the opium plant in an old illustration Opium is possibly the drug with the most history and tradition that can be investigated. Since ancient times you have been studied and revered. It has been a recommended remedy for a multitude of ills since the Bronze Age. It has caused wars and intrigues and has destabilized countries and enslaved communities. It has been the object of illegal recreational consumption. But also the big pharmaceutical industries have synthesized opium in various formulas for many treatments. It was the drug of the wealthy classes and the refuge of the poor. Opium is definitely a travel companion from time immemorial to the present day. Today we want to tell you the story of this fascinating substance. Table of Contents
- Opium in prehistory.
- Opium in the West.
- The first opium war.
- And the second opium war.
Opium in prehistory.
The oldest references to opium date back to approximately 3400 BC. The ancient Sumerians called the poppy flower as “The plant of joy”. It has recently been confirmed, thanks to the remains of papaverine and thebaine found in a Cypriot vase dated between 1650 BC and 1350 BC, that opium trafficking was common on the Mediterranean sea routes. About those times, it seems that it was also used in ancient Egypt, in the era of Tutankhamun. The Persians used it, and the Greeks were the first to study it in depth.
Opium in the West.
Already in our era, there is knowledge of its use for medical purposes in Renaissance Europe. Europe discovers opium thanks to trade routes from the Ottoman Empire, Persia and the Extreme
it is true: this was being sold as a remedy for the entire East. Paracelsus, one of the greatest exponents of alchemy and father of Toxicology, invents laudanum. Laudanum was a kind of balsam composed of opium, henbane, musk and amber, which over the centuries changed the recipe. He always kept opium as the main component and had a reputation as a miracle drug for treating pain. Already in the 16th and 17th centuries the recipe had changed to a liquid format whose recipe included opium, Malaga wine, saffron and other exclusive ingredients. This made laudanum a medicine for the upper classes. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Welsh physician John Jones spoke wonders of this concoction, which he said worked wonders with a thousand and one ailments. It cured gout, catarrh, asthma, cholera, measles and served as a relief for all pain. He even attributed aphrodisiac virtues. As you can imagine, the first documented serious opium addicts are from the upper class, and from this era. And this leads to the darker side of this drug. Opium was used in a novel way as a destabilizing element, a generator of international tensions and a provocateur of wars.
The first opium war.
This is the story of a brilliant and despicable strategy. A typical story of the British Empire of the time, only interested in global economic dominance. Since the seventeenth century, the British Empire, through the British East India Company, imported all kinds of exotic products from China. Lacquers, silks, porcelains, and the star product of China, tea, which was all the rage among the British population. However, trade with China was quite peculiar. China was a very protectionist empire that greatly limited the import of goods from other countries, blocking all ports for international trade except one, Canton.
A poppy field, from which opium is extracted, possibly in Afghanistan Also, the only currency to pay for Chinese goods was silver. This meant a mismatch in the balance of business and the economies of all the Western powers that traded with China. Not forgetting that these economies were quite battered by the Napoleonic wars. The solution came from the British Empire which decided to start paying for its imports with opium. This opium was produced by the British in their colonies in India, and increasingly replaced silver as a bargaining chip in transactions with China. It also caused a major addiction problem among the Chinese population. Chinese citizens used up to two-thirds of their income to maintain their addiction. Such was the problem that Emperor Daoguang prohibited the consumption and importation of opium, ordering the destruction of 20,000 seized opium boxes and expelling the British from China. The British Empire counterattacked by commanding its fleet. He defeated the Chinese in 1842 and forced them to sign a treaty by which more commercial ports were opened, a figure of the British consul was established and commercial rates were set. To make matters worse, the Chinese empire was forced to compensate the British with 6 million silver dollars for the loss of opium shipments. Total success. By the way: China also had to give up Hong Kong. This site is still today a political and diplomatic drama almost two centuries later.
And the second opium war.
A naval battle during the Opium War The truth is that the British they had not been entirely satisfied with their sweeping triumph in the first opium war, so they decided to take advantage of an anecdotal diplomatic incident that in principle should not have had great consequences. They agreed to a coalition with the French (whom they hated with all their soul) and in 1856 the coalition attacked China initiating the second Opium War. China is defeated in 1858 and negotiates a provisional agreement with the victors by which 10 new commercial ports were opened, foreigners were given permission to pass through a large part of the country and the invaders were compensated with some 8,000 kilos of silver. The Quing dynasty, rulers of the Chinese Empire at that time, were not convinced by all this and they refused to sign the treaty. So the war continues until the inevitable defeat of China, which she is forced to sign another agreement even more humiliating than the previous one. It is obliged to recognize the validity of the previous treaty. Loses sovereignty of a district in Kowloon to the English. It also loses a couple of territories to the Russians. Indemnify the British and French with about 32,000 kilos of silver. It grants Christians civil rights and the right to evangelize. And as a final humiliation, she is obliged to reinstate the opium trade by law. It must be said that China had a small moral victory by becoming an opium exporter that generated serious addiction problems in the United States and Europe. But that is another story that we will tell you on another occasion.