August 1, 2022

Tea and Opium: Liquid Jade and the Fruit of the Poppy

It is a singular irony that Tea, unarguably the most healthy beverage in the world next to water, should share a common history with Opium, the curse of many societies across the world for several centuries, particularly China; equally ironical is that China, the original fount of tea, should have paid for Opium with Tea, reluctantly exchanging a significant and obvious benefit for an absolute evil.

Papivera Somniferum, the beautiful red flower, gave the world Opium-and subsequently Morphine and Heroin- whilst Camellia Sinensis, an equally attractive flower but pristine white, gave the world Tea and everything else that flows from it. The origins of both are equally ancient; the discovery of tea is attributed to Emperor Shen Nung of China, a herbalist, in about 4000 BC whilst archeological evidence suggests that the poppy seed has been in use in the Mediterranean region since the Neolithic Age, perhaps in or around 5000 BCE. Carbon- 14 dating of several findings of P. somniferum seeds in Neolithic settlements in Switzerland, Germany and Spain, have confirmed dates as far back as 4200 BCE, attributing a Southern European origin for the opium poppy.

The initial use of both Tea and Opium demonstrate striking parallel features, despite the separation of societies through both time and distance. The original role of opium was exclusive, ritualistic, medicinal and magical; tea was the beverage of the nobility and the leisured classes, part of a cherished ritual, whilst opium was used by ancient priests, magicians and warriors. As with the early use of Tea for its medicinal properties, opium was reportedly used as far back as 1500 BCE for its painkilling and healing characteristics. Though the original use of tea was rigidly confined to the Chinese mainland for several millennia, opium use was more widespread, with historical evidence of the cultivation and use of opium in ancient Mesopotamia ( 3400 BCE) by the Sumerians, in the ancient Middle East by the Assyrians and by Egyptians of Pharaonic times.

Whilst Arab traders are credited with introducing opium to China between 400 and 1200 CE, the Honourable East India Company- accredited by the British government- introduced Tea, smuggled from China, to the rest of the world, commencing with the 16th century. For almost two centuries, the “Honourable Company” conducted a lucrative trade in China, of opium sourced from occupied India. The proceeds from the sale of opium funded the Company’s purchase of tea from China.

In terms of consequential benefits the Tea-for-Opium trade exchange was heavily weighted in favour of the British. Whilst the tea drinking habit gave the British middle and working classes a healthy, hygienic drink as a far more desirable alternative to the highly contaminated ground water of the British cities, in China, the widespread consumption of Opium destroyed the will and drive of an entire segment of a nation. In Britain tea drinking restored and energized the working classes whilst in China opium addiction ravaged and enervated an equivalent section of its society.

The stock-in-trade of the East India Company- the first multi-national corporation-was Opium, Tea and Saltpetre, then used in the production of gunpowder, an explosive mix of commodities which symbolized the company-and Britain’s – ruthlessly cynical business philosophy of profit at all costs, especially when the exploited were the poorly armed and relatively disunited Eastern world; the same philosophy is still in operation amongst all western based multi-nationals, though the strategies of implementation are far more sophisticated and more subtle today, than the “gun-boat diplomacy” used to demonstrate the Company’s vision, during the two opium wars with China, between 1839 and 1860.

The Tea for Opium trade alliance between China and Britain-represented by the Company- was a tragedy for the Chinese, due to the damage caused to Chinese society by opium addiction. For Britain it was an indispensable source of earnings as, during much of the Victorian era, 10% of the British government’s collections is said to have come from the taxes on the import and sale of tea. The infrastructure which facilitated the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the earnings, direct and indirect, from tea; and the then tea trade would not have been possible, without the cultivation of opium in Company managed India, particularly Bengal, and the product’s subsequent sale to China. Much of the opium was smuggled in to China by the Jardine and Matheson agency, now a highly diversified and respected conglomerate operating out of Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly, the foundations of most of the long-standing international business houses- originating in the Western world- have been built on the misery of either the people of the East, or marginalized communities elsewhere.

By the beginning of the 18th century the easy access to opium had promoted its widespread use right across China. Recognizing the dangers it posed to society, restrictions were imposed on its sale and consumption in 1729 and a complete ban implemented in 1799. Finally, in 1838, the Chinese government made it punishable with the death penalty. The appointment of a special commissioner by the Chinese emperor to eradicate the sale and consumption of opium ignited the first “ Opium War”-between China and Britain, in 1839. It concluded in 1842 in defeat for the Chinese- a forgone conclusion given the overwhelming superiority of the British gun-boats deployed against the light Chinese junks; one significant result of that conflict was the ceding of the island of Hong Kong, by the Chinese government to the British.

The second opium war took place between Britain/France and China in 1856, ending in 1860 with the Treaty of Tientsin, which legalized the importation of opium. Significantly, Queen Victoria of Britain, under whose royal sanction the Company conducted all its activities, banned the sale of opium in the British Isles though, with a moral ambivalence which still characterizes the dealings of Western powers with the developing world, she saw no reason to obstruct its distribution amongst the “yellow people” of the East. However, one of her ministers – and later her Prime Minister- William Gladstone, publicly deplored the opium trade as “ most infamous and atrocious”, in the course of a famous speech in Parliament against the first Opium war.

Gladstone’s sentiments were later echoed by Lord Justice Fry of the British Court of Appeal, who said,” we English, by the policy we have pursued, are morally responsible for every acre of land in China which is withdrawn from the cultivation of grain and devoted to that of the poppy; so that the fact of the growth of the drug in China ought only to increase our sense of responsibility”(1884).

The East India Company- the monolithic organization which oversaw and promoted British government interests in the East, was the most powerful private multinational corporation to have ever existed. Founded by John Watts in 1600 under a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth the 1st, in 1678 it was further empowered by King Charles the 2nd,” to mint money, to carry out autonomous territorial acquisition, command fortresses and raise armies, to initiate war or to negotiate peace and to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction over occupied territories.” At one stage, its standing army of 266,000 was twice the strength of the combined British Army. Eventually, in 1858 it was replaced in India by the British Raj and was officially dissolved in 1874. Whilst it existed it exercised the writ of the British Crown, with ruthless efficiency, in all the areas in which it operated.

( Does one see an eerie parallel between the “Honourable Company” and the Central Intelligence Agency ( CIA) or am I just a paranoid Asian malcontent???)

The impetus to cultivate tea in other countries within British control was, strangely, derived from the legalization of opium in China consequent to the Treaty of Tientsin. Vested interests in Britain had already become apprehensive about the Chinese monopoly on Tea and their secretiveness regarding its cultivation and manufacture. The unrestricted cultivation of the poppy in China would neutralize the British monopoly on its cultivation in India. The country of opium’s highest consumption which had so far contributed so much to British coffers, suddenly became the Company’s biggest competitor. The tea-for-opium exchange would no longer be valid and Britain, riding a wave of internal development on the unwilling contributions from occupied territories, could not afford the disruption of this balance in trade. Tea had by then become a staple of British life and was a habit, as strong as opium addiction in China, which had to be continually fed. Assam was already growing some tea but it was not as palatable as the Chinese variety.

In 1848, just a few years after the first opium war, the Company assigned Robert Fortune, a botanist and herbalist, then curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, to travel to China and smuggle out-as the Chinese did not permit the export of tea plants- tea seeds or plants for cultivation in India. Fortune had already acquired fame consequent to a three year, plant collecting journey across China at the behest of the Royal Horticultural Society and, possibly, was then the Westerner most knowledgeable of China’s interior.

In a three year clandestine mission across the tea growing areas of China, undertaken at great personal risk, Fortune sent back both tea seeds and seedlings to the Company’s representatives in India. The first consignment failed, owing to transport delays and incompetent nursery management but the second batch was a resounding success, leading to commercial cultivation of tea, first in India and then rapidly expanding to Ceylon and other British colonies.

Two beautiful flowers, one positively evil and the other incontestably benign, fueled the engine of growth of the British Empire, on which the sun has set, never to rise again. Britain grudgingly relinquished its monopoly on Opium and replaced it with a monopoly on Tea, which lasted another century. Tea and Opium, the first mass marketed global commodities, both monopolized by Britain, made the “Empire” possible, supported by captive markets, state sponsored private armies, and colluding satraps in occupied territories who permitted the ruthless suppression of dissent and the exploitation of resources within their own fiefdoms, in return for British sponsorship of their oppressive and undemocratic rule. These are strategies still very much in operation, but in cleverer guises, in all third world countries in which Western businesses and governments operate.

The greatest irony, however, is that China, exploited for so long, has now become the world’s most successful exploiter and predator, extending its tentacles worldwide, without firing a single bullet in menace or anger.

Written by Anura Gunasekera for History of Ceylon Tea