July 5th, 2010


Tea, Opium, and Tobacco

Some recent discussions of drug decriminalisation set me thinking about drugs. I came across the following in Opium culture: the art and ritual of the Chinese tradition by Peter Lee:

Historians often accuse England of "forcing" opium on China for sheer profit and spite, but in reality the driving force behind the British opium trade with China was England's own addiction to Chinese tea. As early as 1780, the English had developed such an enormous appetite for Chines tea that the Company was buying about fifteen million pounds of it from China each year and shipping it at great expense to England. At the time, China enjoyed a worldwide monopoly on the production and supply of tea, which was jealously guarded as a state secret. Furthermore, China had no use for any of the manufactured products that England offered in exchange, so the Chinese demanded payment for all tea purchases in silver coin.

As a result of the soaring demand for tea in England, the British treasury was rapidly drained of silver, a situation that threatened England with bankruptcy and economic collapse. Thus a solution had to be found whereby British traders could obtain Chinese tea without having to pay for it with silver bullion. The solution the British came up with was to trade Indian opium, produced at negligible expense in colonial India, for precious Chinese tea.

Within a few decades, the British East India Company had established a Triangular Trade based on Indian opium in Asia that paralleled the Triangular Trade based on African slaves in America... [SNIP] ...In Asia, the Company brought opium from the British colony in Bengal to China, sold it to Chinese black marketeers for silver, then used the same Chinese silver to purchase tea from Chinese sources in Canton. In effect, the British got their tea for free, and due to the enormous Chinese demand for opium, they managed to turn a huge profit to boot.

Now it was the Chinese treasury that was drained of silver by the tea trade with England,..

So one trade in a drug was driving another trade in a different drug. But then tea's not really a drug, is it? True, the first thing that I want in the morning isn't a cigarette; it's a cup of tea. It helps me wake up. Sure, it's true that I drink about 10 mugs of the stuff every day. It helps keep me awake. It's not an addiction. It's a habit. I wouldn't be too bothered if tea was banned. Or would I? I snipped out a bit from the passage above. Here's the bit I snipped out:

The British Crown tried several times to ban, or at least curtail, imports of tea from China, resulting in violent riots on the streets of London. So addicted had the English people become to their daily "cuppa" that they refused to work without it, a situation very similar to opium addiction in China.

Hmmm... Well, okay, but then tea's not exactly a 'drug' like opium, is it? You don't get tea drinking dens like opium dens with people lying around comatose. Here's John Blofeld describing one of Peking's opium houses:

"We saw very few people asleep or sleepy looking; and only two or three elderly and undernourished men resembled my previous conception of "dope fiends". In fact I was disappointed to discover that, if the sour smell of beer could have been substituted for the sweet and all-pervading odor of opium, the atmosphere would have been very much indeed like that of a London pub on a Saturday night. This was nothing like the sort of hell I had pictured."

It seems that the familiar Western idea of what opium dens were like really only applied to the bottom end of the market, in which the lowest grade opium was combined with the toxic dross scraped from pipes smoked in the top opium houses.

What destroys an opium smoker's health is a poorly managed habit, wretched excess, and the sort of poverty that funnels every cent into opium at the expense of nourishment. The same principle applies to the use of alcohol and distinguishes the connoisseur of fine wines from the skid-row wino.

When silver started draining out of China, the Chinese reaction was to try to close down the opium trade. They forced British traders to surrender 20,000 chests of opium in Canton, and set fire to the British trading fleet anchored offshore. The British responded by calling in the British navy. And so began the Opium Wars in 1838. China ended up losing these wars, and instead it started growing its own opium in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. And Britain started growing tea in India.

What's notable, perhaps, is that it wasn't the ill-effects of opium that caused the Chinese authorities to try to halt the opium trade. There were few ill-effects. It was the need to reduce their treasury deficit that forced their hand. And the same was true of the British and their tea drinkers. It wasn't the ill-effects of drinking tea which had made the British government try to ban or curtail the tea trade. It was instead the dwindling treasury silver. Perhaps the same applies now as it did then, except now with tobacco, which in Britain at least is an imported good. What's driving the smoking ban may not be the ill effects of smoking on the British population (which are almost entirely fabricated), but the ill effects on the balance of payments.

But why were the Chinese so addicted to opium? Why weren't the British equally addicted to it? After all, according to a letter the Albion in 1843:

in many of the village shops the sale of opium is one of the largest branches of trade carried on, while if you travel for miles and miles in any direction, you see every garden with its poppy patch for the manufacture of opium. Now this we regard as a case crying out most loudly for the consideration and interference of the Legislature. (Sydney Morning Herald May 31, 1843 (quoted from the Albion))

A possible explanation emerges:

Opium prohibition in China began in 1729 yet was followed by nearly two centuries of increasing opium use.

Smoking of opium came on the heels of tobacco smoking and may have been encouraged by a brief ban on the smoking of tobacco by the Ming emperor, ending in 1644 with the Qing dynasty, which had encouraged smokers to mix in increasing amounts of opium. In 1705, Wang Shizhen wrote that "nowadays, from nobility and gentlemen down to slaves and women, all are addicted to tobacco. (my emphasis)"

Once tobacco was banned, opium took its place. And once opium was banned, heroin took its place. As Peter Lee recounts of US pressure to close down opium dens in Asia in the 1960s:

Apparently, the US government did not want American citizens traveling in Asia to find their way into one of these dens and discover the opium experience, nor did they want American GIs on leave during the Vietnam War to develop a taste for it. In retrospect, it may have been better to allow those with the inclination for this sort of thing to smoke opium, for instead they turned for solace to heroin - a far more addictive and dangerous drug derived from opium. Heroin became the only available opiate on the market when opium itself was banned, just as opium had become the only viable option for tobacco smokers three hundred years earlier when tobacco was prohibited in China. (my emphasis)

So Britain was perhaps only saved from opium because the British government didn't ban smoking tobacco. Had they done so, all those little garden opium patches would have expanded. Ban tobacco, and you get opium. Ban opium, and you get heroin. It's just like when you ban beer, you get whisky. You get harder and harder stuff. That's what happened in America during Prohibition. People have to work. Peter Lee again:

As noted in Opium and the People (Berridge and Edwards), "Opium smoking was an aid to hard work, not a distraction from it, and smokers managed to combine their habit with a normal working existence."

What's true of opium is also true of tobacco.

And now that we have what amounts to tobacco prohibition, I'm quite looking forward to opium. It's a delightful drug. It's far more powerful than tobacco. I've tried it myself a couple of times, and took an instant liking to it. At the time, I just couldn't be arsed to follow up and find an actual opium dealer.

Anyone got a phone number? I think I may need one.