Opium Wars

Instead of its other success stories, the opium wars with China were what people chose to remember in relation to Britain’s imperial policy in the Orient. It is written that the First Opium War (1840) as the result of Britain’s militaristic attempts to import the drug into a nation governed by an emperor who wanted to stamp out the opium addition. It sounds like a concise and authoritative summary for history texts but the truth is more complex.

In addition to the facts that India had grown opium and ten million addicts in China had been using it long before the British arrived, the Chinese Emperor’s attempt to curb the trade is less humanitarian than xenophobic. He was simply trying to monopolize the trade and levy taxes to fill his government’s coffers. The Emperor’s envoys demanded not the destruction but only handing over of the opium chests. Originally the foreign merchants in Canton (which was xenophobic China’s only foreign trading post) complied, but when the Chinese forces took all foreigners in Canton hostage.

Equally controversial was the Second Opium War and its aftermath (1864). The British forces under Lord Elgin burnt down the Summer Palace outside Peking, an act which is today condemned as barbaric. However, it was more symbolic than malicious. The Middle Kingdom in those days was not unlike today’s North Korea, which believes in its superiority over the Western powers. Only the destruction of such a symbol would have prevented another war. And it actually did.

Not many people know about the looting and burning of the Peking Summer Palace, but opium, on the other hand, has left a blemish on the history of imperial conquest. In all fairness, opium was the placebo of Europe at this time. Five in six Englishmen consume it; the doctors prescribed it for hysteria, aches, travel-sickness, toothache, neuralgia, influenza, cholera, hay-fever, ulcers and insomnia. The Prince Regent’s doctors prescribed it as a hangover cure; Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan on it; Berloiz ate it to write ‘symphonie fantastique’.

Like debates on medicinal marijuana today, the debates on opium growing raged between the British East India Company and the two Houses of Parliament. However, as it will be with the certain South American nations a century later, opium was the sole crop the farmers can build their livelihoods on in South Asia. Also, the profits from its trading enabled the Governor General of India to fund much needed reforms, public works, education and other services in the subcontinent.

Opium growing is redefined as a malignant relic of the colonial times by the governments which like to blame the failures of their half-baked economic policies on the wrongs of distant past. During and after the Cold War, governments and rebel groups in the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent regions of Asia (where opium is still copiously grown) profited largely from the trade, making the region unstable and precarious. In a world where good and evil are rigidly defined, these ‘recreational drugs’ fall squarely into the latter category. However, the starving farmers in Indian Behar region or Columbian jungles who have to support a family of twelve couldn’t care less.

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