Britain's Opium Wars

By Newsinger, John | Monthly Review, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Britain's Opium Wars


Newsinger, John, Monthly Review


It is a little known fact that during the reign of Queen Victoria, the British capitalist state was the largest drug pusher the world has ever seen. The smuggling of opium into China was by the 1830s a source of huge profits, played a crucial role in the financing of British rule in India and was the underpinning of British trade throughout the East. This is one of those little historical details that are often overlooked in the history books where the opium trade is either played down or ignored altogether. Most recently Professor Denis Judd's Empire, a 500-page history of British Imperialism has no discussion of either the trade or the wars it occasioned, while the prestigious Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire has a couple of brief inadequate and uninformative paragraphs, a mere passing mention.(1) The opium trade deserves more attention. It was, in the words of John K. Fairbanks, "the most long-continued and systematic international crime of modern times."(2)

The production of opium in India first came under British control in the course of the eighteenth century. In the 1760s, some one thousand chests of opium (each weighing 140 lbs) were smuggled into China and this figure gradually increased to 4 thousand chests in 1800. By the 1820s the traffic in opium began to increase dramatically with over 12 thousand chests being smuggled into China in 1824, rising to 19 thousand in 1830, 30 thousand in 1835 and to 40 thousand chests (2,500 tons of opium) in 1838.(3) The British energetically encouraged poppy growing, on occasion coercing Indian peasant farmers into going over the crop. By the end of the 1830s the opium trade was already, and was to remain, "the world's most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century."(4)

The opium trade was of vital importance to British Imperialism at this time. It was one corner of an Eastern triangular trade that mirrored the eighteenth century Atlantic slave trade. The smuggling of opium turned a large British trading deficit with China into a substantial surplus, paying for British tea imports from China, for the export of British manufactured goods to India and for a substantial proportion of British administrative costs in India. The opium trade was "the hub of British commerce in the East."(5)

By the end of the 1830s a sixth of British overseas trade was with China and nearly two-thirds of that trade was in opium. In view of the tremendous importance of the trade, its neglect by economic historians and the historians of the British Empire is all the more surprising.

The Opium Capitalists

The opium trade was clearly not a small-scale affair carried out by small-time crooks and gangsters. Instead, it was a massive international commerce carried out by major British trading companies under the armed protection of the British state. According to Sir William Jardine of Jardine Matheson, the opium trade was "the safest and most gentlemanlike speculation I am aware of." In a good year profits could be as high as $1,000 a chest!(6) His wealth was sufficient to buy him a seat in the House of Commons in the early 1840s and to get him the ear of the government.

Jardine Matheson was the most successful of the opium smuggling companies, and is still a major financial and trading company today. Jardine's partner in the enterprise, James Matheson, best shows the use to which the profits from drug pushing could be put. In the 1840s he too became an MP, sitting in the Commons for twenty-five years. He went on to become a governor of the Bank of England, chairman of the great P and O shipping line, and the second largest landowner in Britain. He bought the Isle of Lewis in Scotland and spent over [pounds]500,000 building himself a castle there!

The import of opium into China was, of course, illegal, but the British companies engaged in the trade systematically corrupted or intimidated the Chinese authorities so that it continued with little interruption. …

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