We arrest drug dealers; we criminalize people, mainly black and brown people, for possessing small amounts of drugs like weed. We do this because drugs are bad. Unless, of course, it’s your government that’s dealing the drugs. Like that time […]
We arrest drug dealers; we criminalize people, mainly black and brown people, for possessing small amounts of drugs like weed. We do this because drugs are bad.
Unless, of course, it’s your government that’s dealing the drugs.
Like that time the British Empire got China hooked on opium. Empires of Dirt, a show about Europeans getting rich at the expense of everyone else.
How Britain Hooked A Nation On Drugs
Opium had been grown in China since the 11th century, but it was only until the 17th century that usage really took off, when people realized you could smoke it instead of just chewing it. By the 1800s, there were foggy back alley opium dens in the streets of Canton, now known as Guangzhou, Shanghai, and even in London’s Lime house on Penny fields Street.
In the early 19th century, Chinese exports like silk, ceramics, and tea were hugely popular in Britain.
Opium was one of the few things the British Empire could trade back. It’s estimated that as many as 15 million people were addicted to opium by 1890, making it one of the worst cases of national drug addiction ever seen. They would ship opium grown in colonial India to Canton, where Chinese traders would take it into China.
As opium grew in popularity, British trade increased. In 1800, 300 metric tons of opium was shipped into China. Four decades later, this had increased to 3,500 metric tons of opium. Opium was a highly addictive drug with similar effects to modern-day heroin. Long-term users could experience liver, kidney, and heart problems, and could die of withdrawal.
Opium use had been banned by the Chinese Emperor Yongzheng in 1729, after he saw the effects of addiction on his citizens, and again in 1796 by the Emperor Jiaqing, after everyone ignored the first ban.
But Britain continued smuggling opium into China. It was simply too profitable not to.
The opium monopoly out of India was worth £981,000 in 1831, that’s the equivalent of about £100 million today. By the 1830s, people from every level of Chinese society were hooked on opium.
After Emperor Daoguang received reports of mass addiction all over the country, he’d had enough.
Soldiers burned all the opium they found. British traders lost 20,000 chests of opium, equivalent to about £2 million.
This led to the First Opium War, in 1839. The British were so angry that their drugs had been stolen that they sent troops to the region to demand economic reparations for the financial losses they’d incurred while illegally trafficking narcotics into a foreign country.
They were also angry that China refused to open up more ports to British trade and had disrespected their traders.
Back in the UK, the press depicted the Chinese as barbarians who had insulted the honor of Brits abroad. In an act of war, Britain occupied Hong Kong, then a sparsely inhabited island off the southeast coast of China. In 1841, China ceded the island to Britain.
A year later, the Treaty of Nanking was signed, marking an end to the First Opium War.
So, Britain got what it wanted: money for illegally trafficking drugs into China, and a shiny new island base to smuggle opium from Hong Kong. Opium remained illegal after the war, but the Chinese authorities were basically forced to accept the drug trade into China.
Opium consumption ripped through Chinese society like never before. Chinese smugglers quickly realized that if they registered their ships in Hong Kong as British ships, they could keep smuggling opium into China. This triggered the Second Opium War in 1856, when a Chinese ship flying the Union Jack was seized by the authorities.
The Chinese crew was arrested and the British flag was torn down. The British navy, supported by the French troops, retaliated by seizing Beijing and looting and burning down the Imperial Summer Palace. China was forced to legalize the import of opium.
With the opium trade finally legal, imports from British-controlled India nearly tripled to hit 6,500 metric tons in 1880.
Fed up with the British running drugs into their country, the Chinese authorities decided that if you couldn’t beat them, you might as join them.
By around 1915, moral and political opposition to the drug trade had grown. Britain stopped importing opium to China.
It simply wasn’t profitable anymore. It’s hard to quantify the scale of the misery that Britain caused in China, or the mess they left behind.
The British Empire was one of the biggest drug pushers in history. But hardly anyone in the UK knows what we did in China.
Pablo Escobar? He’s got nothing on the British Empire.