1860-1899 | China | Opium



Chinese opium smokers –
Thomas Allom (1858) – public domain -via Wikimedia.

[ 31 December 1879 ]

By this day in 1879, 105,000 mango wood chests full of opium had been exported by Britain to China during the year.1 Each contained 160 lbs (72 kg) of opium, which would mean a total for the year of 16.8 million lbs or 7.6 million kg.2 That is greater than the total global output of opium in 2016, estimated at approximately 6.3 million kg, when the drug killed 64,000 Americans and an unknown number of people worldwide.3

We have no idea of the number of fatalities caused by British opium exports to China, but we do have precise records for the volume of shipments. They increased exponentially from a relatively modest 4,000 chests at the start of the nineteenth century, rising to 18,000 chests by 1830 and 40,000 chests by 1838, just prior to the outbreak of the first Opium War in which Britain used its overwhelming military might against the Qing dynasty to compel China to open its markets to increased exports of both British manufactures and opium. Two decades later, the Second Opium War (1856-60) resulted in the Chinese being forced again to legalise the opium trade. By the following decade, exports averaged 60,000 chests a year and by the 1880s they reached a peak annual average of 100,000 chests.4

Some of the profits went to agents of the East India Company and contributed significantly to the cost of British rule in India, where the drug was grown, while the remainder generated a new class of extremely wealthy opium traders in Britain, who invested their new found wealth in manufacturing, banking and insurance. At the same time, China was devastated by the cost of the imports, both economically and through the impact on public health. By 1888, The Times estimated that seven out of every ten adult males in China were users, many of them addicts.5

Britain’s massive narcotics enterprise was also immensely damaging to India, as was well known by more informed elements of Britain’s educated classes. The reason, in the words of the Reverend Dean Dickinson, speaking to a packed public meeting at Dublin’s Mansion House in December 1879, was that ‘550,000 acres of the well watered valley of the Ganges were alienated from other far more beneficial crops, and used for the production of opium. Yet the cultivation of the poppy tended to impoverish the soil, and it was a very uncertain crop. No wonder,’ he concluded, ‘there should be famines in India.’6


  1. Saul David, Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire, Penguin Books, London, 2007, p. 402 and Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007, p. 102. For the following year, 1880, the figure of 98,000 chests was cited in ‘The Opium Trade: Conference in Manchester,’ The Manchester Courier, 2 February 1884, p. 6.
  2. Amar Farooqui, Colonialism, Indian Merchants and the Politics of Opium, 1790-1843, Lexington Books, New York and Oxford, 2005, p. 29. A figure of 100,000 chests exported to China during 1883, ‘representing about 7,000 tons’, is cited in ‘The Opium Traffic,’ The Lancaster Gazette, 24 February 1883, p. 6.
  3. See the Report on Counternarcotics to the United States Congress, 30 July 2017, p. 194, available online at url https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2017-07-30qr-section3-counternarcotics.pdf and ‘Venda Felbab Brown, ‘Afghanistan’s Opium Production is Through The Roof – why Washington Shouldn’t Overreact,’ Brookings, 21 November 2017 accessed online at url https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/11/21/afghanistans-opium-production-is-through-the-roof-why-washington-shouldnt-overreact/
  4. John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks Publications, London, 2013, p. 57 and p. 72.
  5. Saul David, op. cit..
  6. The Reverend Dean Dickinson cited in ‘The Opium Traffic,’ The Freeman’s Journal, 16 December 1879, p. 2.

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