Opium was at the centre of one of the great controversies of the nineteenth century. Shanghai was the main importation point for China, and the city's fortunes were founded on and bound up with drug trafficking. There was hypocrisy on the part of both Britain and China, and both shared the blame.

Chinese Imperial officials railed against the British for forcing the bitter, yellowish-brown narcotic, obtained from the juice of opium poppy pods, onto the Chinese people, but took kickbacks from the traders and smoked the drug themselves. The British justified the trade on the dubious grounds that opium was the only commodity China was willing to buy to balance Britain's purchases of tea and silk.

Opium was a huge and highly lucrative multi-national industry for much of the nineteenth century, and was dominated by the British: poppy farms and opium processing plants in India, fast clipper ships to bring the product to the China market, and heavily-guarded opium storage hulks moored off the coast where local smugglers could pick up supplies. By 1890, it is estimated that about 10 percent of China's total population were opium smokers.

It was a well known and widely used drug in the West too, largely as a pain-reliever, and as a remedy for diarrhea. "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium," Thomas Sydenham wrote in 1680.

But in China, it was not being promoted by the British for medicinal purposes. The Chinese knew what damage the drug was doing to society, and in 1839, China's opium commissioner Lin Zexu seized and destroyed 20,000 chests of opium from British traders in the southern city of Canton. The British demanded compensation and, as an added penalty, the opening of five ports along the China coast - at that time all foreigners in China were still confined to Canton.

Thus started the first Opium War, which ended inevitably in complete defeat for the Chinese at the hands of the much superior British military forces. The Chinese were forced to open up the five ports including Shanghai which was declared open to foreign trade on November 14th, 1843.

And, as one of the results of the opening of the ports, opium usage boomed. It spread right through Chinese society from the Imperial Palace to lowly labourers. It was a means of escape from reality - as understandable for the ruling Manchus as their empire slowly collapsed around them, as for the poor coolies trying to forget their nightmarish lives amidst clouds of opium smoke. In Shanghai, the trade prospered and huge fortunes were made, financing profligate lifestyles and magnificent castles back home in Scotland.

Chinese officials continued to pay lip-service to the orders from the Imperial Court to wipe out the drug, but no one took the task seriously. "Edicts are still issued against the use of opium," wrote Australian journalist G.E. Morrison in 1895. "They are drawn up by Chinese philanthropists over a quiet pipe of opium, signed by opium-smoking officials, whose revenues are derived from the poppy, and posted near fields of poppy by the opium-smoking magistrates who own them."

In 1870, opium accounted for 43 percent of China's total imports, with cotton goods a distant second at 28 percent. Huge hulks were moored off the Bund to store the opium which was used in the city's opium dens or sent on along the Yangtze River. Inevitably but gradually, the days of quick opium profits were coming to an end. The trading house of Jardines, the Noble House, had basically pulled out of the trade by 1870 due to the fierce competition, and was instead pouring its drug-based fortunes into new ventures such as banking, mining and railways. The anti-opium lobby, meanwhile, was gaining ground and the Shanghai Municipal Council stopped issuing licences for opium dens in 1907. The last legal opium shop in the city closed in 1917.

This in no way stopped the opium trade: it just pushed it into the hands of the underworld.

The sale and consumption of opium in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s was controlled by 'Pock-marked' Huang Jinrong, the senior Chinese officer in the French gendarmerie, and 'Big Ears' Du Yuesheng, head of the Green Gang triad. Du was the city's top gangster and, as Shanghai's Who's Who of 1933 described him, 'well-known public welfare worker'.

Huang and Du controlled the opium smuggling and taxed opium dens in the city a certain sum per pipe per day. The French saw nothing wrong in having a police chief keeping criminal activity under control with everybody, including the French expatriates, benefiting handsomely. Du, in recognition of his role in maintaining law and order -- in at least keeping crime organised -- became a member of the Board of the Opium Suppression Bureau.

Opium was available to Europeans in the old Shanghai who wished to partake, and many did so. The conclusion appears to be that opium smoking was not addictive except with extended use, and was a pleasant experience. In the words of British writer Peter Quennell, who visited Shanghai in 1931: "Opium smoking is the staidest form of indulgence, the most sedentary and least uncivilised of all the vices."

The smoker lay in a gloomy opium den cubicle, with the smoking apparatus laid out on a low table to one side. In establishments for the well-to-do, comely wenches tended to the opium pipes and to the sensual needs of customers. The dark, sticky raw opium was twisted around a pin and cooked over a lamp until it hardened amidst much bubbling and crackling. It was then placed in the bowl of the pipe, which was then turned towards the flame. A pipe was completed in just a couple of minutes. Aficionados would have half a dozen or more pipes at one go, the pupils of their eyes shrinking to needle-points in the process.

The smoking technique required some practice. "Imagine that you are a child that sucks its mother's breast," was the advice Quennell was given. It was important to draw continuously, allowing the rich flavours and vegetable smells to seep through your being. The effect on the mind, according to tradition, was deep psychedelic dreams. But the reality was more a seductive stupor of calm and feelings of well-being.

The end of the international opium trade, speeded by an international conference on the problem held in Shanghai in 1909, was more than compensated for by the growth of domestic Chinese production. In 1904, opium accounted for about 13 percent of total crop acreage in China; by 1930, it was occupying 20 percent of the country's arable land.

Opium was finally driven from Shanghai in 1949 when the Communists marched in, closed down the opium dens, and forced all the addicts into rehabilitation. Huang Jinrong died in the city in the early 1950s, but 'Big Ears' Du escaped to Hong Kong and died there in 1952.

In the early 1990s, opium returned to Shanghai, this time in the form of heroin, and this time as an all-Chinese business. The British and Indian drug traders were long gone.

Viscount Palmerston's instructions to Sir Henry Pottinger with regard to opium, on his departure for China on 31st May 1841:

"It is of great importance, with a view to the maintenance of a permanent good understanding between the two countries, that the Chinese government should place the opium trade upon some regular and legalised footing. Experience has shown that it is entirely beyond the power of the Chinese Government to prevent the introduction of opium into China; and many reasons render it impossible that the British Government can give the Chinese Government any effectual aid towards the accomplishment of that purpose. But while the opium trade is forbidden by law it must inevitably be carried on by fraud and violence; and hence must arise frequent conflicts and collisions between the Chinese preventive service and the parties who are engaged in carrying on the opium trade. These parties are generally British subjects; and it is impossible to suppose that this private war can be carried on between British opium smugglers and the Chinese authorities, without events happening which must tend to put in jeopardy the good understanding between the Chinese and British Governments.

H.M. Government makes no demand in this matter; for they have no right to do so. The Chinese Government is fully entitled to prohibit the importation of opium, if it pleases; and British subjects who engage in a contraband trade must take the consequences of doing so. But it is desirable that you should avail yourself of every favourable opportunity to strongly impress upon the Chinese Plenipotentiary, and through him the Chinese Government, how much it would be for the interest of the Chinese Government itself to alter the law of China on this matter, and to legalise, by a regular duty, a trade which they cannot prevent."

An Opium Transit Certificate

Click on the certificate to see an enlarged version

Jardine, Matheson Co, in a statement on the opium question, made the following comment:

"The use of opium is not a curse but a comfort to the hard-working Chinese; to many scores of thousands it as been productive of healthful sustention and enjoyment."

Another statement from Jardine, Matheson Co on the economic implications of the opium trade for England, presented to parliament in 1857:

"Instead of tending to restrict what is called the legitimate trade, the traffic in Opium has enormously extended the export of tea and silk from China to the British market, and enabled these articles to be supplied to consumers at a lower price than could otherwise have been the case. Indeed, but for it, they could not have been shipped but for a limited extent during the past two years, owing to the absolute want of the means to pay for them. Being ourselves large importers of British manufactures into China, nothing would afford us greater satisfaction than to see this branch of trade extended, but the demand for such goods is dependent upon other considerations and it is in no way affected by the Opium Trade."

The British consul at Kiung Chow in 1879:

"No one can maintain that a mild indulgence results in physical or mental disability. A pipe of opium is to the Chinese workman what a glass of beer is to the English labourer, a climatic necessity."

The directors of the East India Company, who started the opium to trade to China in the first place, said in a report to the Governor in consul in Bengal in 1831:

"We wish it to be clearly understood that our sanction is given to this measures (for supplying a quantity of opium for the internal consumption of the country ) not with a view to the revenue which they may yield, but in the hope that they will tend to restrain the use of this pernicious drug ... the prevent its introduction into districts where it is not used, and to limit its consumption in other places as nearly as possible to what may be absolutely necessary. were it possible to prevent the use of the drug altogether we would gladly do so in compassion to mankind."

In a Memorial to the Chinese emperor in 1836, a senior Mandarin commented:

"In introducing opium into this country, the purpose of the English has been to weaken and enfeeble the Central Empire. If not early aroused to a sense of our danger, we shall find ourselves, ere long, on the last step to ruin ..."

Edward LeFevour in Western Enterprise in Late Ch'ing China on the impact of the opium trade on western companies, particularly Jardine's, operating on the China coast:

"Opium had provided the capital reserve essential to survival and growth in a precarious economic environment., lubricated the export trade, stimulated the improvement of communications., and probably provided China firms with a surplus to invest in world markets. Decades of concentration upon the trade had conditioned the whole nature of Western enterprise in China.

Although the whole of the firm's early investment in the service of trade had turned upon the pivot of opium and commercial growth within the treaty ports was undoubtedly stimulated by this constant investment in structure, trade in drug also had the effect of channeling a major part of the commercial enterprise of several large Western and Indian firms in China into the sale and servicing of one commodity for several decades. There was no practical alternative before the 1870's. It was not until the firm had been forced from the trade as a major participant that it began proposing the use of capital and techniques for many alternative investments in the treaty ports and in the domestic Chinese economy. Opium had been the indispensable commodity. When it became a trade of declining importance and diminishing profits, the firm withdrew easily, focusing its enterprise upon new opportunities in the changing China trade of the 1870's."

An excerpt from A History of Shanghai, by F. Potts, published in 1924:

"Opium receiving ships were moored at Woosung, 12 miles from Shanghai at the mouth of the river. Up to 1854 there were ten; four for opium consigned to British firms, four to Jewish or Parsee firms, and two to American firms. In 1854 the two American ships were withdrawn from service. The following figures show the rapid increase in this illegal traffic in Shanghai. In 1847, 16,500 chests were disposed of and in 1857, 31,907 chests.

For Shanghai, the legalization of the trade meant the appearance of the opium hulks moored along The Bund. Old sailing ships were converted into receiving stations for opium, which was stored on them until it could obtain a market. The last of these ships did not disappear until after the cessation of the importation of opium from India in 1917.

To its credit the Municipality, contrary to its financial interests, co-operated with the Chinese Government in the suppression of the sale of opium. In 1904, a distinction was drawn between an opium shop and an opium house. In the former the sale was permitted but not its consumption on the premises, in the latter both were allowed. After 1907 no further licences were granted to opium houses and those in existence at that time were closed in 1909. The year 1917 saw the last of the opium shops in Shanghai. A resolution passed at the Ratepayers' meeting in 1915 required the withdrawal of one quarter of the licences of these shops every six months by a process of ballot. The first drawing took place in June, 1915, the second in December, 1915, and the third in June, 1916, leaving the remaining quarter to be withdrawn on March 31st, 1917. The opium shops did a roaring trade to the last, as habitues were anxious to lay in a good stock of the drug."

An excerpt from Sin City, by Ralph Shaw, a British journalist in Shanghai from 1937 to 1949:

"There were few old-established British firms which at one time or another had not had a stake in bringing Indian opium into China. The Indian drug was considered to be superior to the native-grown product.

The day had to come, of course, when the export of Indian opium to China had to be banned by international agreement, but this was of little importance to the British firms which had built vast trading empires on the drug. They had made their money. Opium had enabled them to diversify their trading activities into shipping, textiles, mining, railways, finance and so on. Opium-smoking was made illegal in foreign-controlled Shanghai but it could never be stamped out. Fortunes were still made smuggling the drug into China and the gangsters took over the nefarious trade - the gangsters and the Japanese."

A comment by British military officer and adventurer Harry Flashman, in his book Flashman and the Dragon, as edited by George MacDonald Fraser:

"I don't know who ran the first chest of opium into China, but he was a great man in his way. It was as though some imaginary trader had put into the Forth with a cargo of Glenlivet to discover that the Scots had never heard of whisky. There was a natural appetite, as you may say. And while the Chinks had been puffing themselves half-witted long before the first foreign trader put his nose into the Pearl River, there no doubt that our own John Company had developed their taste for the drug, back in the earlies, and before long they couldn't get enough of it."

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