The opium wars are arguably the darkest years of Britain’s history and coincidentally a huge segment of our legacy that is exempt from the British curriculum. Click below to play the fantastic, historically accurate “High Tea” flash game brought to you by the Wellcome Collection in which your task is to keep britain’s cravings for tea satisfied and keep your bank balance high by illegally pushing Indian opium on China! But before you do that, read on to refresh yourself on the back story!
A Whistle-stop Tour of The Opium Wars
In the early 17th century England was rapidly growing a taste for tea which we imported from the friendly people of China. England however had absolutely nothing to give the Chinese in return. (Partly because the Quing dynasty made it illegal to pay for export goods in anything but silver.) To solve this problem we rapidly turned the cotton fields we occupied in India in to poppy fields which could be reaped for Opium for illegal sale to the Chinese.
It wasn’t until 1890 that Bayer synthesised Heroin from Opium. The fact that we weren’t selling the Chinese heroin was not a moral imperative.
The Chinese dynasty was staunchly opposed to opium consumption and had made it illegal to posess since 1729 but this did not stop the chinese buying it or the British evading the Chinese navy to sell it. Things kicked off in 1839 when the Chinese Dynasty legislated that the import of opium would be punishable by death by which point two million Chinese were habitual users of Indian opium.
When the Chinese began seizing opium consignments Queen Victoria sent in the Royal Navy to settle the matter by bombing Chinese ports and vessels.
The first opium war only ended when in 1842 China signed the Treaty of Nanking which forced the Chinese government to pay Britain six million silver dollars for lost opium. The legal status of opium was unsettled however and there was a decade of black market trade.
The second opium war in 1856 lasted for two years and ended with the humiliating Treaty of Tientsin which legalised opium in China (and incidentally led to the fall of the last Chinese dynasty and the rise of the Communist party).
By 1879 6700 tonnes of opium was being sold to China a year but China had taken a new tact. China began to farm opium on a massive scale and by 1906 was producing 35,000 tonnes of opium per year, that was 76% of global opium production! In perhaps the greatest irony of all england was soon battling it’s own opium problems and propagandising against it with the “yellow peril” message that billed opium as a dirty Chinese vice!
After learning the ins and outs of the opium wars it makes you consider the “war on drugs” in a new light. Maybe that’s why the opium wars are one war we don’t teach our children.
What about today?
Opium trade today
There are endless parallels to be drawn between the opium wars and drug trade today. One undeniable case regards the US tobacco syndicates which successfully lobied the US government to force sovereign Eastern nations to abandon their trade embargos on US tobacco. In a stunning replication of a century and a half earlier in the mid 1980’s the US threatened a ban on textile imports from countries that would not accept tobacco. The effect was colossal with Japan falling in 1986, Taiwan in 1987 and South Korea in 1988. In two years US tobacco in Japan rocketed from the 40th to the 2nd most aired type of commercial. Even at the height of the opium wars, only 27% of China was addicted to opium. In contrast, the average Taiwanese smoked 80 more cigarettes in 1987 than in 1986. This in only one year at a time when it had previously been experiencing a downward trend!
Here in the UK, gangsters who run the major cannabis farms near exclusively employ individuals trafficked from East Asia, imported under lorries on the pretence of freedom in England. These people are employed as slaves, locked in houses without a key. A recent BBC documentary follows the police as they raid such a house and find a man imprisoned inside. He is promptly charged and sentenced to three years in UK prison before deportation back to Taiwan. The scale of this problem can not be assessed because as Ben Goldacre recently pointed out, UK criminal justice statistics are not available for academic analysis. One thing is clear, the illegality of drugs raises the fiscal incentive to push them exponentially. This is the reason drugs won the opium war and this is the reason the drugs are destined to win the war on drugs.
If you hadn’t already noticed, this piece is a final plug for the High Society exhibit at the wellcome collection in London that tells the history of drugs and is open for only two more weeks!
Chen, T., & Winder, A. (1990). The opium wars revisited as US forces tobacco exports in Asia. American Journal of Public Health, 80 (6), 659-662 DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.80.6.659
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