Opium: A History

By Review date: 07/27/2022August 5th, 2022| History & Economics
By Martin Booth, 1996 (380p.)

This was an interesting and informative book on an important topic.  Even if some parts of it were a bit depressing, I still found it to be a joy to read, especially for its treatment of the drug’s early history.  While I knew that opium had played a big role in the development of global trade, many of the facts and stories that Booth shares in this book were new to me. While I would not necessarily recommend it as a must-read, it certainly helped me appreciate the size and severity of today’s drug problem, as well as the reasons for the fractures between Western and Eastern cultures. The bottom line is that for as long as humans have existed, there has been a drug problem. Acknowledging this fact does not require that one accepts it, and neither does it argue for denial of its importance.  The proverbial war on drugs (link) that Nixon declared when he took office, and that every US president has had to fight since, did not start in the 1970s, and neither has it ever ended.  Like war and poverty, drug problems will likely remain with us forever, unfortunately.

Martin Booth comes across as an expert on the illicit drug trade, but for some reason, neither Amazon nor the 2005 edition of the book provide his bio. I did some Google research on him, only to discover that there was a British novelist by the same name who wrote A Very Private Gentlemen (1991), which was adapted into a 2010 movie starring George Clooney. Incredibly, as I discovered after reading his Wikipedia page (link), they are one and the same person! Booth (1944-2004) was a novelist, poet, English teacher, screenwriter, Royal Navy civil servant, and the founder of the Sceptre Press (link).  He was born in Lancashire, England and was educated at the King George V School in Hong Kong during the 1960s.  His first successful novel, Hiroshima Joe (1985), tells the story of a man who lived in Hong Kong during WW2.  Given that Booth was only 59 when he passed away (of cancer), I couldn’t help but question if indeed this was the same person that wrote the dozens of novels listed in the Wikipedia page. But then again, Balzac (1799-1850), who was one of the fathers of literary realism (link), has 185 book titles to his name (list), and he too died in his 50s. But still, I refused to accept that it was the same Martin Booth until I came across his obituary in The Guardian (link) and The Independent (link), both of which cited this book. While Booth went down in history as a novelist, he in fact wrote several non-fiction books, including a few biographies. He also wrote a book titled Cannabis: A History (2003).

Back to Opium, the first half of the book was my favorite because it traced the history of opium to the very beginnings.  “The story of opium goes back well before the nineteenth century invention of heroin,” Booth explains.  “It has its origins in the start of human society and its use almost certainly pre-dates civilization. In fact, there seems little doubt that opium was one of the first medicinal substances known to mankind.”  But according the Booth, “for the average Victorian, opium taking was as much a part of society as the drinking of alcohol or the smoking of tobacco.”  This claim surprised me, even though I was aware that opium was a serious problem during those days.  Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), for example, who is known today as the world’s first computer programmer, was an addict (link), and she died at 36.  And I recall from Ron Chernow’s classic biography of Alexander Hamilton (2004), that John Adams accused Hamilton of being one too. “In one particularly bizarre letter,” Chernow writes, “Adams intimated that Hamilton might have owed his eloquence to drug usage.”  “I have been told,” Adams wrote in a letter, “that General Hamilton never wrote or spoke at the bar or elsewhere in public without a bit of opium in his mouth.”  I had not taken John Adams’ accusation at face value, since I knew he hated Hamilton, but Booth claims that even Benjamin Franklin, of all people, “was almost certainly addicted to opium in his declining years.” This made me think twice. Could the American dream have been conceived during an opium trip?

In no way and nowhere in the book does Booth come across as an advocate of opiates or drug usage.  To the contrary, he emphasizes the tragic suffering that the little seed has brought mankind throughout history.  From wars to famines and economic annihilation, opium was not only the cause of conflict, but also the winner. That it continues to be a problem to this day is testament to the fact that it deserves attention and respect.  On this front, it appears that the world has indeed made progress in uniting forces to fight the demon.  That said, some wounds are still open, and much more work remains to be done.

So in closing, while I would not recommend this book for leisure reading, I found it to be valuable and well written.  While he is not a recognized expert on the topic, you wouldn’t know it without Google.



Chapter 1: Raw Opium

A method of preparing opium for smoking was published in the British Pharmacopoeia in the early nineteenth century: Take of opium in thin slices, 11b; distilled water 6 pints. Macerate the opium in 2 pints of water for 24 hours, and express the liquor. Reduce the residue of the opium to a uniform pulp, macerate it again in 2 pints of water for 24 hours, and express. Repeat the operation a third time. Mix the liquors, strain through flannel, and evaporate by a water- bath until the extract has acquired a suitable consistence for forming pills.

The method of smoking opium has not changed and, in the few places were it is still smoked today, such as the Shan states of north- east Burma (now called the Union of Myanmar), China, Laos and Thailand, the technique and paraphernalia survive. Opium smoking is in fact legal in some countries, notably in the Middle East, where it is sold as sticks about the size of a hot dog sausage.

Most heroin is taken by injection: however, since the arrival of AIDS and the risk of cross- infection through shared needles, the habit of smoking and snorting heroin has been on the gradual increase.

Chapter 2: The Discovery of Dreams

Opium has been used by man since prehistoric times and was arguably the first drug to be discovered. Being naturally occurring, it almost certainly predates the discovery of alcohol which requires a knowledge of fermentation.

Around 3400 BC, the opium poppy was being cultivated in the Tigris– Euphrates river systems of lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians, the world’s first civilization and agriculturists, used the ideograms hul and gil for the poppy, this translating as the ‘joy plant’.

In AD 77, Dioscorides wrote that opium was best obtained by the careful grazing of the pod, although he was just as familiar with other applications of the poppy. He recorded: Poppies possess as it were a cooling power, therefore the leaves and head when boiled in water bring sleep. The decoction is also drunk to remedy insomnia. Finely powdered and added to groats, the heads make an effective poultice for swellings and erysipelas. They must be crushed when still green, shaped into tablets then dried for storage. If the heads themselves are boiled in water until the liquid is reduced to half then boiled with honey until a syrup forms, they may make a sweetmeat with an anodyne action.

With the gradual fading of Arab influence, the trade in opium was taken up by the next great trading people– the Venetians. Venice was the centre of European trade and, once again, with goods came knowledge. Opium was imported from the Middle East with spices but it was not a major item of merchandise although, when Columbus sailed to discover the New World, it was one of the commodities he was briefed to bring, back. His instructions were not unique: Cabot, Magellan and Vasco da Gama were all requested to find opium in addition to other commodities. Thanks to da Gama, the Portuguese displaced the Venetians and, having navigated a route round southern Africa, included opium in their cargoes, purchasing it on the Indian subcontinent where poppies were now widely grown, the Mogul emperors encouraging this cultivation for its significant revenue.

In America, Benjamin Franklin, the politician and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, was almost certainly addicted to opium in his declining years, as was John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, the arrogant and eccentric politician who fought the emancipation of slaves even though he gave his own their liberty in his will.

Chapter 3: Pleasure-domes in Xanadu

In Europe, the movement included such writers as Goethe, Schlegel, Hölderlin, Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël and Pushkin, whilst in Britain it embraced Coleridge, Wordsworth, Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron and Thomas De Quincey, the core of the period extending between 1798, when the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads, and 1832, when Sir Walter Scott died.

Chapter 4: Poverty, Potions and Poppy-heads

The Ottoman Empire was a large market for British cotton goods, which were traded for corn, silk, raisins, wool, sponges and opium: between 1827 and 1869, 80 to 90 per cent of all imported opium was Turkish. The trading level never dropped below 70 per cent even with the advent on the market of Persian opium which was imported direct from Persia or via Constantinople where it was repackaged to look like the Turkish variety. The Turkish near- monopoly on opium was not without detractors. In 1829, a Dr Webster stated quite bluntly that, if possible, opium should be grown in and obtained from a British colony, removing the reliance upon what he termed ‘the rascally Turks’. Such a wish was, however, beyond the bounds of fulfilment. The trade was too well established to be overturned by jingoistic considerations.

Despite all the signs of opium’s potential for evil, addiction still aroused little public interest. For the average Victorian, opium taking was as much a part of society as the drinking of alcohol or the smoking of tobacco. Indeed, opium was more widely available in 1870 than tobacco was in 1970: and, like tobacco in the present day, it was primarily purchased by the poor and lower classes, contemporary studies showing the deeper the poverty, the greater the desire to buy opium. In the first half of the nineteenth century, opium was seldom regarded by either the public or the medical profession as a problem although, very occasionally, concern was shown. When, in 1828, the Earl of Mar died, an investigation found he had been eating opium for thirty years, once telling his housekeeper he consumed 49 grains of solid opium and an ounce of laudanum a day. On hearing this, his insurers refused to honour his life insurance, contending his habit affected his life expectancy. A few years later, a Professor Christison of Edinburgh concluded to a Scottish court that opium- eating shortened life.

Chapter 7: The Fantasy Traders

Of these new mercantile nations, the Portuguese were the first to arrive. After an abortive attempt to gain a foothold in 1514, in what is now Hong Kong, they were given permission to establish a single but exclusive trading base on the western shore of the Pearl River estuary in 1557. It was named Macau. The first non- Arabic opium to be imported into China came from the Portuguese settlement of Goa, on the west coast of India, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Known as Malwa opium and originating from the independent Maratha states of central and western India, it was not long before the trade was being competed for by the Dutch and, subsequently, the British, the control of opium passing from one seafaring nation to another. The Dutch took over from the Portuguese, bringing raw opium from India to Java, then re- exporting it to China. When, in the eighteenth century, the British superseded the Dutch, a new phase in the history of opium was opened.

For a century and a half, trade with China was governed by the Eight Regulations, the most important of which was that no warships or arms might enter the Pearl River (at the mouth of which stood Canton) and that merchant ships might not approach nearer the city than Whampoa, an unpleasant island with no naturally defined harbour about 10 nautical miles downriver. Malaria was endemic there and fresh water hard to obtain, the only supply being brought out to ships at anchor by sampan. All social and mercantile contact could only be effected through the Co- Hong (frequently abbreviated to just Hong), a cartel of eight to twelve Chinese merchants with exclusive trading rights with the Barbarians, as foreigners were known. Other regulations were primarily designed to humiliate and segregate foreigners.

The East India Company– frequently nicknamed the John Company after the jovial image of the jolly Englishman John Bull– was not new to China. It had been rashly permitted by the Portuguese to establish a Macau office in 1664, from which it began trading in a small way from 1678. However, once it established mastery of trade with China, it tried to keep a firm grip on it– no British ship could officially trade with China except under an East India Company licence– until 1833 when the company charter lapsed: it did not finally wind up until 1857, when it was dissolved following the Indian Mutiny.

Confusingly, the edict did not mention a restriction on imports and importers. It was bungled, making illegal a substance which it was lawful to import. What was more, until 1796, opium imports were liable to an excise duty which illuminates the hypocrisy of the emperors who, whilst condemning their countrymen who dealt in opium, nevertheless earned from it for their exchequer.

In 1796, all existing edicts were renewed and their penalties increased: then, in 1799, the Emperor Kia King issued a proclamation specifically prohibiting the importation of opium, its use in China and domestic poppy cultivation. Before this, opium was regarded like any other commodity but from 1799 it became contraband. Invariably, as soon as it was illegal, organised smuggling commenced, the illicit trade conducted not by pirates but by surreptitious arrangement between importers and local Chinese officials: corruption, not nocturnal cutters and sloops, brought opium in to Canton and elsewhere along the coast.

In the light of such bare- faced hypocrisy, a decision was made to restrict domestic Indian consumption but to develop an export trade. The company, therefore, resolved to expand considerably the sale of opium to China, for not only was opium a superb trading commodity, in that it did not deteriorate, but demand increased as addicts were created. Had they only known, the Chinese might have had an opportunity to stop the East India Company’s opium trading at this early stage. In 1793, Lord Macartney went on the first British diplomatic mission to Peking to meet the emperor. Macartney carried a letter from George III to the emperor, along with extensive gifts chosen to represent the best Britain had to offer China. In his brief, Macartney was free to make concessions, one paragraph going so far as to concede the East India Company would, if necessary, prohibit the export of opium to China. Yet the matter was not discussed, the mission being a failure because Macartney refused to kow- tow and the Chinese dismissed his gifts as rubbish.

The growth of the opium trade with China also hinged on another addiction, albeit a far less pernicious one. It was tea. The British had taken to drinking tea and Chinese tea, considered the best, was consumed in enormous quantities: with silk, it was China’s primary export. The Chinese, however, whilst keen to export tea, really wanted nothing in return except silver bullion. As the Emperor Ch’ien Lung expressed it: ‘The Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our products.’

Profits varied greatly. Opium was a highly speculative trade where great fortunes were possible but so also were substantial losses. Jardine Matheson became by far the largest agency, coming into being when William Jardine and James Matheson, both leading country merchants, joined forces in 1828: their partnership, which for the first years dealt primarily in opium, was formally registered as Jardine Matheson & Co. in 1832. In Jardine’s opinion, the opium trade was the ‘safest and most gentleman- like speculation I am aware of.’ The company exists to this day as one of the foremost trading multinationals in South- east Asia.

A contemporary view of Jardine’s political opportunism exists in Disraeli’s novel, Sybil:

After the edict of 1799, the illicit opium trade continued for another seventy- eight years with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the British government of which, because it was governed by a charter, the East India Company was never fully independent. The charter was frequently revamped with various parliamentary committees periodically inspecting the company’s activities, profitability and viability: its social or moral standing was never questioned.

The opium was purchased by firms, such as the British- owned Jardine Matheson and Dent & Co., or American companies, such as Russell & Co. of Boston and Perkins & Company. Indians and Parsees, like Heerjeebhoy and Dadabhoy Rustomjee, also traded in opium, as well as lone British entrepreneurs. Some firms did not bid directly but through agents or purchased supplies from those who had themselves bid, paying a slight premium for the convenience.

One, the Lintin, owned by an American soldier of fortune called Forbes, made him so much money in three years from 1830 that he retired, requesting to be buried in a coffin made from her mainmast.

Imperial civil servants in Peking were increasingly concerned about opium and the ineffectuality of the edicts. In 1836, opium had been at the centre of heated discussion from which appeared the concept of legalising importation and taxing opium. Others argued that legalisation would spread the habit. The general consensus was that opium smoking had to be curbed because it was undermining the morality and health of the nation: worse, the exchequer was losing huge quantities of silver which were being exported, the currency being based on silver. The drain on the silver reserve was massive. In 1793, it contained 70 million taels of silver (approximately 2.6 million kilograms, one tael equalling about 37.5 grams), but by 1820 this was reduced to about 10 million taels. The Chinese also regarded opium as an agent of foreign aggression, debasing Confucian ethics and encouraging selfish idleness.

Even the emperors were hamstrung: when Emperor Tao Kwong was asked to legalise opium, he said: ‘It is true, I cannot prevent the introduction of the flowing poison; gain- seeking and corrupt men will for profit and sensuality, defeat my wishes; but nothing will induce me to derive a revenue from the vice and misery of my people.’ He had a personal as well as a moral interest in banning opium: three of his sons were addicts and were killed by the drug. He died, it is said, of a broken heart.

The Chinese found it inconceivable that the opium trade was conducted with the knowledge of the British monarch and in 1830, before relations had begun to break down, the then Governor- General of Kwangtung and Kwangsi provinces had advised that the best way to stop importation was to appeal to the leaders of the foreign merchants’ nations. Lin, who wrote that the British ‘are ruled at present by a young girl. But I am told that it is she who issues commands, and on the whole it seems that it would be best to start by sending instructions to her,’ was to send a long and closely argued letter against the opium trade to Queen Victoria.

In the first week of September 1839, the predominantly British merchant fleet, anchored in what is today Hong Kong’s western harbour, was blockaded by war junks. Elliot sent an emissary ashore: his emissary was Gutzlaff, who had written the letters he was carrying. One demanded the mandarins lift their threat, the other asked local villages not to poison the wells from which the British ships drew their water. The mandarins refused. At 2 p.m., Elliot sent an ultimatum which was ignored. Just before 3 p.m., the British opened fire on a junk. The skirmish, known as the Battle of Kowloon, was the first action in what The Times was to call, on 25 April 1840, the Opium War. The British ships did not succeed in lifting the blockade but, on 3 November, two British frigates opened fire upon a fleet of war junks in the Battle of Chuenpi. The junks were routed, European supremacy was established and the war got going in earnest.

With hindsight, the war was little more than a series of skirmishes, British occupation of various towns and insignificant naval clashes. The Chinese methods of warfare were outdated and they were usually defeated. The British suffered comparatively few losses from gunfire: most of the casualties in the 10,000- strong force which arrived from Ceylon in April 1840 died of malaria and, ironically, dysentery which could have been cured with opium.

The war, over which neither London nor Peking had any direct control, sputtered on until August 1842 when, with Shanghai taken, the Royal Navy sailed up the Yangtze River (closely followed by vessels carrying opium) and reached Nanking. There, aboard HMS Cornwallis, the Treaty of Nanking was signed. Known with some justification by the Chinese as the ‘Unequal Treaty’, it ended the war. The treaty opened up China as never before. Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai were termed ‘Treaty Ports’ and became centres for foreign trade. An indemnity of 21 million silver dollars was imposed to cover, among other things, the opium destroyed by Lin and Hong Kong was ceded in perpetuity to Britain. The Hong merchants in Canton lost their monopoly, fixed tariffs being set for all imports from Britain. Opium was hardly mentioned in any of the negotiations, nor in the peace terms: the only reference to it was oblique– ‘it is to be hoped [that the] system of smuggling which has heretofore been carried on between English and Chinese merchants (in many cases with open connivance of Chinese custom- houses officials) will entirely cease.’ By this omission, the treaty allowed for the continuance of the opium trade. The primary reason why opium was not touched upon in the Treaty of Nanking was because, by mentioning it, the British government would have had to plan a future policy for the trade and they preferred China to do this instead by legalising it. Both Sir Henry Pottinger, by now the Chief Superintendent of Trade and his successor, Sir John Davis, tried to force the Chinese hand but failed. Smuggling continued.

It was considered with hindsight that the war had been inevitable. Opium was merely one of the pretexts. The British considered the issues were more fundamental and involved forcing China to open up to world trade, although Sir George Staunton, an authority on Sino- British relations, declared in Parliament, ‘I never denied the fact, that if there had been no opium smuggling, there would have been no war.’ From the Chinese viewpoint, however, opium was the principal cause.

Despite Queen Victoria’s opinion of him as a man ‘who completely disobeyed his instructions and tried to get the lowest terms he could’, Elliot went on to become governor of Bermuda, Trinidad and St Helena and, when he died in 1875, he was an admiral with a knighthood. Yet to this day, no mention is made of his part in founding Hong Kong: the British Dictionary of National Biography ignores the fact completely.

With the increased amenities offered by the five treaty ports and the new colony of Hong Kong smuggling continued, expanding dramatically. The losers were China, which did not rid itself of either opium or foreigners and Britain whose international standing was reduced by the iniquities of the war. In short, opium was not only the cause of the first Anglo- Chinese conflict but also the winner.

Chapter 8: The Government of Opium

Not only the British moved to the embryonic colony. So too did other nationalities, especially Americans and non- Europeans such as Parsees. By the mid- 1840s, about 100 foreign businesses were competing with each other along the Chinese seaboard. The British free- trade policy and colonial political climate were ideal, providing a stability the merchants had not had in Canton and were unable to find not only in China but also in Siam, Japan, Formosa, Vietnam and the Philippines. Needless to say, under British rule of law, a lack of Imperial Chinese regulations– not to mention an absence of corrupt officials– enabled not only general traders to thrive: so did opium merchants who were free to get on with their work. Opium dealing was the colony’s main business alongside tea and the smuggling of salt which was an imperial monopoly.

the Chinese were generally cautious of doing business with foreigners, and the British in particular. They were also far less inclined to import from Britain as the traders had hoped. Only those merchants whose commerce was based upon opium prospered, trading in which continued into the twentieth century.

the British had to keep on with opium dealing because India’s economy was reliant upon it.

It was boom time. Profits from opium soared as the Chinese authorities virtually gave up trying to stem the flood of imports. In 1845, eighty vessels based in Hong Kong were running opium, nineteen of them owned by Jardine Matheson which also maintained fourteen receiving ships along the coast of China. One, moored at Woosung, close to Shanghai, sold opium up the Yangtze River, thus spreading the drug into the heartland of China. By 1849, an average of 40,000 chests of opium were stored in Hong Kong and 75 per cent of India’s opium was traded through the colony, to the tune of £ 6 million a year: against this, other trade consisted of £ 11.5 million of British- made goods and £ 1.5 million of other goods, mostly manufactured in India.

Tension between Britain and China remained high, however. Humiliated by losing the conflict and still burdened by opium, the Chinese authorities deeply resented the foreign presence in their kingdom.

So began the second Sino- British conflict. Known as the Second Opium War or the Arrow War, the hostilities lasted from 1856 to 1860, the campaigns being far bloodier than in the previous opium war.

Understandably, a good number of Chinese identified Western evangelism with the drug trade. Opium and morphine– which was sometimes erroneously employed by well- meaning missionary doctors to cure opium addiction– were frequently referred to as ‘Jesus- Opium’. Such was the link between the Christians and opium that when Alcock left Peking in 1869, Prince Kung told him if he removed opium and missionaries from China, traders would be welcomed.

Small quantities of opium from countries other than India were still arriving in China but it was the Chinese home product which started to hit at Indian profit margins. The trade in domestic opium was almost exclusively Chinese operated. Some had long been grown in China, especially in the western and south- western provinces, and by 1800 domestic production was greater than imported opium, despite the 1799 prohibition. In 1830, poppy farming had been recorded in the provinces of Chekiang, Fukien, Kwangtung and Yunnan whilst six years later, when the debate on legalization was raging in Peking, a large imperial correspondence dealt with the domestic product. By the 1860s there was a considerable increase in poppy cultivation, much of it successfully hidden from the authorities.

Meanwhile Hong Kong prospered, remaining a more stable place in which to live than China: much of the nation was in turmoil with the Taiping Rebellion which raged between 1851 and 1864.

The opium trade had developed purely as a business founded on the basic commercial principles of supply and demand and ready profitability supported by the premise of if- we- don’t- sell- it- somebody- else- will. Morality did not come into the equation and only slowly evolved over many decades. There were always a few enlightened observers or critics and, at the time of the opium wars, there were anti- opium organisations but they were short- lived and carried no influence.

When it became realized, people were appalled to find 17 to 20 per cent of the gross national product of the Indian subcontinent was entirely due to the demoralization of millions of Chinese.

A reform movement had also grown up in China and, in 1906, prompted by the statement made in Britain, an imperial decree was published demanding the cessation of opium smoking and the closure of all opium dens. It set a target date of 1917 by which time China would be cleansed of opium. A proviso excluded people over sixty: it was inserted because Tzu-hsi, the Dowager Empress, was herself addicted and did not wish to break her habit.

growing in Kansu province was virtually non- existent. Despite localized successes and some uncompromising punishments– forty- seven people were executed for growing or smoking opium in Hunan after the Wuchang Uprising of 1911– enforcement of the ban was difficult and tens of thousands of addicts were left untouched by the reforms. Many had salted away supplies whilst an illegal and highly lucrative trade continued, run by mercenary foreigners, corrupt officials and conveniently blind government departments. Inevitably, many senior government personnel and politicians in the new Republic of China, which was founded as a result of the Wuchang Uprising and dethroned the last emperor, were strident in their condemnation of the opium trade at the same time as they, or their families, were taking part in it and, as landowners, were frequently producing opium. Sun Yat- sen, the mastermind behind the revolution and the acknowledged father of modern, post- imperial China, raised money for his cause by taxing all the opium dens in Canton.

The situation did not last long. China was plunged once more into political chaos in 1916 with the death of the president, Yüan Shih- k’ai, and entered into the era of the warlords who emasculated the national government and ruled their own domains with medieval baronial savagery. The grip the authorities had been putting on opium was lost and both the production and use of opium resumed on an extensive scale. In some areas, opium cultivation became virtually mandatory. Local warlords used it as a source of income to fund guerrilla warfare. Farmers were forced to abandon food production and cultivate poppies, with the opium harvest being commandeered. The cultivation of poppies and transportation of opium were taxed, as were opium dens, shops, pipes and the little lamps used to set the pipes going.

Regardless of the progress made by Britain and other countries over the opium trade, China was still bedeviled by the extraterritorial rights of foreigners who resided in foreign concessions and in such enclaves as Portuguese Macau, British Hong Kong and the extensive foreign quarters in Shanghai where Chinese authority could not be brought to bear.

After the Japanese took control of Manchuria in 1931, they became the main supplier of heroin down the China coast. In the 1930s, Japan earned over $ 300 million a year from the distribution and sale of Manchurian opium and heroin. The Japanese had a reason for being involved in narcotics smuggling into China. For centuries, the two countries had been enemies and the Japanese were only too aware how effective narcotics were as a social weapon. When, after more than a decade of antagonism, this animosity finally erupted into the Sino- Japanese War of 1937, Japan had already undermined a section of Chinese society.

The Sino- Japanese War badly disrupted any drive against opium. Social administration was in upheaval and the addict hospitals were given over to wounded troops. The Japanese flooded China with opium, morphine and cocaine in a systematic attempt to create new addicts and to encourage former ones to rehabituate.

Margaret Goldsmith, in her 1939 volume, The Trail of Opium, published a list of items which could be purchased in opium shops in Tientsin just before the Second World War.

The Kuomintang authorities, which had been headed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai- shek since Sun Yat- sen’s death in 1925, were busy trying to unify China, fight the Japanese, woo the British and Americans and fend off the Communist forces of Mao Zedong. Yet their preoccupation with politics and military matters was not the only reason for opium’s freedom. Chiang Kai- shek and his administration were themselves heavily dependent upon opium revenue. Chiang had had his early political career bankrolled by an infamous Shanghai gangster called Tu Yueh- sheng, also known as Big- eared Tu, who ran the Green Gang, a large, particularly well- organised and ruthless Chinese secret criminal fraternity. Tu owned extensive poppy- growing interests in Chekiang and Kiangsu provinces and controlled most, if not all, of the opium trade along the Yangtze River and in Shanghai itself, a major opium trade hub. Throughout his time in China, before he fled to Taiwan upon losing the country to the Communists, Chiang Kai- shek had an ambiguous relationship with opium. What the Japanese did not do to China with opium, he did.

Words, like human life, were cheap for Chiang Kai-shek. The following year, 1929, his government took $ 17 million in what was euphemistically termed ‘opium prohibition revenue’. To add insult to injury T.V. Soong, one of the wealthiest men in China and the Harvard- educated Finance Minister, purchased 700 chests of Persian opium through Big- eared Tu in 1930 to supplement a temporary shortage in home product, using Kuomintang soldiers to off- load and guard it in Shanghai. Soong took a hefty commission.

By the end of the 1930s, it was estimated 10 per cent of the Chinese nation (about 40 million people) were opium addicts, the Japanese occupation during the Sino- Japanese and Second World Wars not significantly reducing the figures: it was in Japan’s interest to keep as many Chinese as possible habituated. In Shanghai, even after the privations of the latter conflict, opium was readily available to all levels of society. Opium poppy growing at the time was still so common as to be found in the suburbs of Canton. Domestic production and importation continued unabated until 1949 when, after four years of bitter civil war, the Kuomintang army was defeated by the Communists. Within months of assuming control, in February 1950, the Communist government State Administrative Council banned poppy growing, the production, importation and sale of opium and all narcotics. Only a required quantity of licit medicinal opium was produced under rigorous control.

Between 1949 and 1953, the addict population dramatically shrank. By 1960, China was virtually free of drug addiction. Anyone dealing in opium was summarily executed, often without the inconvenience and expense of a trial. In 1971, China produced exactly 100 tonnes of raw opium, precisely its medicinal requirement.

During the Second World War, Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese who, at first, imported opium into the colony with the intention of demoralising the Chinese: they had no need to for disease, starvation and Japanese cruelty were sufficient not only to demoralise and kill large numbers but to cause many hundreds of thousands to flee into China. As the war progressed, and Japan came under increasing pressure from Allied forces, supply lines were disrupted, with first opium imports and then stockpiles being depleted. In the occupied territory, many thousands of addicts died from withdrawal, insane or broken, but a good number survived through to non- addiction.

When the Japanese surrendered Hong Kong in September 1945, the colonial government, most members of which had been incarcerated in a prisoner- of- war camp on Hong Kong island, did not immediately take over the running of the colony. An interim administration was set up under the British Commander- in- Chief. He issued a proclamation which abolished the opium monopoly thereby preventing any possible revenue being derived from it. Quite possibly, had there been a civilian administration in place, they might have argued against or even prevented this move. The police were made responsible for the closing of all opium dens and suppressing any opium dealing whatsoever. Needless to say, an illegal trade quickly appeared and began to thrive. Yet, for the first time since Hong Kong was ceded to the British, opium was illegal there and was, at last, banned by every facet of British government, at home and abroad. The pernicious legitimate trade was finally over.

Chapter 11: DORA, Isabella and Olivia

By the late 1930s, drugs were all but absent from the press and the cinema. People had other concerns with the Depression, the rise of national socialism in Germany and the inexorable approach of war. The 1930s were, in effect, a lull before the post- war drug storm. In the literary and artistic worlds, however, interest in opium remained. In the 1930s, Aldous Huxley started to become intrigued by drugs and put them as a central theme in his seminal novel, Brave New World, published in 1932.

To the present day, Britain is virtually the only country in the world where, under certain conditions, a doctor may prescribe heroin which is deemed elsewhere as so dangerous even doctors may not handle it: partly, of course, the general incorruptibility of the British medical profession allows this state of affairs. British doctors may prescribe heroin for pain relief, such as in the care of the terminally sick. Furthermore, it occasionally appears in other medical usage: a 1995 report, which created an outcry and was roundly condemned, stated that some doctors in Scotland were giving pregnant women injections of heroin to relieve the pain of childbirth, favoring it for its speed and efficacy.

Rock musicians themselves, perhaps as an extension of the old jazz musician junkie tradition, seem very susceptible to drugs. Drummer Ginger Baker, one of the trio of the seminal super- band, Cream, first took heroin in the late 1950s after being told it improved his playing: his heroin addiction lasted twenty years. Baker has said it was difficult to kick his habit because fans who were also dealers frequently gave him drugs free– he was the ultimate endorsement of their product. As well as Baker and Eric Clapton (also a member of Cream), Boy George, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend of the Who and singer Marianne Faithfull have all at some stage been addicted: when Clapton and Boy George kicked their habit, much was made in the media of their success. Overseas, heroin took– and still takes– its toll on other rock musicians. Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel in 1970. Lou Reed survived his addiction but wrote a famous song about it entitled, not surprisingly, ‘Heroin’. Kurt Cobain committed suicide by shooting himself, but he had also heavily dosed himself with heroin to which he was addicted. Jerry Garcia, the key member of the Grateful Dead, died in the summer of 1995 in his sleep– but at the famous Serenity Knolls drug- rehabilitation clinic. He had told friends he was going on a scuba- diving trip. He, too, was addicted to heroin for many years.

Chapter 12: Carpets, Condoms and Cats

In the Middle East, military transport was used to shift drugs around the region but so too were camels, which were made to carry opium in smooth- ended metal cylinders they were forced to swallow. A smuggling camel could be discovered by the wounds on its mouth caused by the forced feeding. It was said a camel could hold 7.5 kilograms in its belly for at least a month without discomfort. The habit lasted after the war for in 1952 Egyptian customs officers impounded a camel suspected of smuggling. In time, it became drowsy and was slaughtered. Inside its stomach were found twenty- eight rubber containers of opium of which at least one had leaked, causing the beast’s stupefaction. Rubber was used to avoid discovery by a metal detector and the trick was still in use at least to the 1970s for the transport of heroin by camel over the Turko- Syrian border.

A major factor favoring smugglers is the high value of heroin in relation to its volume. A kilogram of pure heroin takes up little more room than an average book: after cutting, it can provide up to 200,000 doses. This makes the smuggling of small quantities economically feasible and allows drug syndicates to accept a degree of discovery.

Recent statistics of heroin smuggling into Britain give an indication of the world- wide situation, although Britain, being close to continental Europe, receives a disproportionately high percentage by road. The figures are 33.9 per cent brought in by vehicle, 19.9 per cent by freight or cargo, 14.9 per cent in baggage, 3.9 per cent on person, 1.6 per cent concealed internally, and 25.8 per cent in other ways, including post, sea drops, diplomatic bag services and light aircraft.

Large itinerant populations of migrant workers provide a supply of mules whilst some countries, like the Netherlands, have so relaxed the enforcement of drug laws as to make a near mockery of international enforcement measures.

…a dog cannot only find infinitesimally small traces of drugs but differentiate between it and all the other smells it comes across. This negates smugglers’ attempts to mask the scent of their drug by packing it with mothballs, onions, garlic powder, pepper, perfume or coffee. A dog may also be given the run of an aircraft cabin, sniffing the seats: if a seat proves positive, the information is radioed to the baggage hall, the passenger who occupied it identified through his boarding pass record or baggage tags and appropriate action taken. Two classifications of dogs are generally used, the active and the passive. The former are usually eager, excitable breeds such as spaniels which are positioned in airline baggage sorting halls. They run all around and over the incoming luggage and, when they get a scent of narcotics, become excited, barking and furiously wagging their tales with glee. Passive dogs are from less volatile breeds such as Labradors and Setters. They wander the transit lounge or mingle with airline passengers at baggage carousels. When a scent is picked up from a passenger, the dog sits down next to them, briefly glancing up at their face: this is the signal to customs officers the passenger is carrying.