Tea, opium, and the East India Company

Is any drink more innocent than a nice cup of tea?

Almost any of them, and I say that having done no comparative research whatsoever. But forget the comparisons. Innocent tea is not. Its history is deeply interwoven with opium. Here’s how it worked:

In the seventeenth century, England began drinking serious amounts of tea, which it bought from China. China looked at what England offered to sell it in return and said, “Ho, hum,” and didn’t drink it / wear it / eat it / or more importantly, buy it. Which meant, since England wanted to keep drinking tea, that silver poured out of England and into China. And what with silver being heavy and all, the world was turning more slowly on its axis.

The world only turned properly when more silver flowed into England than out.

I shouldn’t say stuff like that or we’ll have another one of those incidents with the Druids worshiping the Great Brussels Sprout. (An explanation is hidden behind this link. You’ll find it a few paragraphs below the photograph. It wasn’t one of my finer moments, which is probably why I can’t help thinking it’s funny.) I could shorten my explanations by making a grain-of-salt logo and adding it when I say something ridiculous. We’ll all have hypertension by the time I’m done.

Irrelevant photo: begonia blossom

Anyway, with all that silver sitting in China instead of England, where nature had decreed that it belonged, the earth’s rotation was going out of sync with the standard twenty-four hour day and something had to be done.

Enter the East India Company, also called the English East India Company, or a bit later the British East India Company once Britain acquired a political existence, to distinguish it from assorted other countries’ East India companies, which it competed with.

The English East India Company got its charter in 1600 from Queen Elizabeth. A trade imbalance wasn’t the problem yet. What Liz wanted was to have it break the Portuguese and Spanish hold on trade from the Indian Ocean. Which the company did, in part by piracy.

Yeah, those were times to make the heart swell with pride. When we talk about making Britain great again…

No, that’s too far off topic.

A combination of a weakening government in India and competition with the company’s French counterpart (the French East India Company–no one involved had the least bit of imagination) ended up with the English company taking direct control of territory in India. And deciding that holding territory was such fun that it took more. And for a hundred years, starting in 1757, it was both a military and a political power, regulated by no government and answerable only to itself. And it ruled of India.

Yeah, that’s the point where I can’t help thinking I’ve misread something. This is a private business openly governing a country–and not even its own country. In 1803, it had a private army twice the size of Britain’s.

India didn’t grow tea yet. Its exports included silk, cotton, sugar, indigo dye, and (here we get to the point at last) opium. The East India company established a monopoly on opium in Bengal.

I couldn’t find much information about the impact this had on India, but its production relied on forced labor and the trade would, inevitably, have led to some addiction. The shift away from small farming also meant a shift away from food production, which kept people fed but wasn’t where the money could be made. Before the East India company took over, India’s ability to feed its people had been equal to or a bit better than Europe’s. (Europe’s wasn’t great at the time, but I’m not sure whose was.) What British did rule was to commercialize agriculture, after which the country experienced repeated famines. You can find a grim timeline of them here.

Now let’s go back to China for a minute. Opium reached China in the sixth or seventh century, and it was used (as it had been for centuries in India and the ancient Mediterranean) medicinally–to relieve pain, the help people sleep, and maybe for a bit of fun here and there. With the introduction of tobacco, though, came the idea of smoking the stuff, and in this form it became much more powerful and much more addictive.

China’s emperor banned recreational use. The edict was roughly as effective as the US war on drugs has been.

China banned imports in 1729. Which was a problem for the East India Company, because it had a lot of it and was £28 million in debt from its wars in India and from all the Chinese tea it had to pay for in that heavy, annoying metal.

So what’s a law-abiding company / government / army to do when a foreign government blocks its access to a market? The East India Company started smuggling the stuff, and by 1739 it had gotten Britain and China involved in the Opium Wars, which eventually, in the name of free trade, opened the Chinese market to opium imports. The balance of payments problem was–from Britain’s point of view–taken care of.

And from China’s point of view? When it banned imports, 200 chests were coming in a year. By 1858, 70,000 were coming in and addiction had become a massive problem. I’m not sure about its balance of payments but I’d bet a damn good chocolate cake that it Britain’s improved China’s got worse.

But Britain got more than tea in this exchange. It got opium as well.

In western Europe, medical opium had been recommended as early as 1527. Paracelsus called the opium mixture he used laudanum–Latin for “worthy of praise.” Or so one source says. The last time I tried to translate something into and out of Latin (it happened to be raisin), we ran into no end of odd translations, so this time I’m not even looking it up, I’m just pretending I know what I’m talking about. Who’ll notice if I’m wrong?

Laudanum was about 10% opium.

The more Europeans traded in opium, the more it made its way to their home countries. In the eighteenth century, doctors were both prescribing it and using it themselves.

As the nineteenth century creaked onward, opium escaped the tinctures it initially came in and was available to be smoked. The Victorian public could read and be horrified by tales of opium dens (which were dedicated to smoking opium), although not many dens seem to have existed outside of London. In a nice little irony, though, they were associated in the popular imagination with–shudder–foreigners, especially the Chinese. Who else would bring such a dangerous drug to someone else’s country?

Having read about the horrors of opium smoking, the Victorian public could then put down its newspapers and buy laudanum from the chemist (which if you’re American is a druggist) or at the market. No big deal. It was the aspirin of its day, available everywhere and taken for just about everything: coughs, rheumatism, colicky babies, hiccups, and women’s troubles (no, that didn’t mean the social and economic condition of woman, although that was enough to drive anyone to opium; it also didn’t mean men; it meant anything associated with–I’m blushing just to think of it–the reproductive system).

It also mended broken chair legs, straightned curly hair, and curled straight.

Yes, yes: grain of salt.

People who used opium in its respectable forms included Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. And even though it was less addictive in this form than it was if you smoked it, it was still addictive enough to get you into trouble. The Brontes’ brother, Branwell, is said to have been an opium addict, not to mention an alcoholic and an all-around mess. I’m not sure what form he used. Probably anything he could get his hands on, which is most likely to have meant laudanum.  

So predictably that they sound like a caricature of themselves, the guardians of public morality saw the use of opiates among the poor and working class as a problem and among their own class nothing worse than as a habit.

Now let’s go back to the medical uses of opium, because it was a useful painkiller. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a German scientist developed the even more effective morphine from an opium base. It was so effective that some 400,000 soldiers came out of the American Civil War addicted to it.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, scientists were looking for a less addictive painkiller. Working from a morphine base, they came up with heroin. 

And they all lived happily ever after.

Anybody want a cup of tea and a dash of irony? I’ve got the kettle on. A nice cup of tea never hurt anyone.

86 thoughts on “Tea, opium, and the East India Company

  1. This is one of my husband’s favourite topics; the evils of British Imperialism. He’s from Northern Ireland and knows plenty about it. I think that too many British (by which I mean English and Welsh) know too little about their Imperial past. They watch films like “Zulu” and think it was all red coats and sunshine. The prosperity of European countries, Britain in particular, was built on the exploitation and misery of the countries they colonised. The problems some of those country face today are directly linked to the effects of European Imperialism. The flip-side to all this, however, was the sugar boycott, the first mass campaign by ordinary working people (who did not have the vote in the late C18th) against the evils of slavery. It did, eventually have an effect and directly lead to the end of slavery in the British Empire. Bizarrely, however, it was the slave-owners who were given financial compensation for their “loss”, not the ex-slaves. Rant over.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Yes to all of that. One of the ironies about British imperialism (and probably that of other countries as well) is that many people who were powerless, voteless, and poor at home could go to a colony and suddenly have at lest some degree of power, solving their problem by becoming part of someone else’s.

      I’ve been very conscious that I write primarily about England, not much about Scotland and nothing about Wales and Ireland, which have their own histories. I’m not sure how much that’s going to change, but I am aware of it.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I also liked Sea of Poppies best–I thought it got kind of diffuse after that–and I was tempted to ride on his research about the impact of poppy cultivation on India, but quoting fiction as a source just isn’t kosher. He did make me aware of what, more or less, I was looking for, but when I did my own (admittedly shallow) research, I didn’t find much. Which I’m prepared to say is a fault of my research, not his.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting history lesson. File that under “we never learn” and move on. Maybe I’ll send this to our Prez. He’s moaning about the amount of silver flowing from here to China. Maybe if he knew it could mess with theEarth’s orbit, he could justify a trade war in the hopes that that alone would solve global warming.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ah, yes, humanity’s good a learning from its mistakes. And at remembering, generation after generation, what they were. Although having said that, I do favor legalizing the stuff. It’s far less damaging that alcohol and criminalizing it hasn’t been what you’d call a raging success.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I have personal reasons not to want it legalized. People are not responsible, I had a truck totaled by someone high on the stuff. Of course, he had no insurance and no job, so I had to replace it on my own, and I didn’t have the money at the time. I’ve had friends in accidents and injured by these morons. They seem to have money to buy it, but never have money to pay reparations. This past year the news had two stories about people killed by users driving, and it’s not legal here (except for medical purposes, then only using extracts), if it ever becomes legal the the deaths will go up, then explain to those who lose friends/relatives how harmless and safe it is, and how getting high is worth the cost of a life. (Rant over)

        Liked by 2 people

        • I don’t know if deaths will go up if it’s legal. I haven’t seen–much less looked for–any statistics. My sense (again, in the absence of statistics) is that the anti-drunk-driving campaigns have actually had some impact. The way we drove drunk when I first started drinking? It was just taken for granted then. It doesn’t seem to be as widely done now. I know, it’s not the same as never happening, but I do think it happens less. Presumably driving high can be approached the same way–and it might as well be, because all efforts to ban the stuff have failed.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. What an ironically wonderful post. Now comes the full circle. The United kingdom is constantly under siege by people wanting Marijuana legalised for pain relief, and Heroine no longer seen as attractive but the opposite … a dirty drug. Morphine, controlled, still eases the way for diseased bodies to bear the pain. But tea is staunchly ingrained in our lives. Myself for one, takes eight pints of tea a day. Dressed with milk and sipped with elegance; one would like to believe. It helps stop absorption of iron. Iron my body genetically loads. So for me and millions of Genetic Haemochromatosis sufferers tea is our drug.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. In the days when proper history was still taught in schools, we learned about this kind of thing, especially if your teacher thought the revolution was going to happen next week. In those days the BBC (and sometimes ITV) also used to make dramas about this kind of thing, although I don’t remember opium getting much of a look in. I was young, though, and opium didn’t mean anything until I read Sherlock Holmes in my late teens. I can even remember buying a history magazine in the 70s that gave a history of the East India Company. It probably didn’t mention opium in the same breath as tea either. I don’t think it will stop me enjoying my three pots a day.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Very interesting, especially from a colony perspective (Australia). They are hard to find nowadays, but tea caddies with locks were very popular back when tea was a highly expensive commodity. The lady of the house or housekeeper kept the key on her belt, so the story goes, to stop unauthorised imbibing in tea!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, yes, those were the days of locking up the larder (or wherever they kept it) to keep those thieving servants from snitching a bit of the good stuff. Sugar, I think, was in very much the same category. It didn’t come with a lock, but it was expensive and watched over.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for putting it on Google Plus. I used to post there but WordPress in its wisdom hasn’t been doing that. I’ve gone through all sorts of contortions to get that working again, and everything says it is, but nothing seems to happen. I’ve given up. Other than that, if you know anything I can do to make the posts easier for you to find, I’m happy to do it. Technology and my own incompetence allowing, of course.

      Liked by 2 people

        • No honey. No sugar. Just milk.

          I’ve hit the little icon. And then I unhit it and hit it again on the theory that maybe I needed to break the connection that wasn’t working in order to make it again. I still don’t think it’s working. Basically, I’ve given up. There were a few people who used to pick up the posts on GPlus (I’m working on my toy typewriter, which doesn’t have a plus sign) and leave comments, and I do miss them, but I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it. The world–or so I hear–has bigger problems.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Milk? 2%, 1%, fat free, whole; cows, almond, coconut, flax; lactose free? Or cream….??? Too many choices, too little time.

            Then there is the tea itself. Is decaf allowed in the UK? Herbal, medicinal, chai, or Chaga? Asian, Indian, or African? On on we go. I’ve traded in my big pot (with the matching candle fed heater stand) for six individual serving pots. Just like in a restaurant. Sigh

            Liked by 1 person

            • People here drink the full range of teas, with the full range of things in it–or not in it (except, I think, cream–I don’t know of anyone putting cream in it). But the standard is just plain old black tea–what people call builder’s tea, because builders (people who make a living building houses) drink it all day long. Want to find out why two guys are digging up your street? Go out and ask if they want a cup of tea. Generally with milk. Sometimes with sugar as well.

              Liked by 2 people

  6. I have taken prescription. narcotics now and then for pain and to sleep. Those are great drugs when needed. My grandmother took some out of grandpa’s medical bag when she was pregnant with my mom back in 1914. Always wondered how or if it affected my mother. Believe it did.
    Tea is good. Hot tea or unsweetened iced tea. Ice tea would not be allowed in England probably. They think we colonists have never down anything right. Ice tea for pete’s sake.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I expect you’d be thoroughly disapproved of for iced tea. That’s a step short of outright illegality, but not a long step.

      Interesting about the narcotics when your grandmother was pregnant. Do you mind if I ask what your guess is about how it affected your mother? (If you do, just ignore the question.)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When young something called Collis Browne’s Mixture was the answer to all health problems…containing morphine, cannabis and chloroform it was guaranteed to knock you out until whatever it was that was bothering you went away. Needless to say it has since been made pharmaceutically correct.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Whew. And chloroform even? It might not get rid of what troubled you, but you wouldn’t feel troubled for a good stretch of time. I’ve read that the patent medicines that were hawked around the US in the ninteenth century (I’m not sure what part of it) had all sorts of interesting stuff in them. My best guess is that no one ever really knew what they were getting.

      Liked by 2 people

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