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.