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Opium A short History | Montreal Dickens Fellowship

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A Short History of Opium

From the beginnings to the end of the nineteenth century.

By Judith Elson

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Opium comes from the Opium Poppy. All poppies contain trace elements of opium, but only one variety produces a significant amount when the seed pod, just below the flower head, is cut with small vertical cuts. A sticky “resin” oozes out, is collected and dried. In ancient times, this could be eaten or mixed with a liquid (alcohol or water) and drunk. After the discovery of tobacco in North America, smoking became popular everywhere and opium pipes and smoking were introduced.

Opium poppies grow in a warm, dry climate. The first written records are from Mesopotamia in 3400 BCE. The Sumerians understood the qualities of opium as something to relieve pain. They passed their knowledge onto the Babylonians and the Assyrians; they in turn passed it on to the Egyptians. Use of opium is recorded in the reigns of Pharaohs Akenaten and Tutankamun around 1300 BCE. At this time, opium poppies were being cultivate in Egypt, and the opium was being traded, especially with the Phoenicians who traded across the Mediterranean, introducing opium into Carthage in North Africa, and to southern Europe. In 313 BCE, Alexander the Great introduced opium into Persia, Afghanistan and India; in all these places the poppies started to be cultivated and grew well. Arab traders who sailed between ports on the East coast of Africa, including Egypt on the Red Sea, first took opium to China in the sixth century CE. Later contacts with China along the Silk Road also carried opium to China; the poppies were cultivated there and grew well.

The use of opium was not widespread in Europe before the seventeenth century. It was forbidden in countries where the Inquisition reigned supreme, as the Catholic Church considered anything from the East to be the work of the Devil. However, the discovery of tobacco in the Americas and the introduction of smoking, which quickly became popular, brought a change. Opium smoking developed rapidly, especially in Turkey, mainly for recreational purposes. The Dutch carried the idea to the East and gradually it became popular, especially in China where poppies were already being grown. Various Emperors tried to curb the use of opium or at least to restrict it to medicinal use only, but they were all unsuccessful. The habit was becoming a threat to the health of the nation and to the whole structure of society. However, things would get worse.
The Portuguese, Dutch and English had all discovered tea in the Far East as they searched for the fabled Spice Islands of the East and circumnavigated the world in the late fifteenth century. For the first time Europeans tasted tea which came exclusively from China and nowhere else. However, China was closed completely to all foreigners. Any foreigner found inside China, or any Chinese caught helping foreigners, would be put to death immediately. There was just one place where Europeans could trade for tea, silk, and porcelain, and that was at Canton, at the mouth of the Pearl River. Canton was a heavily walled city. No foreigners were allowed to enter, but warehouses were built on a small strip of land between the walls and the estuary, and here, traders could come ashore to buy the luxury goods that were in such demand in Europe. The Chinese had no need for any European goods; all purchases had to be paid for in gold or silver.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the British East India Company had a monopoly of all trade with China. After 1756, Britain controlled India completely, including the poppy growing region of Bengal. The East India Company encouraged the production of opium which could be sold only to them. They now had an almost unlimited supply of cheap opium with which to trade for tea, silk, porcelain. Despite efforts to stop the use of opium in China, the habit became an addiction beyond control. The East India Company continued to make vast profits. In the mid-nineteenth century there were two Opium Wars between Britain and China. China lost both. As part of the treaties at the end of these two conflicts, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain and five Treaty Ports were opened to British trade.

Opium use was now beginning to spread more widely in Britain as the habit was brought back by seamen on ships trading with the East. At first, opium was used mainly for medicinal reasons as something to relieve pain, but there was absolutely no control over its sale or distribution. Laudanum, a mixture of alcohol, herbs and 10% opium, was taken for almost every ailment from coughs and colds, to rheumatism, cholera, and childbirth. Opium was very cheap, twenty or twenty-five grains could be bought anywhere, even on country market stalls, for a penny. Various brands of laudanum were available, many aimed particularly at women. Amongst other things, they were recommended for “The Vapours” which included hysteria, depression, and fainting fits. The Vapours became a very fashionable ailment among Victorian women who were prone to fainting fits in particular. Of course, we now realise that the cause of fainting fits was largely due to their tight corseting and the lack of ventilation in overheated rooms. Even worse, was the sale of “Mother’s Friend”, a mixture of water, treacle and opium, guaranteed to pacify babies, make them sleep, and even help them to develop into healthy infants. Poor working mothers would scrape together a few coppers to buy this mixture, believing it to be good for their babies. The truth was the exact opposite. Many babies became severely ill, many others died.

From 1800, a small Chinese community was living in London in an area known as Limehouse close to the docks. This was a notorious slum with backstreet pubs, brothels and opium dens. The first opium dens had arisen in Turkey much earlier, but now there a growing demand from sailors who had caught the habit in the East. In actual fact, these infamous dens were only in London and other ports such as Bristol. Although opium use was widespread, opium dens were not found outside port cities. “Edwin Drood”, which Dickens was writing in 1870 when he died, provides us with a vivid picture of the sordid interior of an opium den. Many similar descriptions appeared in the press and in fiction. In this novel, Dickens shows us that these dens were frequented not only by sailors, but by well-educated, highly respected men like Edwin Drood. Earlier, in “Bleak House” (1856), Nemo dies of an overdose in impoverished circumstances, although he appears to be a man of some education whose habit has reduced him to this untimely, lonely death.

Many men and women in nineteenth century artistic and literary circles took opium, usually as laudanum, to relieve pain. Dickens is known to have taken it, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and many others. Thomas de Quincy not only took opium, he wrote a very personal account in his autobiographical “The Confessions of an English Opium Eater”. Queen Victoria also used laudanum for pain-relief. Opium was cheap and available. A Pharmacy Act in 1868 restricted the sale of opium to licenced pharmacists only, but there were no regulations about the amount sold, the frequency of sales to individuals, or the age of purchasers, so it did little to help. Morphine had been discovered early in the nineteenth century by processing opium. This was ten times stronger than opium and was usually injected. At the end of the same century, further processing of morphine produced heroin. Times were changing fast and gradually greater controls were introduced for the sale of all drugs. Opium poppies were now being grown in other parts of the world such as Mexico and Columbia. The story of opium is not over.

Judith Elson
December, 2020