A Contemporary Account of the China Opium Curse

Imagine two empires, the first is in the prime of its place in the history of the world. It controls or governs roughly one-quarter of the world. As a result of this control it made itself wealthy and resource rich by plundering, enslaving and committing genocide to one-quarter of the world. And all of that wealth was repatriated back to its headquarters, a series of cold, rainy, windy and resource barren islands just south of the arctic circle. The second country was once a great empire but due to corruption, mismanagement and general incompetence, it is now on its last legs. As a result of malfeasance, hunger, famine, disease and broken down infrastructure plagues this country. There are rumblings of discontent from the peasants in the countryside and the central government is preoccupied with putting down these rebellions and maintaining control as opposed to finding ways to cure the aforementioned problems. These two empires are the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty of “Middle Kingdom” also known as China.

These two empires trade with each other, except the trade is imbalanced. The British Empire desires everything China offers, teas, silks, porcelains, spices and the like. China isn’t really interested in what Westerners have to offer and have imposed strict import tariffs on Western goods. As a result a large trade deficit favoring China ensued, keeping the British Empire running is expensive, and it’s the goal of the British for all of its dominions and colonies to be self-sustaining and at the rate it’s going with China, there is a large trade deficit. So, the British had to think of a product to flood the Chinese markets to address this deficit. They thought of the perfect product. A drug, only the most addictive of all known drugs in the world: Opium. Not tobacco, not cocaine, not marijuana or hallucinogenic mushrooms, Opium. Opium is the modern day drug heroin in its raw plant form. The opium poppies were planted and cultivated in India, near the fertile valleys of the Ganges River, are an exceptional crop we are told. So exceptional that the Indians nor the English want to use it to excess, they use opium for medicinal uses only but the excess, they decided to ship it off to China to the yellow men. They decided to flood this exceptional product to a country that is in turmoil, a country that is routinely facing hunger, famine and disease, a country where a majority of the people are illiterate and have never been outside of the province in which they were born. These people are being told that opium is good for them, it cures pain – all kinds of pain, makes you feel happy and balanced and a hit of that stuff will make your problems go away. And to cap it all off, this product is legal. You can walk into any shop and buy it. You can go into any den and get the equipment to smoke it for a small fee. You don’t have to stand in dingy alleys with people of questionable character and risk getting killed to procure this stuff. No, it’s all perfectly legal, encouraged even and can be bought in broad daylight with no sense of shame or guilt attached to it.

When the Chinese realized that opium is extremely addictive and soul destroying, the Qing imperial court made the product illegal and told the British to tip this dreck into the ocean and to never bring it to the shores of China again. The British instead of complying and apologizing, said “no”, not only do you have to take this stuff,  if you destroy it, you have to pay for it too:

The Chinese government, in turn, which had already outlawed the drug, and which had grown increasingly frustrated over the British government’s failure to crack down on smuggling, eventually sent an official named Lin Zexu to Canton – a city in the south of China where most European merchants were confined – to deal with the problem. Lin Zexu is still a hero in China and Charles Elliot, his British antagonist, still a villain. After Zexu had persuaded Elliot to surrender over 1000 tons of opium into his custody, and had it publicly destroyed on the beaches at Humen near the present day city of Dongguan, he realized that the wily British colonial administrator had pulled a fast one. While Elliot had appeared to agree to most of Zexu’s demands, he had actually transferred ownership of the opium to the British crown before confiscating it from British traders. This obligated the government of Lord Palmerston and Lord Melbourne to reimburse the merchants for the cost of the drug, an obligation that almost guaranteed war.

In the end, two Opium Wars (1839 and  1856) were fought and lost by the Chinese. The Qing were in decline and corruption and incompetence were rampant. This was a war they didn’t anticipate and they were simply outgunned in every way by the superior British forces. For the British, the spoils of war were control of Hong Kong port, one of the most important trading ports in the world, plus four other entry ports, and they tore up the Canton Agreement which restricted the flow of foreign goods into China. This means post second Opium War, the drug kingpin, also known as the British empire, their lackeys —  firms such as Jardine, Matheson & Co., and other small time drug peddlers in China were free to flood the Chinese market with high grade opium without impunity. If a significant amount of people were addicted to opium prior to 1839 (The First Opium War), after 1856, it is estimated that 150 million of China’s 400 million people became addicted to opium. There was no official record and statistic keeping in China during that time but anecdotally, it is safe to say one-third of all Chinese people, across all strata of society became addicted to opium. Needless to say, the poverty stricken peasants suffered the most and lost the most. Prior to their opium addictions, while they were very poor and at times starving, they at least had their dignity and pride in themselves, their families and the land they worked on, now they have nothing. Reduced to begging for pennies in a hole at the side of the road to buy more opium to feed their addictions. The rich and people with higher status in society at least could hide behind a wall of respectability and feed their addictions that way.


 

In 1907, the American journalist Samuel Merwin was sent to China to do a series of investigative reporting on the opium crisis in China. There are many books written about the opium wars and the opium trade at large but there are not many accurate contemporary accounts of the opium crisis as it was happening. Merwin was sent there mostly to make sure ‘The Yellow Peril’ didn’t make its way to America. The British Empire, on top of scheming and killing its way to getting a whole nation addicted to this odious drug, to ameliorate their responsibility in this crime, they created a narrative saying the yellow man’s physical constitution is the reason why they are addicted. This became a propaganda for the British Empire. It’s not just that we flooded the Chinese markets with opium at a turbulent time in their history and got one-third of its people addicted, but they are just physically incapable of stopping themselves from smoking this drug. The British people and Indian people use opium too, medicinally, but there’s no such crisis in India or the United Kingdom, therefore, the problem must reside with the yellow men. A series of novels and essays were written about the ‘The Yellow Peril’, depicting China as a nation of insatiable drug addicts and people with questionable moral character. This was the propaganda they were spreading throughout the world. The United States at that time employed a large number of Chinese workers, they wanted to make sure the Yellow Peril didn’t migrate to America with them.

Several parts of Merwin’s reporting was problematic and expressed racist views of early 20th century, believing the “yellow man” to be inferior to that of the white man, but he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and the chance to ‘revise’ the more unsavory bits. He also didn’t have the luxury of saying “it’s complicated” and the crisis had a lot of moving parts than just blaming the British for forcing opium through China to address the “balance-sheet” deficit. Merwin personally toured the most affected areas. He saw homes which were broken apart and the parts sold to feed their opium addictions. He saw people blighted by both hunger and addiction, emaciated bodies lying in the street. He saw grown men and women wasting their lives way in opium dens. Former soldiers, scholars, merchants, responsible members of society reduced themselves to scavenging addicts. It’s really not that complicated. The British Empire has systematically, through force, drugged a nation to address the their trade deficit. Not only that, after they got these people addicted, they proceeded to spread lies to the world saying it was their own constitutions which got them addicted. It’s not the drug, it’s the yellow man’s weak constitution and morals, adding insult to injury. Right off the bat, Merwin dispels this myth:

In the minds of most of us, I think, there has been a vague notion that the Chinese have always smoked opium, that opium is in some peculiar way a necessity to the Chinese constitution. Even among those who know the extraordinary history of this morbidly fascinating vegetable product, who know that the India-grown British drug was pushed and smuggled and bayoneted into China during a century of desperate protest and even armed resistance from these yellow people, it has been a popular argument to assert that the Chinese have only themselves to blame for the “demand” that made the trade possible. Of this “demand,” and of how it was worked up by Christian traders, we shall speak at some length in later chapters. “Educational methods” in the extending of trade can hardly be said to have originated with the modern trust. The curious fact is that the Chinese didn’t use opium and didn’t want opium.

Samuel Merwin. Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse (Kindle Locations 123-129).

[…]

It was not easy getting opium, the commodity, into the currents of trade. There was an obstacle. The Chinese were not an opium-consuming race. They did not use opium, they did not want opium, they steadily resisted the inroads of opium. But the rulers of the company were far-seeing men. Tempt misery long enough and it will take to opium.

Samuel Merwin. Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse (Kindle Locations 268-270).

Merwin places the blame strictly in the hands of the British. He doesn’t introduce ambiguity into this claim. And for good measure, this atrocity was perpetrated by “Christians”.

Merwin wrote a series of articles published in Success Magazine. He interviewed hundreds of people, including Chinese and British officials and consulted hundreds of documents before he produced these reports. With the usual prejudices and biases of a white man in 1908 aside, I’d argue this is one of the more comprehensive and accurate contemporary accounts of the opium crisis in China.

Merwin starts out by saying he didn’t believe that England had a “diabolical purpose to seduce and destroy a wonderful old empire on the other side of the world”, the “ruin” resulted as a byproduct of trade, “it was a triumph of the balance sheet over common humanity”. This point is driven home over and over again by Merwin. Every time he meets with a British official regarding the trade and import of opium, the end conclusion is, the British must mind their balance sheet before all else. To give some perspective, the opium trade at one point paid for one-quarter of the cost running the British raj.

As his reporting went on and the more people he spoke to, he realized that while the British didn’t have explicit intent to blight a whole race with drug addiction, they did reveal themselves to have designs on occupying China besides its seaports and gain access to their resources and drugging them into oblivion was the way to go about it. By 1908, even as inland China has begun to reduce the use of opium and reduce their land dedicated to planting opium, the British still flagrantly flouted their agreement to reduce shipment, citing the same reason again, they needed the money.

Of the two evils, debauching China or gravely impairing the finances of India, there has been reason to believe it would prefer debauching China.

Merwin further noting, referring to the British, “It is more difficult to be a Christian when far from home.”

While Merwin arrived in China with preconceived biases about opium use amongst Chinese, by the time he left, he was thoroughly convinced that this was an evil which was perpetrated on them by the British Empire, for no other reason but to balance their trade deficit. It was easy to put it out of their minds because China was far away enough from India and England and China’s contact with the rest of the world was limited to non-existent that the British can basically invent any narrative or propaganda to explain why they needed to import tons and tons of opium to China.

Merwin’s reporting incites outrage after outrage and it brings to light just the arrogance of the British Empire and their ways. While he didn’t come out in full support of the Chinese, his racism and sense of superiority prevented him from doing so, he thoroughly skewered the British for this crisis and placed the blame at their front door.


The renewed interest in a long forgotten war in the far east during the 19th century is not a coincidence. This was the first real war on drugs where actual gunfire was exchanged. Battlelines were drawn and casualties resulted. In one of Merwin’s reports where he worries about the “chickens coming home to roost”, which loosely implies the opium will follow wherever the Chinese go, is especially ironic. The chickens did come home to roost, in the affluent West. There is an opioid epidemic in New England right now which can rival the crisis in China in the 19th century. Working class men and women between the ages of 45-55 are dying from opioid poisoning at alarming rates. The youth of New England are drugging themselves to death before their lives have even begun. If one believes in karmic retribution, one can see this as the Universe’s way of the chickens coming home to roost, 150 years after the initial event.

For one to fully appreciate the scale of this outrage and atrocity, let us for a moment imagine if the United States sealed all the borders with Mexico so no drugs can enter the US. But Mexico is not happy about that and they retaliated by sending their army to invade the border for the sole purpose of allowing their drugs to get through. They were not provoked by the US, no fire was exchanged but they are invading because they are angry they can’t get their dope to the US. For the purpose of this analogy, let’s presume the US lost the war, our borders are forced open, and not only forced open, the US must cede control of our borders, ports and other modes of entry to the Mexican government, whereby they can flood the United States with whatever drugs they want, without impunity, without consequence. This is what happened to China in the 1850s.

This book can be downloaded for free in its entirety on The Gutenberg Project: Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse by Samuel Merwin

The book is a compilation of all of the articles Samuel Merwin wrote about his investigation and travels to China. You can bypass all the excruciating details and historical background which would be present in a full length book about the Opium Wars. This book gives you all the facts without the long winded narratives.

 

8 thoughts on “A Contemporary Account of the China Opium Curse

  1. 1.) Interesting. I never really made the connection between the current epidemic of middle-aged white deaths and my interest in the Opium Wars but it could have been subconscious.

    2.) re: “The British instead of complying and apologizing, said “no”, not only do you have to take this stuff, if you destroy it, you have to pay for it too”

    What Elliot did was transfer the ownership of the Opium to the British government after the merchants surrendered it to Lin Zexu. This is almost comic when you think about it. A foreign government confiscates my drugs, then my own government takes ownership of it. Obviously the British government had muscle the traders in China didn’t. The tEast India Company of course had plenty of muscle, including an ironclad warship. I have libertarians in my comments trying to say this is all about “government.” But the most powerful British warship was owned by a corporation, not the British Navy. During this time, also, the British government revoked the monopoly of the East India Company, opening up the opium trade to companies like Jarine and Matheson. This is a very common thing to do under capitalism. Take the Internet. The US government invents it then farms it out to semi-government monopolies (like Microsoft) then breaks down those monopolizes and fully opens it to the commercial realm.

    3.) The best part of Merwin’s book is how clearly he demonstrates conscious intent by the British. It makes Julia Lovell look terrible. She had to have seen the same Parliamentary blue books.

    4.) Merwin shoes how the opium poisoned the poor and working class. But he also demonstrates how it poisoned the bourgeoisie, who often sold their estates to pay for the opium .

    5.) It’s interesting that capitalism consciously took 150 million people out of the labor force in the 19th Century. Now the US government does it with mass jailings.

    6.) In 1980, Chinese labor became useful again. The western working classes were getting too rebellious. China’s vast labor force came in handy to discipline them. Nixon went to China in 1970. The rest is history .

    7.) The Chinese Empire still stands. The British Empire is gone. Now it’s just a shitty little country with lots of obnoxious people.

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    1. 1.) that’s the first connection I made. Perhaps being half Chinese and my grandparents would have been the children of possible opium smokers. I heard very slight references to opium smoking when talking about their relatives. They don’t talk about those times much but I am sure they felt the hangover.
      2.) I didn’t go into gory details of how they made China own the drugs they didn’t want – hence why I referenced back to your piece.
      3.) I agree – I think in this respect he did a great job. It’s the unvarnished version. He didn’t try to explain it away or say ‘it’s complicated’ because it isn’t.
      4) Agree that it harmed the bourgeoisie too but it harmed the peasants the most. On top of losing everything they lost their souls.
      5) China was too backward then to even attempt industrial revolution as you already know all the gory details of TaiPing rebellion. The Qing deliberately let infrastructure go to ruin so the rebels couldn’t coordinate.
      6) the Chinese are not as docile as they seem… They are not permanent pushovers
      7) AMEN!

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      1. On Point 6: Merwin talks about the Boxer Rebellion (the massive anti-European riots) and deduces it was government manipulation (which would seem fairly racist) or the people using government manipulation as an excuse to kill Europeans.

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        1. There’s no doubt Merwin was a racist of the early 20th century variety. But at least he was able to be objective and present the facts as they are and not sugar coat or defend the British. After all he spoke to hundred of people. Reviewed hundreds of documents. And the social Darwinism racism aside – he has done a fair job presenting the facts.

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  2. re: ” Merwin was sent there mostly to make sure ‘The Yellow Peril’ didn’t make its way to America.”

    It’s interesting how western governments often go to war to open up the drug trade in other countries. It’s not widely reported by the Taliban (whatever their faults) did suppress the opium trade. The US invasion opened Afghanistan’s opium back up to the west. After the US or British government opens up the drug trade, of course, and it spreads to their own countries, they say “oh shit” and try to control it. Or, worse yet, they make a virtue out of necessity and use addiction to further militarize police forces.

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    1. I am convinced that you cannot move massive quantities of drugs and contraband (weapons) without major govt knowing about it. what happened in China is a disgrace, a moral abomination. 150 million people is about 40% of US population.
      I am very glad that Merwin drove the point home that it was all about money or free trade and capitalism. Nothing else. And to achieve that aim – anything is permissible.

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      1. Everybody knew about the opium going to China. The British were open about it. The real question is whether or not they knew it was harmful (and addictive). Merwin makes if very clear they did.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes. The fact that they discouraged Indians and English people from using outside of medicinal purposes, that is proof. And again, none of this is very complicated in theory or action..

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