Research Paper

introduction 3



There are few histories so critical about the relationship between the West and the East as the history of the opium monopolies, their enor- mous accumulation of capital in ‘the world’s most valuable single com- modity trade of the nineteenth-century’1 and the current nearly unsolvable narcotic problems in the USA and Europe. Their mutual relations in the heydays of Western imperialism and colonialism could be described as follows:

Thus as tea drinking rose in England, opium smoking rose in china … The sale of the Bengal [poppy] crop became so valuable that the East India company … soon came to depend on its sale for financing the government of India.2

This might suggest that there was a free relationship between England (and “its” Bengal) and china. That was not the case: the tea-drinking English spread death and destruction before they could start consuming their national drug and before they could dope millions of people in china.

In the most recent history of the decline and fall of the British Empire, Brendon recapitulates the many evils of the highly repressive rule of forty thousand rather stubborn English over forty million Indians. The white rulers were characterized by their own English boss as ‘so vulgar, igno- rant, rude, familiar, and stupid as to be disgusting and intolerable …’3 These men and women established a ‘despotism tempered by paternal- ism’. Not very innocent, and this easily led to a conclusion like the follow- ing, a remark made in passing by its author:

In economic terms, company India was engaged in building perhaps the world’s first “narco-military” empire, an empire in which power and profit remained as closely linked as ever they had in the Mercantilist Age of the eighteenth-century.4

1 F. Wakeman, in J. Fairbank (ed.), 1978, p. 172. 2 E. Dodge, p. 266. 3 P. Brendon, p. 48. 4 D.A. Washbrook, in: A. Porter (ed.), p. 404. Also quoted in P. Brendon, p. 55.

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chapter one4

Neither the opium problem nor the West-East relation was confined to the rise or ‘decline and fall of the British Empire’ alone: as shall be demon- strated below, many similar Western powers preceded and accompanied this most powerful conquering machine, while strongly participating in the attempt to establish a “narco-military (Far) East”. Did they succeed in this belligerent aim?

All these West-East attempts were accompanied by poverty, many mil- lions of addicts, substantial extension of wars and genocide, serious cor- ruption on all sides, brutal perpetrators and helpless and even disgraced victims. In the Western colonies of Asia in the 16th to 20th-century one sees how missionaries tried to make the christian religion in the most lit- eral sense “opium for, later, of the people” as a well-known writer could have written in 1848 (see, for example, ch. 6 or 13).

Ill. 1. Papaver Somniferum, Bently & Trimen, 1830 Source: J. Wiselius, 1886, p. 1

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introduction 5

It is remarkable that an adequate description of these relationships with the accompanying facts seems still difficult. The main reason is certainly not a lack of sources for the historians. No, this history hits too hard on an open sore in the conscience of the Western colonizers including their “home fronts”, and we are, therefore, saddled with largely a legitimizing historiography comparable with the one of a few other items like Western—induced slavery and racism.5

In Africa “The West” obtained bodies and brought them to the Americas to work in chains; in Asia they doped the minds in order to create a sed- entary, peaceful and quiet workforce.6 The undeniable guilt of Western governments from the 16th-century onwards is so obvious after even a superficial confrontation with this dossier that one is surprised to find a non-ideological and non-legitimizing historiography only in rather mar- ginal expert literature.

The most clearly demonstrated attitude is silence about the subject or down-grading its importance.7 In both the UK and the Netherlands, the two most important countries at stake, books from amateurs like Ellen La Motte, Jack Beeching, Maurice collis or Ewald Vanvugt were the first to

5 See for this relationship in particular J. Nederveen Pieterse, p. 223 ff. or 339 ff. about christianity as a ‘slave religion’ under the heading: ‘Strange Opium’. Of course, the com- parison between slavery and compulsory or induced addiction requires a rather compli- cated description and explanation, which cannot be given in the following study: I can only point to the phenomenon of the relationship.

6 Only the British after their long stay and detailed governance in British India started also with an Indian emigration policy in the second half of the 19th-century and exported, for instance, “free workers” to the other colonies in South Africa or the Guyanas (the so- called hindustani also found in Dutch Guyana). In this way the “political heat” of the pro- letarians at home could be cooled, while a divide and rule game could be played between the several ethnic groups in the new home.

7 The most remarkable fact is that in the special volume about the historiography of the British Empire, opium was not discussed besides listing some titles with the word “opium”. R. Winks (ed.). Notwithstanding a remark as given in note 3, in this entire five- volume History of the British Empire, “opium” is hardly a subject worthy of analysis. In some more specialized literature like T. Rawski and L. Li (ed.) or even the pre-war impor- tant publications of c. Remer and F. h. King, opium is not worth discussing. That is strange for other reasons because a high official like h. Morse wrote extensively (and in favour) of opium, as we will see below. For the Dutch Empire, the main historians and main histori- cal works like the old and modern edition of the Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden, or special studies of Van Dillen, Boxer until Gaastra and h. van den Doel, opium is, at best, discussed in passing. In France, the situation is not better. The famous F. Braudel, vol. 1, p. 261 treated opium as similar to tobacco and preferred to write about the latter. he also suggested mysteriously that ‘humanity had need of compensation’ and that opium was one of the “solutions”. In the other two volumes opium was awarded only a few words (vol. 2, p. 223; vol. 3, p. 523). In F. Braudel’s, E. Labrousse’s many volumes of Histoire Economique, there is not a single word about opium.

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chapter one6

cover up their national opium histories. It is now necessary to make the connections, to provide an adequate context for this fundamental assault on the East, and to ask anew about the characteristics of their own and other colonial empires.

The images the official legitimizing historiography has created, since the two Opium Wars resulted in a Western “victory” were so strong that a full inversion of the roles of perpetrator and victim could occur: for “all men in Western streets” china is still largely identified with isolation (“closed door” policy) from the rest of the world, tea and opium. A general historian provides the most common classical myth as a self-evident truth:

As European, particularly English, consumption of tea increased, it became the principal cargo and produced enormous profits. But the old difficulty of finding anything to exchange in china, a self-sufficient country, was not easy to solve.8

Below I argue that the last thing one should say about “china” is, that it is or was a self-sufficient country: it was always open to international trade and other contacts, even during the late Qing era. In an historical, eco- nomical or political sense the first sentence in the quotation has nothing to do with the next. The suggestion, furthermore, that we are confronted here with a constant element in chinese history, is certainly misleading. In fact, here again the main political economic legitimation is given for attacking china: a country which is ‘closed’ should be ‘opened’ by force, etc.

Dodge probably does not know it, but in a theoretical sense we are con- fronted here with a basic contradiction in nearly all European economic thinking since Aristotle, the antagonistic relationship between the oikos and the market. The first concept (literally: house, household) became directly related to an autarkic or self-sufficient state, which too often aggressively strove to become a monopoly in many senses, negating the market forces and interests. Below we shall explain how this is to be understood in the case of china versus the British and other empires. The latter identified itself largely with the global market, but this identifica- tion leads to serious difficulties in theory and also in practice.

carl Trocki opens one of his highly stimulating books with a sentence referring to other fixed opinions about china:

8 E. Dodge, p. 264.

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introduction 7

For European observers, one of the most enduring nineteenth-century images of the chinese … was that of the opium “wreck”. The hollow-eyed, emaciated Oriental stretched out on his pallet, pipe in hand, stood as the stereotype of Asiatic decadence and indulgence. he was the icon of all that was beyond the pale of christian morality and human decency. Even if we went beyond the picture to learn that it was Westerners, really English and Americans, who were most actively involved in selling the drug in Asia, the association between the “chinaman” and his pipe was fixed. The victim had come to stand for the crime, and the image has acquired an extraordinary historical durability.9

There are other positions to legitimate in opium historiography: the one of the official public perpetrators (here the colonial governments, their bosses in the homelands and the leaderships of the Protestant and catholic churches) and of their often private official executioners (from producers and traders to military, bureaucrats and settlers supported by their clergy); the one of the homeland supporters (mostly medical staff, politicians) and, ultimately, of the opposition against opium (other politi- cians, intellectuals and scientists and, in the end, even some individual missionaries). In the victims’ countries or circles the legitimated positions are not only of governments or leaders (from emperors to warlords), but also of collaborating producers, smuggling traffickers, etc. and, ultimately, of the addicts and their supporters, who have to rationalize their addic- tion. Apart from the obvious analysis of the trade, profits and losses, and their contexts, all this is also part of the opium problem as discussed below.

Of course, one can simply deny the ravaging effects of opium and call this ‘a misconception ‘.10 In the past or at present the most used rational- izations in this kind of literature are found in both the perpetrators’ and the victims’ media: “Man is by nature cruel and war-like”; “By definition pagans go to hell, unless they are converted to christianity”; “Man was

9 c. Trocki (1990), p. 1. The image was so strong that also Western and chinese oppo- nents of opium consumption used it regularly. It is remarkable that Trocki publishes exactly these images and in c.Trocki (1999a). See as well the most recent publication I could consult: J. Lovell, passim.

10 Even recently by W. Bernstein, p. 289, on highly shaky grounds, ‘academic research’ (he does not gave a source) should have proved that ‘it was largely a social drug that harmed only a tiny percentage of users’. he did not even consider that a ‘tiny percentage’ in china (let alone in the whole of East Asia) immediately concerns many millions of peo- ple. Bernstein writes himself that ‘about one chinese person in a hundred inhaled enough opium to even be at risk of addiction’ (Idem). If this kind of reasoning should be relevant, Bernstein does not realize that this concerns at least four million people only in china at the time, apart from their surroundings of related victims.

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chapter one8

prepared from time immemorial to eliminate his fellow men”, “Man in antiquity was already an addict or consumer of all kinds of drugs”11, “The Yellow, Black and Red races are clearly inferior to the White race”12; “We conquer your country and claim that it is our property” (the classical set- tler’s claim); “It is our world mission to civilize and pacify the earth”; “If you do not want to follow our demands, we have the right/ we are obliged to force you to do so in the name of mankind”; and so on.

A fixed element in all this is the generalizing abstract language, which is immediately neutralized by asking about the concrete details. The European 19th-century, with all its new ideologies, was the richest in inventions of this kind. They still haunt our minds. Its rigidity is camou- flaged in legitimating literature at issue by sportsman-like challenge— response dichotomies, etc. Take, for instance, the following text in an important but very imperial English historical atlas. One can read:

For much of the 19th-century the chinese failed to understand the chal- lenge presented by Western powers. After a peak of prosperity under the ch’ing in the 18th-century, they regarded themselves as the centre of world civilization and were slow to realize that Western power, with its superior technology, productivity and wealth, had overtaken them. Such attitudes informed their negative responses to British attempts to develop diplomatic relations from 1793. Matters came to a head when the chinese tried to end the illicit trade in opium with its damaging economic effects. They were defeated by the British in the First Opium War and in 1842 forced to cede

11 Even c.Trocki (1999a), chapter 2 or P-A. chouvy in his chapter 1 has the anti-histor- ical attitude to present a prehistory of opium as if this in whatever form can explain or legitimize the spreading of opium under colonial and imperialistic conditions by Western powers. Recently, the same was tried by W. Bernstein, p. 287. The most erudite, detailed and well illustrated example is Merlin’s overview of the prehistoric and ancient Egyptian, Greek or Roman experiences with the opium poppy, apart from about 25 other kinds of papaver (in fact 28 genera and some 250 species as J. Scott, p. 1 reveals). The feeling of ‘uncertainty’ (p. 281) Merlin has about his subject must also arise from the fact that his research on Papaver somniferum never came across The Opium Question (or its origins); it was this question which makes his research more interesting than would otherwise be the case.

12 One of the more clever ideologues of British imperialism, Sir Alfred Lyall, compar- ing the Roman with the British Empire, ends a study about the many elements of Indian religious sects and the way the British handled this diversity with: ‘A modern empire means the maintenance of order by the undisputed predominance of one all-powerful member of a federation … it is the best machine for collecting public opinion over a wide area among dissociated communities. It is the most efficient instrument of comprehen- sive reforms in law and government and the most powerful engine whereby one con- fessedly superior race can control and lead other races left without nationality or a working social organization.’ (p. 306). Indeed, it is this powerful race which introduced and managed the production and distribution of opium in a quite mechanical way.

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introduction 9

hong Kong and five treaty ports in which foreigners were permitted to trade free from chinese jurisdiction.13

Did those Western powers really ‘overtake’ china more than infiltrating some places on the coast? Were ‘they’ (who?) really regarding themselves seriously as the center of the world and did this really have negative con- sequences for the West? Were ‘they’ really so slow to understand the chal- lenge, and which kind of challenge was this? What were, anyway, the attempts of 1793, the Macartney kotow, other than a highly arrogant insult of a chinese emperor by a minor English “diplomat” and a rather fraudulent attempt to make an opium deal with this emperor? Only the word ‘illicit’ in the quotation could provoke a small murmur and the ques- tion of since when was it not allowed to prohibit affairs which were, also at that time, perceived in china and England as criminal?

13 The Times Historical Atlas, ed. R. Overy, p. 256. See also p. 193 for statistics of relation “export” of chinese silver and “value of opium” until 1836. See for the narrative of the Opium Wars J. Roberts, chapter 14, E. Dodge, p. 270 ff. and J. Spence, chapter 7, but still the best is F. Wakeman’s contribution to the Cambridge History of China (1978). It is remark- able that few traits of this appear in the more recent Oxford History of the British Empire or the given Times Historical Atlas. A better modern treatment is c. Munn, chapter 1 and pas- sim.

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