‘Opium Inc.: How a Global Drug Trade Funded the British Empire’ review: For a few pieces of silver

Looking back at the opium trade which was necessitated, executed and rationalised by the British to get China’s tea, while using colonial India as a base

Published - November 20, 2021 04:19 pm IST

Now is as good as any time to talk about what everyone is thinking — drugs. Specifically, opium. Journalist and playwright Thomas Manuel’s damning Opium Inc: How A Global Drug Trade Funded the British Empire, airdropped in the midst of a hazy, disproportionate, drug-related moral panic, gives us the history to gird the hysteria.

Through 11 chapters, Manuel reaches as far back and far beyond as Greek myth, and culls from reports as recent and home-grown as the 2019 Ministry of Social Justice’s ‘Magnitude of Substance Use in India’ , which shockingly noted that 2.1% of the country uses opioids, which is around 77 lakh people — more than the entire population of Scotland.

Roots of a business

The canvas is grand, but the format is intentionally choppy. Each chapter reads like a separate essay, propelled by its own immediate logic, completed by its own bibliography. For example, there is a chapter on literature floating without context in between — how the Romantics produced some of the most lasting images of poetry in an opium-fuelled daze, and how modern Indian writers like Amitav Ghosh and Jeet Thayil milked opium as a literary muse in the Ibis Trilogy and Narcopolis respectively. But the thrust of the book, which Manuel spends most of his time plotting, is the opium trade that was necessitated, executed, and rationalised by the British.

In 1662, the Portuguese parcelled and bowtied Bombay as a wedding present to the British, when Catherine of Braganza married the “serial adulterer” Charles II. It was Catherine who popularised the bitter tea — popular in Portugal — among English high society. Soon, the introduction of sugar into the British diet made the bitter tea not just palatable but delectable. The demand for tea rose, which until then was only produced in China. China wanted only silver in return, having no interest in British manufactured goods, and soon the balance of payments looked lopsided, and the British treasury empty.

The solution was opium — the sticky gum collected from the poppy plant, a narcotic that produced opiates like heroin. (Opioids, like fentanyl, are synthesised from a number of different drugs but have the same effect as opiates on the brain.) Soon, opium harvested in Bengal and Bihar would travel in mango wood boxes to China, and this would pay for the tea, which now with slave labour on sugarcane plantations, was sweetened per taste.

Manuel paraphrases historian Tan Chung, “The Chinese got opium, the British got tea, and the Indians got colonialism.” The two opium wars, 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, waged by the British to keep this robust opium trade going, left the Chinese on their knees, weak and addicted. The drug would continue to circulate per the virtues of “free trade”, while anti-opium advocates screamed at walls. Industrialists in Bombay like Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, company officials, and smugglers in Canton padded their purses, while the farmers languished, forced to produce opium, sometimes weakened by addiction to the very thing they were flowering. (To harvest ripe opium, the farmer has to pierce the opium pod with a needle which has to be kept wet, so the farmer keeps licking the needle, getting unwittingly addicted overtime.) Manuel calls the East India Company a “drug cartel masquerading as a joint stock corporation masquerading as a government.”

Moving between centuries

Manuel’s writing has a sweet, conversational tone (“pun intended”, “but cynicism aside”). This is understandable given that India Ink, the public history project he is part of, is also attempting to blur the barrier between a historical factoid and an ice-breaker. But he stacks up too many details which are hard to parse apart. He will assume the reader walks in knowing certain things, like prior knowledge of the Battle of Plassey which he won’t recount. He is lazy with dates, often assuming full knowledge of the reader. Within the flip of a sentence he moves between centuries. The chapters, too, don’t progress with a linear thrust, often floundering through time. Thus, the story of opium, which is complicated in its unfolding, retains that problem in its telling. Then, there is also the issue of semantics. Can you call the British Empire a “narco-state” when opium was, at its height, the third-highest source of income for the British in India, after land and salt? Or is it just a flashy marketing ploy? How does Manuel want to define a joint stock company, a colony, as a narco-state?

Story of capitalism

But there is something captivating and grotesque which Manuel captures perfectly with the judgement the reader feels, but a historian would not want to give voice to so easily. He notes that the ability of “the mercantile community” — of which he includes Jejeebhoy, philanthropy apart, and David Sassoon — “to negotiate and profit in their dealings with this narco-state was built on an ability to ignore the morality of their actions.”

The story of opium, after all, is the story of capitalism — to produce a self-fulfilling machine that creates its own demand, with the moral consequences not considered central to the moral problem it creates. After all, it employs so many people, and keeps the coffers warm. In an 1889 editorial this very paper noted, “Opium may be a great evil, but national bankruptcy is a greater evil.”

Opium Inc.: How a Global Drug Trade Funded the British Empire; Thomas Manuel, HarperCollins,₹699.

The writer is a critic with a weekly online newsletter titled prathyush.substack.com

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