The Parsis of India and the Opium Trade in China

By Palsetia, Jesse S. | Contemporary Drug Problems, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Parsis of India and the Opium Trade in China


Palsetia, Jesse S., Contemporary Drug Problems


The article examines the role of the Parsis of India in the opium trade between China and India during the 18th and 19th centuries. It examines the significant role of a non-European group in the history of drugs. The Parsi involvement in the opium trade constituted an important component in the rise of Western capital in Asia, the development of the Indian and imperial economies, and the growth of Bombay and other colonial centers. Furthermore, the article examines the ability of drugs to serve the interests of non-Europeans under imperialism, as opium provided for the economic, social, and political development of the Parsi community. The article notes an episode in the history of both a community and a drug. The Parsis constitute one of the first and arguably most significant examples of the ability of drugs to positively transform the state of one of the world's smallest communities.

The Parsis of India

The place of drugs and drug policies has not always received the significance such themes as race, gender, and social class have in imperial historiography. Drugs in empire have often been incorporated under the economic theme of the growth of Western capitalism in the world, as part of regional histories, or as an aspect of the rise of historical globalization. More recent scholarship, however, has placed drugs at the heart of empire.1 Imperialism's role in drugs and drug policies has been significant as regards its commercial role in trading and trafficking drugs, its social role in fostering drug cultures around the world, its political and diplomatic roles in dominating parts of the globe through the leverage of drug policies, and its cultural role in the constructions of non-European peoples. At the same time, the historiography of drugs and imperialism has largely been confined to noting the imperialists' role in empire building through drugs and drug policies. The role of non-European colonials and groups that operated under imperialism has only recently come to be seen as an intrinsic part of the story of drugs in empire and history.2

Parsi traders and businessmen from Bombay and western India have played a prominent role in the history of drugs in Asia in the modern period. The historiography of drugs and empire has viewed the Parsi (and in general the Indian) involvement in China as part of Western economic expansion in Asia.3 The Parsi involvement in the opium trade may be regarded as a non-European contribution to the foundations of imperialism, an important component in the rise of Western capital in Asia and the development of the Indian and imperial economies. At the same time, the Parsi involvement in drugs served internal Parsi requirements and can be seen as part of the larger Parsi historical imperative to safeguard identity, and remain economically, social and politically relevant as a community at any given time. This article examines Parsi involvement in the opium trade and the ability of drugs to serve the interests of non-Europeans under imperialism. Its aim is to describe an historical process and note an episode in the history of both a community and a drug. The Parsis constitute one of the first and arguably most significant examples of the ability of drugs to positively transform the state of one of the world's smallest communities.

The Parsis are the descendants of the Zoroastrians of Iran who settled in India, by Parsi tradition, in the 8th century. The Parsis constitute one of India's smallest communities, numbering less than 80,000 individuals in India during the 19th century. Under imperialism, the Parsis would transition from an insular group to one of India's most prosperous, educated, and influential communities. From among their group emerged great merchant princes and capital elites, not least of all through the opium trade with China.4 The rise of the Parsis to economic preeminence corresponds with the arrival of Europeans in western India. The parameters of mutual cooperation emerged among Parsis and Europeans who both started as fledgling commercial groups. …

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