“Do we shape the world, or are we just shaped by it?,” novelist Salman Rushdie wondered in a 2008 interview.
From Herodotus to Hobsbawm, the question of human agency – and how it shapes our history – has always concerned historians and philosophers. Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, Smoke and Ashes (2023), too looks at the idea of ‘agency’ in history.
But rather than focusing on humans, Ghosh looks at opium as an historical agent, a seemingly innocuous plant that has shaped – and is shaping – the world we live in, forever altering the course of human history.
“It’s a very depressing story about human fragility and frailty. We like to say we are masters of our own fate, but with this story, you see that this humble, simple-looking flower has outsmarted us at every turn,” Ghosh said on July 15, during the launch of his book.
Here, we look at one of the most interesting episodes that Ghosh’s book describes: The Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). These wars, waged by European colonial powers on China, were brutal for the Chinese with far reaching impacts. On the other hand, like many colonial wars, they further ossified European dominance over the Chinese and enriched the imperial powers.
The Opium Wars are a perfect illustration of how even an inanimate object – the opium poppy in this case – can be a powerful historical agent, under the right social and political circumstances.
Tea and a trade deficit
The story of the Opium Wars begins in the mid 17th century, with another popularly consumed plant product: tea. First originating in China at least 2,000 years ago, tea was brought to European shores in the mid 17th century, first by Dutch traders. In under 50 years, it became popular among the British elite and by the end of the 18th century, it transcended class barriers to become the quintessential British beverage.
In doing so, tea became inextricably linked to British colonial expansion. “Throughout the eighteenth century … Chinese tea remained the British East India Company’s prime source of revenue, much of which was used to finance British colonial expansion,” Amitav Ghosh writes in Smoke and Ashes.
Why is this important? Simply put, as Britain guzzled down tea, the strain that it put on the British economy began to be a cause of worry. At the time, China was the only source of tea. However, the British East India Company did not have anything to sell to China in return. This trade deficit meant that the import of tea led to an ever growing drain of silver bullion to China, something that Britain could ill afford.
Opium “to the rescue”
An apparent solution cropped up in 1763, when in the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey (1757), the British acquired the monopoly of growing and trading opium, previously held by the Nawab of Bengal. Company traders, who would often make a quick dime undertaking a range of ‘side-hustles’, had already discovered the appetite for opium in China. Now they plotted to regularise this trade.
“The appeal was obvious,” Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger wrote in their book Empire of Tea (2015). The vast trade imbalance that saw British bullion reserves draining to China could be redressed by simply selling the Chinese opium from Britain’s rapidly growing colony instead.
Opium cultivation in India
The earliest evidence of humans consuming opium can be dated back to around 6,000 years ago, from a burial site in Switzerland. The medicinal as well as psychoactive properties of Papaver somniferum, or the opium poppy, have been known since antiquity. Yet, in 18th century India, when British colonisation began, cultivation was not prolific.
Rather, it was the British who bumped up production, primarily for the purpose of export to China. In 1799, the Company set an Opium Department, dedicated solely to the cultivation and trade of the drug. Under this department, opium production rose steeply, spreading across the fertile Gangetic plain.
According to Thomas Manuel’s book Opium Inc.: How a Global Drug Trade Funded the British Empire (2021), in under a century after the British acquired a monopoly over opium, the land under opium cultivation went up by almost 800 per cent. Moreover, between 1780 and 1880, India’s total opium exports to China increased hundred-fold.
China becomes addicted
On the flipside, China suffered from the effects of the highly addictive and debilitating drug. Scholars argue that the drug “percolated downwards”: “China’s upper classes and literati … imparted a sense of sophistication to the practice, which, in turn, made it socially acceptable and led to its widespread adaptation throughout the country,” Amitav Ghosh writes.
And with the addiction came a multitude of socio-economic crises which ate at the very fabric of Chinese society. At the forefront of these was the ruling Qing dynasty’s inability to curb the trade of opium, which, according to Ghosh, “steadily eroded the machinery of the state, and the legitimacy of the country’s system of governance.”
The Opium Wars were at the culmination of all of this.
A truant son, a vicious crackdown and a humiliating war
Theoretically, opium was still illegal in China. Yet trade was thriving, with a nexus of British traders and Chinese collaborators openly smuggling the drug through the Chinese port of Canton (present day Guangzhou). In 1839, after discovering his own son smoking opium, the Qing Emperor ordered a vicious crackdown.
He issued an edict on March 18, announcing serious penalties for smuggling the drug, arrested a number of Chinese smugglers and ordered the seizure of all stocks held in factories at Canton. All in all, the British were forced to hand around 21,000 chests (roughly 1300-1400 metric tons) of opium.
The Chinese established a blockade of the Pearl River estuary in Hong Kong to curb European shipping, in response to which, in 1840, British expeditionary forces arrived on Chinese shores to ostensibly protect “free trade”. After a few months of tense negotiations, the British finally unleashed the full fury of its armed forces on the Chinese. The British held Canton by 1841.
Despite some dogged counterattacks, the British humiliated the Chinese in a series of defeats. Fighting finally ended in August 1842, after the capture of Nanking (present day Nanjing). The subsequently signed Treaty of Nanking forced the Chinese to “compensate” British opium traders, opened four more ports for European trade, and fully cede the island of Hong Kong to the British as a colony, making it the new hub of opium trafficking. Soon, other Western powers were given similar privileges, firmly cementing China’s subservient position.
Over the next decade, there was a steady growth of European presence in Chinese ports, with an ever expanding flow of opium to the mainland. At the same time, by the early 1850s, China was engulfed in a violent civil conflict.
It is in this context that in 1856, an over zealous Chinese official named Ye Mingchen seized a British ship docked in Canton, allegedly lowered the Union Jack and imprisoned its crew. The British responded by sending a war ship from Hong Kong and bombarding the city. Trading ceased, skirmishes broke out and the Chinese burnt down foreign factories in the town, setting the scene for the Second Opium War. France soon joined the British, citing the murder of a French missionary earlier that year.
After initial delays in assembling troops (caused by the Rebellion of 1857 in India), European forces soon captured Canton and in 1858 signed the Treaty of Tientsin (present day Tianjin) – forcing China to pay further indemnities, provide even more concessions for trade, allowing the travel of Christian missionaries in China’s interior, and opening up the capital of Peking (now Beijing) to foreign diplomats.
After a brief hiatus, hostilities erupted again in 1859. The war finally ended after the British reached and sacked Peking, compelling the emperor to sign yet another unequal treaty, this time fully legalising the trade of opium in China.
Opium as a historical agent
The story of the Opium Wars is the story of colonialism, with opium at its very centre. Opium sustained colonialism in Asia – bringing in unbridled profits for colonialists at the cost of backbreaking labour of the Indians and the sobriety of the Chinese.
As opioid crises continue to grip communities world over, Amitav Ghosh argues that it makes sense to see “opium is a historical force in its own right.”
“It is precisely because of its extraordinary properties that opium also possesses the ability to generate a continually ascending series of more addictive forms … [in] one of the many tricks that the genie has often used to break out of its bottle.,” Ghosh writes. “Once it escapes, it has a way of quickly transcending class and spreading from elites to those at the other end of the social ladder.”
And as opium spreads, it invariably makes history, however tragic it may be.