What if Columbian drug runners (and a few allies) dramatically promoted opiate addiction in the United States? And when we complained and finally clamped down by sending in a small military force to destroy the opium supplies and our port facilities they were using, the Columbian navy (and a few allies) returned with a fleet of superior firepower and forced us to accept their trade and even hand over territory. This did not happen to the modern United States but it did happen to mid-1800s China. The fleet enforcing the drug trade was British. And some very famous Americans were the allies. Yes, Western powers one time were drug runners — a fact rarely noted in our history books.
In “The Opium War,” author Brian Inglis details the origin of this illicit trade, and how the British East India Company was able to spin the story back in England’s Parliament through successive parties in power. And this episode of history provides some serious lessons for America in these dark times of trade dysfunction and drug legalization.
It has been suggested it could also be called the “Tea War” insofar as there was a severe imbalance in trade. For the British, “tea had come to be ‘nearly equivalent to a necessary [sic] for life’.” Opium provided a way of completely reversing the balance of trade. China had severely limited foreign trade to the ports of Macao and Canton. By bribing local Chinese officials, Western shippers were able to smuggle huge quantities into southern China, making addicts of nearly 12 million Chinese. Opium poppy was not native to China. Without addiction and before this trade, China had the largest economy in the world. Economists estimate that opium addiction cut the Chinese economy roughly in half.
The British East India Company had secured trading rights from the Mogul Emperor to trade in opium in the early 1600s. With Britain’s expansive colonies, opium moved from occasional casual use to “making hungry where most it satisfied” — that is, it rapidly became cripplingly addictive. With the fall of the Moguls, the British found the Bengal region of India excellent for growing opium considered superior to that grown in Turkey. And over the next centuries, opium became their most lucrative product to trade, first with other British colonies in Asia and then with China.
American clipper ships also got into the act, bringing opium from Turkey into China. Britain did not complain because the demand was growing so much that this extra opium did not bring the price down. Those American drug runners included the Delano family that included the great-grandfather of F.D.R.
When mandarins reported the massive growth of opium dens and the toll on society, China’s Emperor acted and sent a Commissioner Lin to Canton with forces to end the smuggling. Lin dumped opium, burned warehouses, and made provisions for addicts to recover. Opium was being delivered to China in chests containing 170 pounds of opium each; over 1500 of the chests dumped by Lin were from American smugglers.
The economy of Britain and India would have been severely damaged if they lost this lucrative trade. Inglis details the many contrived excuses that were floated back in Parliament to make an unjust cause seem just. It is striking how many of those excuses are the same as the arguments being made for legalizing marijuana in the United States today.
A massive British fleet with superior armaments easily overwhelmed the Chinese defenses and re-instated the opium trade as well as secured financial reparations for what Commissioner Lin had destroyed. The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 also established more treaty ports to expand trade.
China also had to cede the island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity. Additional land north of Hong Kong Island was eventually leased for 99 years. When that lease was up, Hong Kong had overgrown into Kowloon and the New Territories to the extent that it was untenable to erect a wall on “Boundary Street.” Thus the last British Colony, the spoils of the Opium War, was rightfully returned to China.
Certainly the lessons that “might does not make right,” and that drug addiction is a tremendous social harm have now been learned. Or have they?
John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State. University.