Thursday, December 19, 2013

1600-1900: Opium wars and Morphine

It's hard for us today to fathom a drug could cause a war, but that's exactly what world events from the 17th to the 18th century led up to.

By the 1600s Persians and Indians were eating and drinking various recipes using opium, and they did this mainly for recreational purposes.   "Portuguese merchants carrying cargoes of Indian opium through Macao direct its trade flow into China."  (7)

During this same century "ships chartered by Elizabeth I are instructed to purchase the finest Indian opium and transport it back to England... From 1637 onward opium becomes the main commodity of British trade with China."  (7)

In 1700 the Dutch introduce the smoking of opium by using tobacco pipes, and Chinese Emperor Yung Cheng prohibits the smoking of opium.  The Chinese considered smoking opium barbaric, and they therefore forbade it.   (7)  Yet historian Nathan Allen notes that opium use in China became so universal that laws that forbade it were generally non-effective.  The most common method of recreational use of the drug is by smoking it with pipes. (8, page 13)

During the 18th century, men in England, pent on making a profit for the king, noted the demand of China and the surplus in India, and set out to benefit from this.  These men set out to create an organized trade between India and China.  This trade would result in an "Opium War."

The story of how this was set up is explained best by Nathan Allen:  (8, page 12-13)(10)
The plan of sending opium from Bengal to China, was first suggested by a Mr. Watson, in the year 1767, to a council of representatives of the East India Company held at Calcutta. Mr. Wheeler, at that time an officer and an influential member of the company, advocated the plan, and after being favorably entertained, it was adopted as a happy expedient towards raising a revenue for supporting government. Previously to this time, a small trade in opium, rarely exceeding 200 chests per year, had been carried on with the Chinese by some Portuguese merchants, who brought their opium from Turkey.
Prior to 1765 the import of opium into China was not to exceed 200 chests.  But due to the increase in demand, the limit was eliminated.  And even though the inhalation of opium was forbidden by Chinese laws, the importation had increased to 4,000 chests by 1820. (12, page 2)

So lets get back to Allen:
From 1767 to 1794, the East India Company made several adventures of opium to China, which, for various causes, were not very successful. In 1794, the English succeeded in stationing one of their ships, laden exclusively with opium, at Whampoa, where she lay unmolested for more than a year, selling out her cargo. This place continued about twenty-five years to be the principal market for the sale of the drug, though the trade encountered considerable difficulty from pirates infesting those seas as well as opposition on the part of the Chinese.
In the meantime, as the 18th century rolled over to the 19th century, the contents of opium are being investigated in Germany.  In 180, Fried rich Serturner (1783-1841) discovers that the active ingredient in opium that causes the desired effects is an alkaloid called Morphine.  He tested it on himself, and nearly lost his life as a result. (11, page 333)

The basic character of Morphine was not discovered until 1817 by French Chemist Pierre Jean Robiquet (1780-1840).  In 1832 he discovered Codeine.

Now lets get back to Allen: (8, page 12-13)(10)
Macao also furnished somewhat of a market, but, in 1821, the opium merchants, on account of the difficulties attending the sale at these places, withdrew entirely from the harbor of Whampoa and Macao, and stationed their vessels under shelter of Lintin Island, in the bay at the entrance of Canton river. Henceforth this place became the seat of extensive trade. Here might be seen large armed vessels reposing, throughout the year, at anchor, constituting a floating depot of storehouses, for receiving the opium in large quantities from the ships bringing it from India, and dealing it out in chests and cases to the Chinese junks, to be retailed at various points on shore. The Merope, Capt. Parkyns, in 1821, was the first ship that commenced the system of deliveringopium at different cities along the coast of China, and from that time, the trade increased with wonderful rapidity. Eligible places also on the east and north-east coast of China were selected to station receiving vessels, to which the Chinese might easily have access, and become participators in the trade.
Allen quotes Mr. James Holman to describe the trade in 1830: 
"The use of opium has become so universal among the people of China, that the laws which render it penal, and the proclamations which send forth their daily fulminations against its continuance, have not the slightest effect in checking the prevalence of so general a habit. Smoking houses abound in Canton; and the inhabitants of every class who can furnish themselves with the means to obtain the pipe, are seldom without this article of general luxury. It is a propensity that has seized upon all ranks and classes, and is generally on the increase."
By the late 1830s the Chinese Emperor noticed that the English were milking the Chinese economy of its silver, and "ruining bodies and the fortunes of the Chinese with their abominable poison; and the memorialist that the penalty of death should be decreed against all offenders." Offending ships "were sunk by heavy guns."  (12, page 2)  Although the English claimed they were basically exporting tea from China to sell to an ever increasing market for tea in Europe.

At first it was easy for the Chinese to destroy English opium stocks, as the lot was generally stored in large ships.  But as time went by the English devised plans, increased the stock (up to 50,000 chests at one point), and used more ships to continue getting opium to Chinese ports.  And despite laws by the Emperor that merchandise must be traded only for merchandise, and that silver was forbidden to be exported from China, these laws were ignored.  (12, page 2)

So this set the stage for a war between Britain and China.  There were actually two opium wars.  The first was from 1839-1842, and the second from 1856-1850.  The first was started in 1839 when the Chinese enforced the opium laws.  The Chinese destroyed Guangzhou (Canton) a large quantity of opium confiscated from British merchants.  The British responded by sending war ships to attack coastal cities with the intent on ending Chinese restrictions on foreign trade.  (13)

Of course China ws no match for the British war fleets, and were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, and the  British Supplementary Treaty of the Bogue in 1843.  The result was a variety of ports where the British could bring in their exports of opium. This is also when the British gained control of Hong Kong.  This is basically how the British gained control of Chinese ports.  (13)

Ultimately Chinese ports were open to the rest of Europe and the United States, and by 1849 the Chinese were forced to legalize the importation and use of opium and Morphine.  Although by 1856 the Chinese were trying to block the trade again, and this resulted in the second war.  "This time the British and French occupied Beijing and burned the imperial summer palace (Yuan ming yuan). The Beijing conventions of 1860, by which China was forced to reaffirm the terms of the Treaty of Tianjin and make additional concessions, concluded the hostilities." (13)

  1. Aggrawal, Anil, Dr., "The story of opium," from "Narcotic Drugs," 1995, National Book Trust of India
  2. Edkins, Joseph, "Opium: historical note: or the poppy in china," 1898, American Presbyterian Mission Press
  3. Sigerest, Henry, E., "History of Medicine," Volume II, "Early Greek, Hindu, and Persian Medicine," 1961, Oxford University Press, page 23
  4. Prioreschi, Plinio," A History of Medicine: Byrzantine and islamic medicine," 2004, Horatius Press, page 
  5. Prioreschi, page 61, quoted by Prioreschi from "The Seven Books of Paulus Aegineta," V, xlii, translated by Francis Adams, London, The Sydenham Society, 3 volumes,  1844-1847, 2, page 213
  6. Paulus Aegineta, translated by Francis Adams, "The Seven Books of Paulus Aegineta," V, xlii, 1847, The Sydenham Society, 3 volumes, (1844-1847), volume 2, page 279-283; here we find a good discussion of opium use by the ancients as recommended by Plinio Prioreschi (see reference 5 above)
  7. "Opium Timeline",, accessed 12/20/12
  8. Allan, Nathan, "The Opium Trade," 1853, 2nd edition, Lowell
  9. Kane, Harry Hubbell, "Opium-smoking in America and China," 1882, New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons
  10. Allen, op cit, quote from  Mr. James Holmanfrom his book "Travels in China, page 162
  11. Horper, J.F. et al, "Studies with Morphine in Experimental Tuberculosis," Denver, pages 332-338, "Transactions of the annual meeting: National Tuberculosis Association, New York City, June, 14, 15, 16, 17, 1921
  12. Parker, Edward Harper, Y√ľan Wei, "Chinese Account of the Opium Wars," 1888, Shanghai-HongKong-Yokahama-Singapore, Kelly and Walsh
  13. "Opium Wars,",, accessed 12/21/12
  14. Withington, Edward, "Medical History from its earliest times," 1894, London, ,Aberdeen University Press, page 407

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