I admit I’m ignorant of many, many things in history, including the Opium Wars. So I found this American article detailing the facts around the initial wars fascinating.
The two-part article is found in The Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review, Volume 23, 1850. I will post part one tonight.
The images (except for poppy flower) come from two editions of The Truth about Opium Smoking: with Illustrations of the Manufacture of Opium, etc, published by Hodder & Stroughton in 1882. The introduction to this book includes the words:
Twenty, thirty, forty and more years ago, there were those who earnestly protested against England’s connection with the opium trade as then carried on with China. Their efforts to arouse public attention seemed unavailing. Few apparently gave heed.
It is otherwise now. Motions in Parliament, resolutions adopted in Convocation, in Church Congresses, Wesleyan Conferences, Congregational and Baptist Unions, and in public meetings all over the country, condemnatory of England’s connection with the opium trade, are so many indications of the awakening of the public conscience to the national sin committed by England in forcing the Government of China to admit our Indian opium.
The Opium Trade (from The Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review)
As carried between India and China, including a sketch of its history, extent, effects, etc.
Few persons in this country are aware of the extent of traffic, or amount of capital invested in what is called the “opium trade,” and carried on mostly in South Eastern Asia. China expends for this single article, annually, more money than the entire revenue of the United States from all sources whatever, and a larger sum than any one nation on the globe pays to another for a single raw material, with the exception of what Great Britain pays to this country for cotton. The traffic is yet comparatively new——has grown with unparalleled rapidity, and is almost unknown, except to those personally concerned in it.
Opium is a production of the common English poppy, originally a native of Persia, but it may now be found growing as an ornamental plant in gardens throughout the civilized world. Most of the opium used for medical purposes in Europe and America is exported from Turkey; but India affords a far more extensive field for its cultivation. It is estimated by good judges, that more than 100,000 acres of the richest plains of Central India, are occupied for this purpose, giving employment to many thousands of men, women, and children. Formerly these same grounds were used for the production of sugar, indigo, corn, and other grain; but these useful crops have yielded to the more profitable culture of the poppy. It appears that a mild climate, rich soil, plentiful irrigation, and diligent husbandry, are absolutely necessary for its successful cultivation. The seed is sown in November, and the juice is collected during February and March. The falling of the flowers from the plant is the signal for making incissions, which is done by the cultivators in the cool of the evening, with hooked knives, in a circular direction, around the capsules. From these incisions, a white, milky juice exudes, which is concreted into a dark brown mass by the heat of the next day’s sun, and this, scraped off every evening, as the plant continues to exude, constitutes opium in its crude state. It is then converted into balls or cakes, covered with dried poppy leaves, and packed in chests of mango-wood, made expressly for the purpose, each chest containing from 125 to 150 pounds.
Benares and Patna, two of the principal localities for the cultivation of this drug in Bengal, have been for many years subject to the East India Company, and consequently the manufacture of opium, as well as the traffic in the article, is a monopoly of government. The native inhabitants being generally poor, and very few of them owning land, large sums of money are advanced to them by the company, to meet in part the expenses of cultivating the poppy, and when the juice is collected, it must all be delivered to government agents at a fixed price. For superintending the business there is an extensive system of government agency, and such is the effect of this management, that by keeping the poor laborers and native land-holders constantly in debt, and making all their interests conspire one way, the cultivation of the poppy becomes almost a matter of absolute necessity on the part of the Hindoos. Thus the Company are able to obtain the opium at almost its own price.
It is found that the expenses in this way amount from $125 to $150 per chest. It is then transported down the river Ganges to Calcutta, and sold on set market days by auction to merchants at prices from $500 to $600 per chest, being about four times its first cost, or 400 per cent. The Indian government thus receives annually an immense revenue from this source. The official returns, as published in the Friend of India for November 8th, 1849, make the number of chests and amount of revenue for the last six years as follows :
The above table includes only the sales at Calcutta, and comprise, therefore, only a part of the trade. The poppy is cultivated somewhat extensively in Malwa, a province lying on the western part of India, and subject in its government to native princes, being entirely independent of all control of the East India Company. There the poppy is cultivated, and opium is manufactured as freely as rice and wheat are raised, and the question with the farmers is simply one of profit. But their principal market is the city of Bombay, from 400 to 500 miles distant, and in order to reach this place, all their opium must be transported through certain territories of the East India Company. For the mere privilege of passing through these lands, the company levy a tax, or “transit duty,” so called, of 400 rupees, or about $187 on each chest. Thus a large revenue is also annually collected at Bombay, where this duty is always paid. From an official report of the chief articles of trade exported from this city, we find that the capital invested in this traffic alone, is greater than in any other article. In 1846, the value of the opium exported from this city to China was more than three times the amount of exports to England, and more than the entire trade, exports and imports, between Bombay and all Europe. The price of the Malwa opium varies from $600 to $650 per chest, being of a more desirable quality than the Beuares or Patna, sold at Calcutta. The Bombay Gazette of November 20th, 1849, gives the following table on the trade, for the last six years, copied from the official reports of the East India Company, as presented to Parliament :
By adding the above tables, we have, then, the whole number of chests exported from India, and the entire revenue of government from this source for the last six years. In 1848-49, it amounted to 57,918 chests, and almost $15,000,000 net revenue, averaging annually for these six years over 40,000 chests, and about $12,000,000 revenue each year.
The price of opium, both at Bombay and Calcutta, is quite variable. The average rate for which the article has been sold for severe years past, as near as we can make the estimate from price-currents, will range between $550 and $600 per chest. Thus 57,918 chests, the quantity for 1848-49, at $600 per chest, amount to $34,750,800, which gives the sum that China paid to India for this single article.
After the opium leaves the hands of the Indian government, it is purchased by merchants, and shipped to China. The vessels used for transporting it are built expressly for this purpose, constructed in the form of schooners or brigantines, with low bulls, and being adapted to cut the waves with remarkable speed, are called “clippers,” or “runners.” It is stated on good authority, that there are about fifty of these clippers embarked in this traffic, constantly plying between India and China, besides many other vessels which are only partially freighted with the drug. It is stated by Mr. Martin that the clear profit to merchants will average about 15 per cent, and in consequence of realizing such sure gains in so short a time, and with so little trouble, they seem unwilling to engage in any other branch of commerce or business. It should be borne in mind that cargoes of opium, in point of value, and certainty of sale, are very unlike those of any other goods. The vessels that transport the drug from India to China, generally carry from 800 to 1,300 chests, making two or three voyages in a year, which, selling in China at $700 per chest, will produce in return from $500,000 to $1,000,000. In 1848 one ship carried 1800 chests from Bombay to Hong Kong, and sold it for $750 per chest, receiving for this single cargo $1,350,000. Suppose a vessel carries 1,000 chests, and sells for $700,000; this, at 15 per cent, would net the owner $105,000. Besides, there is no risk or delay in the sale, and the pay is always cash, or what amounts to the same thing, bills of exchange. Formerly, the payment for opium was made wholly in specie, but of late years bills of exchange are received in part-pay, bearing a cash value, and are used by English and other merchants to purchase teas, silks, &c., of the Chinese. Mr. William Sturgess stated in a lecture delivered not long since before the Boston Mercantile Library Association, that in 1818 $7,000,000 in specie was carried from the United States to China to pay our importations from that country, but now most all our purchases are paid by bills of exchange on England from the proceeds of the opium trade.
The retail part of the trade is mostly carried on by the Chinese themselves, who undoubtedly make large profits on the article, as it passes through several hands, and is sold in small quantities. The Vessels that transport the opium from India anchor on the coast of China, in the vicinity of large cities, and constitute a kind of floating depot of store-houses, from which the Chinese junks purchase the drug in cases or chests, to be retailed at various points on shore. In many of the cities of China may be found numerous shops devoted exclusively to the sale of the drug, with accommodations fitted up expressly for smoking. The poorer classes generally resort to these shops, but the wealthier orders smoke more privately, in their own dwellings. It is stated that in Amoy there are more than one thousand of these shops, and almost every man who can afford to buy the drug, is in the habit of smoking it. More than 2,700 chests are sold annually at Chusan, valued at almost two millions of dollars, and a considerable larger quantity is imported into the city of Foochow, part of which finds its way into the interior. One of the principal articles of commerce carried on at Hong Kong is opium. The drug is now landed without encountering much opposition all along the coast of China, and smoked publicly in the chief cities. The trade was never in a more vigorous state than at the present time. According to the most recent intelligence, it is estimated that the sale will reach 60,000 chests the present year, and the Indian government was taking measures to increase hereafter the growth of the poppy. Notwithstanding the supply has rapidly increased, the demand more than keeps pace with it; and such, in all probability, will continue to be the case for many years to come, unless Divine Providence should interpose to arrest its progress.
The plan of sending opium from Bengal to China was first suggested by a Mr. Watson, in the year 1767, to a council of Representatives of the East India Company, held at Calcutta. Mr. Wheeler, at that time an officer, and an influential member of the company, advocated the plan, and after being favorably entertained, it was adopted as a happy expedient towards raising a revenue for supporting government. Previously to this time, a small trade in opium, rarely exceeding 200 chests per year, had been carried on with the Chinese by some Portuguese merchants, who brought their opium from Turkey.
From 1767 to 1774, the East India Company made several adventures of opium to China, which, for various causes, were not very successful. In 1794, the English succeeded in stationing one of their ships, laden exclusively with opium at Whampoa, where she lay unmolested for more than a year, selling out her cargo. This city continued about 25 years to be the principal market for the sale of the drug, though the trade encountered considerable opposition on the part of the Chinese. Macao also furnished somewhat of a market, but in 1821, the opium merchants, on account of the difficulties attending the sale at these places, withdrew entirely from the harbor of Whampoa and Macao, and stationed their vessels under shelter of Lintin Island, in the bay at the entrance of Canton River. Henceforth this place became the seat of extensive trade. The Merope, Capt. Parkyns, in the same year, was the first ship that commenced the system of delivering opium at different cities along the coast of China, and from that time the trade increased with wonderful rapidity. Eligible places also on the east and north-east coast of China were selected, to station receiving vessels, to which the Chinese might easily have access, and become participators in the trade. From 1794 to 1820, the amount of opium exported to China varied from 3,000 to 7,000 chests each year. In 1824 it increased to 12,639 chests, and in 1834 to 21,785 chests, valued at $14,454,193. In 1837 it amounted to between 39,000 and 40,000 chests, valued at $25,000,000. In 1838-39 the trade was seriously interrupted by the more decided and efficient measures of the Chinese to break up and suppress entirely the smuggling in of opium. After a series of altercations between the parties representing each government, as well as some more violent exhibitions of hostility, the Chinese forced the merchants to surrender what opium they had on hand, and destroyed the whole, amounting to more than 20,000 chests. This step led to a war between the two nations, and the negotiations for settlement were not entirely brought to a close till August, 1842. During these years a much smaller quantity of opium was brought into the market, and the demand being so much greater than the supply, it sold for almost double its former prices, bringing from $1,000 to even $1,600 per chest. Mr. Tiffany, in his work on China, states that the members of one English house made in this way, at the close of the war, from four to eight hundred thousand pounds sterling a piece.
But no sooner was peace declared between the two nations, than again commenced brisk operations in this traffic. By referring to the preceding tables, it will be seen that since the war there has been a constant increase in the trade.
The principal use made of opium by the Chinese is in the form of smoking, and one great object in the trade is to furnish an article adapted to their peculiar tastes. This depends somewhat upon the cultivation of the poppy-— the quality of its seed-—the goodness of the soil—the manner of collecting and converting the juice into a dry extract, or balls, convenient for transportation. The Chinese value any sample of opium in direct proportion to the quantity of hot-drawn, watery extract obtainable from it, and to the purity and strength of that extract when dried, and smoked through a pipe. Sometimes the native cultivators, in order to increase the weight of the article, and consequently their profits in its sale, have resorted to adulterating the juice of the poppy, by mixing with it sugar, catechu, molasses, cow-dung, soft clayey mud, pounded poppy seed, as well as the juice of various plants; but these adulterations are generally detected by the government agents; and the Chinese themselves, having often been imposed upon in this way formerly, are careful to test its purity before purchasing.
After the arrival of the drug in China, it is subjected to a process of heating, evaporation, filtering, &c., in order to increase its strength and improve its flavor. The class and number of persons addicted to this practice may be inferred from the following facts. One of the chief officers belonging to the Chinese Court, in a memorial to the Emperor, says :—“ At first the use of opium was confined to the pampered sons of fortune, with whom it was an idle luxury, but still used with moderation, and under the power of restraint. Since then its use has extended upward to the officers and belted gentry, and downwards to the laborer and tradesman, to the traveler, and even to women, monks, nuns, and priests. In every place its inhalers are to be found; and the implements required for smoking it are now sold publicly in the face of day.” It includes, therefore, among its votaries officers of high rank and dignity, wealthy men, merchants and bankers, as well as the common mechanics and laborers. But it has been the general opinion of writers on this subject, that opium smoking was most prevalent among the higher classes of the Chinese, inasmuch as the habit is a very expensive one, and this class of persons are most exposed to the temptation. As to the number of persons addicted to the vice, it must exceed four millions. From a careful and somewhat extended enquiry made by persons having the best means of knowing as to the exact amount of opium daily used by those in the habit of smoking, it was ascertained that, on an average, each person consumed upwards of 17 grains per day. According to this data, 10,000 chests would supply one million of persons; and for the last six years, there have been over 40,000 chests of opium annually consumed in China in this way.
The quantity of opium daily used depends very much on the habits of the smoker, At first he cannot inhale more than from three to six grains at a time, but will go on gradually increasing the dose, till in a few years some consume even 300 grains daily. The expenses attending this habit are very great—so great that in most instances it regulates the quantity used, each one consuming as much as he can possibly command means to obtain. Mr. Smith, of the Church Missionary Societies, while visiting the opium-smoking shops at Amoy, questioned ten persons, indiscriminately, as he met them, most of whom were laborers, as to the formation, effects, expense of the habit, &c. Five of these individuals consumed at mace, or sixty grains daily, and it cost them, on an average, two-thirds of their daily earnings to purchase the article! This fact shows how amazingly expensive is the habit, and what a fearfully impoverishing effect it must have upon all those who, for any length of time, give themselves up to the vice. Besides, it is calculated by Mr. Martin, and other writers well acquainted with the evil, and competent to form a correct judgment in the matter as any other individuals that can be found, that the victims of this vice do not live, on an average, more than ten years after they have once given way to the habit. It brings on a train of diseases which make rapid work of destruction on all the vital organs of the body. By means of this vice, then, according to the above data, and estimating the number of opium smokers at 4,000,000, more than 400,000 human beings in China find annually a premature grave! What other vice in the whole history of the world ever produced such appalling ravages on human life?
Reserving for another article some further observations upon the effects of opium-smoking, the connection of the British government with the traffic, and its influences, financially and politically, on the Chinese nation, we close by quoting the following extract from the “Friend of India,” for July 26th, 1849, a paper printed at Serampore, and of the highest authority in matters of this kind : “The clear profit of the British government of India from the consumption of opium by the Chinese, at the end of the official year 1848-49, including, of course, the tax on Malwa opium at Bombay, will be found to have fallen little short of three crores and twenty lakhs of rupees, or three millions two hundred thousand pounds sterling ($15,-188,000.) It is the most singular and anomalous traffic in the world. To all appearances, we should find it difficult to maintain our hold of India without it; our administration would be swamped by its financial embarrassments. Its effects on Chinese finances must be as disastrous as it is beneficial to our own. The trade is not legalized in China, and the drug is paid for in hard cash. The annual drain of the precious metals from China, through this article, is, therefore, between, five and six millions sterling. No wonder that the Cabinet at Peking are struck dumb by this ‘oozing out’ of silver, and that we hear from time to time of the most resolute determination to extinguish the trade. But with more than a thousand miles of sea-coast to guard, and so small a protective navy, and nine-tenths of the officers in it venal to a proverb, that Cabinet is helpless.”
Below are more images and information from The Truth about Opium Smoking: with Illustrations of the Manufacture of Opium, etc.
Thanks for reading and please check back later this week for Part II of the Opium Wars article, as well as another exciting installment from The London Adviser and Guide.
Note: After posting this article, my wonderful friend sent me an incredible opium trade and war timeline from PBS Frontline.
3 Replies to “An American View on the Opium Wars from 1850, Part I”
Lovely and informative post. The Opium Trade ruled the world so much at one point! Btw, why do you call it the American perspective? I thought at first that it was about some kind of American involvement in the Opium trade 😀
@bluffkinghal — I probably should have titled the blog post something else. The magazine is American which, to me, gives the article a different flavor. But there were Americans involved in the opium trade at that time. Not as many as the British, of course. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I hope you read part II.
No worries. It was a great article by any name.