1900-1919 | Media propaganda | Opium



A gaunt looking opium smoker in China –
John Thomson – c. 1890s – via Wikimedia Commons.

[ 1 June 1906 ]

On 1 June 1906, an editorial in The Times strongly supported John Morley, India Secretary, who had cautioned parliament against any legal sanctions on Britain’s opium trade with China.  Since the early nineteenth century, the East India Company had overseen the cultivation of opium along the Ganges Valley, which had been exported in increasing quantities to China, with a devastating impact on the population. When the Chinese tried to hold back the flood of narcotics by seizing shipments, Britain had deployed its overwhelming military power to enforce ‘free trade’ in two ‘opium wars’ in 1839-42 and 1856-60.

By the early twentieth century, there was growing public unease at the government’s continuing refusal to agree to any restrictions, despite a motion of the House of Commons, passed in 1891, declaring that ‘the system by which the Indian opium revenue is raised is morally indefensible’ and regardless of the numerous accounts of the trade’s harrowing impact.1  ‘Millions upon millions have been struck down by the plague’ noted the governor of Hunan province, who’s comments were cited in several leading British newspapers, adding that ‘in its swift, deadly course it is spreading devastation everywhere, wrecking the minds and eating away the strength and wealth of its victims.’2

The Times, widely seen as representing Britain’s business and political elite, was not so easily persuaded. It reminded readers that ‘the opium revenue is still a substantial sum, which we cannot suddenly withdraw without compensation,’ adding that, ‘we have to consider our responsibilities towards the opium growers in our own territory, and chief of all we have to consider what would be our responsibility towards the Indian Government, if, by a decision of Parliament, we were to wipe out three millions of its revenue…  These, then, are the obstacles – partly questions of broad imperial policy, partly financial difficulties of ways and means – which we are obliged to bear in mind when approaching a question that rightly arouses the sympathy of the humane.’3

Many other newspapers also supported the minister’s defence of Britain’s involvement in the narcotics trade. Typically, The Scotsman commented: ‘Mr Morley could not give the abolitionists what they wanted. He gave them what they did not want – instruction and prudent counsel.’4 However, a few newspapers did express the growing public sense of shame, including the Norfolk Eastern Daily Press which declared that ‘the traffic is so shameful, it so deeply stains the honour of the nation, that it would have been gratifying to find Mr. Morley making up his mind for the necessary sacrifice.’5


  1. ‘The Story of a Crime: To-Day’s Opium Debate,’ The London Daily News, 30 May 1906, p. 6.
  2. Chang Chih-tung, the governor of Hunan cited in ‘Political Notes,’ The Times, 27 January 1901, p. 7 and in ‘The Story of a Crime: To-Day’s Opium Debate,’ the London Daily News, 30 May 1906, p. 6.
  3. Editorial, The Times, 1 June 1906, p. 9.
  4. Editorial, The Scotsman, 1 June 1906, p. 6.
  5. ‘Opium,’ The Norfolk Eastern Daily Press, 1 June 1906, p. 4.

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