Opium Wars

Today a less developed nation, Mexico, provides hard drugs like opium to a more developed nation, the United States. In the 19th century it was the other way around. The world’s most advanced nation, Great Britain, supplied opium to less advanced China. In fact, forced it on China, which had little choice in the matter. Britain backed its opium with a military for which China was no match.

An opium epidemic led to national humiliation and contributed to the eventual collapse of empire. It’s an era the Chinese would just as soon forget, and probably the British as well.

Victorian Britain was intent on promoting free trade around the globe, the solution it believed to all the world’s ills. The Chinese were resistant, content with their own rich and insular culture. The emperor wrote King George: “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no products within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.”

The British did not take no for answer. They had a fondness, above all, for Chinese tea but had somehow to pay for it. The answer was opium, which soon spread throughout China as authorities tried to stop it. That led to a clash in the ports and to the first of two opium wars.

There was considerable opposition in Britain to this overseas bullying.  Future Prime Minister William Gladstone complained in a speech to Parliament: “A war more unjust in its origin, a war calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of. Our flag is become a pirate flag to protect an infamous traffic.”

But that was definitely a minority view. Most British welcomed the tea and the exploits for empire. They assumed they were dealing with an inferior people with a natural tendency to drugs and indolence. Lord Elgin, the final victor of the wars, had some doubts about bursting “with hideous violence and brutal energy into these darkest and most mysterious recesses of the traditions of the past. At the same time there is certainly not much to regret in the old civilization which we are thus scattering to the winds.”

In the end he scattered the most sacred grounds of the empire, the sumptuous multi-acre Winter palace with its irreplaceable arts and manuscripts, all looted or destroyed by the invading British and French. That in itself signaled an end to empire and the triumph of colonialism.

With victory, the British faced no opposition to its export of opium which steadily engulfed China. A notable addict was the emperor’s favorite concubine Cixi, who became co-Empress and later reigned alone until her death in 1908. Her habit did not seem to impede her rule over turbulent times, and it was said she didn’t kill any more of her rivals than she had to.

Later in the century, the Japanese occupiers encouraged opium use with the aim of keeping people in a docile mood. But with the communist takeover in 1949 under Mao Tse-tung, all narcotics for use or sale were banned. It worked. In their book “Opium Wars,” authors W. Travis Hanes and Frank Sanello note that’s the prerogative of a totalitarian regime. Freedom from opium in exchange for the surrender of personal freedom.

“The Great Helmsman just said no.”

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