Opium in British Burma, 1826-1881

Article excerpt

This article examines in detail the British opium industry in colonial Burma from the time of the annexation of Arakan and Tenasserim in 1826 to the publication of Chief Commissioner Charles Aitchison's 1881 memorandum on opium in Burma. It argues that while the profitability of the opium trade in Burma was an important factor in the decisions the colonial administration made regarding opium, it was not the only factor. From the earliest days of British administration in Tenasserim, different ethnic groups within Burma were treated differently with regards to opium use. There is evidence that the colonial administration's view of opium use among a particular group was influenced by the degree to which use of the drug was perceived to facilitate social stability and productivity, or unemployment and social breakdown.

When the British East India Company annexed Arakan and Tenasserim in 1826 it introduced state supervised opium sales into its new territories. From this date until 1948, when Burma became an independent republic, opium sales were legal in some or all areas of Burma, to some or all members of Burma's population. Although Burma was a province of British India until 1935, the incorporation of Burma into British India was always uneasy, and colonial officials generally recognized that when it came to opium regulation in particular, Burma was a "special case."1

The opium trade in Burma, in contrast to the Indo-Chinese trade, has been very little studied since the end of the colonial era in Burma.2 The only major post- 1948 work specifically concerned with die opium trade in Burma is Ronald D. Renard's monograph The Burmese Connection, which, setting out to analyze the trade from its beginnings in the early 19th century to the late 20th century, does not discuss the colonial period in great detail.3 Renard's section on opium in colonial Burma focuses on the way in which British rule disrupted the social constraints that protected traditional Burmese society from opium abuse, and briefly discusses the differing attitudes and cultural contexts of opium use among the various ethnic groups within Burma.

Bertil Lintner describes Burma at the close of the 20fh century as "a colonial creation rife with internal contradictions and divisions."4 Colonial opium policy reflected these contradictions and divisions. While opium is only infrequently mentioned in standard histories of colonial Burma,5 the place of opium in the lands on the periphery of Burma has received more attention from journalists and historians.6 Robert Maule has relatively recently examined opium policy in the Shan States in the 1930s and 1940s as an aspect of British imperial rule in Burma.7 The course of opium policy in what British administrators often referred to as "Burma proper" diverged from policy in the lands on the Burmese periphery. While this article ends with the Aitchison memorandum of 1881, and so will focus on opium policy in Lower Burma, including the provinces of Arakan, Tenasserim and Pegu, it is important to remember diat the Shan and Kachin, and other ethnic groups who lived within the boundaries of post- 1885 colonial Burma, had their own experience of opium use and cultivation which was distinct from that of the ethnic Burmese.

Opium policy in Burma was influenced both by developments within Burma and by debates on opium taking place in London. The ideology of the 19th century British anti-opium movement, and its relation to the wider imperial project have most notably been analyzed in Virginia Berridge's Opium and the People and J. B. Brown's 1973 article "Politics of the Poppy: The Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade."8 Both of these works discuss the Society's campaign to end the opium trade and opium use in China, India and Britain. While the opium trade with China was die primary focus of the Society's work, the Society was aware of and working to end die opium trade in Burma from the first year of its formation. …