the Red Ensign at the time.

A year later the British and French started attacking Chinese forts up and around southern China. This war too brought China another series of defeats and another unequal treaty called the Treaty of Tientsin. This treaty open another ten ports for foreign trade and again, China was forced to pay a sum that would amount to two million dollars in silver to France and Britain each. This was only two out of the six major terms in the treaty.

Signing the Treaty of Nanking

More battles were fought because of China’s refusal to abide by one of the terms, so China and the Western powers had another agreement called the Convention of Peking which actually legalized the Opium trade as well.

Some major points in Opium’s history was in 1874 when a heroin was first synthesized from boiling morphine which is found in Opium. Also in the same year, smoking Opium in San Francisco had been restricted to only Chinatown.

Britain, in 1878 passes the Opium Act in an attempt to decrease the consumption of Opium in Britain. In 1905, Opium is banned by the U.S. Congress in the United States.
The Chinese in 1910, after one hundred and fifty or so years of trying to rid China of Opium, the Chinese finally successfully convince the British to stop the Opium trade going from India to China.

In the next fifty years, Opium has become a more and more restricted drug for recreational users. More and more countries in the world are now outlawing Opium, countries like Burma who have outlawed Opium since 1962. But since Opium had become a more restricted drug, it also had become a more smuggled drug. Opium is now usually smuggled to the United States from Asia.

Countries have now begun actively trying to eradicate its lands of Opium poppy fields. Like how the Mexican government sprayed a chemical called Agent Orange onto Opium poppy fields in 1978. More people are now using more Heroin then Opium itself for recreational use. Most of the Opium poppies nowadays are grown in Afghanistan. Afghanistan produced about six thousand and one hundred metric tons in 2006. Afghanistan now produces almost more then 90% of the world’s Opium.

A Man Harvesting Opium in Afghanistan

Opium has changed a lot over the course of time. What began as a medicinal drug for good, since 3400 BC, has turned into a bad and highly addictive drug when abused and when people find ways to make them even worse. Opium had killed people directly and indirectly but has also helped save lives. Opium had started wars in Asia but the morphine in Opium helped ease the pain during wars. Opium and its derivatives aren’t  good drugs, neither are they a bad ones. It all depends on how it is used. This does not apply for all drugs, but mostly only to medicinal drugs. For there could be a positive use for the drug and a negative one. For example drugs like Ecstasy have no positive use, only a negative one. But drugs like Marijuana have a positive medical use as well as a negative use like Opium. A lot can change in thousands of years, Opium has certainly changed from what it was originally intended to be used for.


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