May 16, 2018

A Brief History of Opium Trade & Use in the World


Arab traders, in the late 6th or early 7th Century CE, introduced China to a substance called opium. Initially used as an oral medication to treat pain and tension, the substance did not see widespread recreational use until the 17th Century CE. At this time, smoking tobacco was prevalent in the west, specifically North America. The Chinese soon picked up the habit and went even further, beginning to smoke opium as well. 


Opium soon became a big problem for the Chinese population, as the percentage of those addicted to the substance rose. The sale and use of opium was outlawed in 1729 by the Yongzheng Emperor. Unfortunately, however, this ban barely made any impact on the use of opium. In 1796, the Jiaqing Emperor outlawed the cultivation and import of opium as well.


File source:


Around 1729, the annual import of opium to China stood at  a total of around 200 crates. By the 1800s, this had grown to a staggering 4,500 crates. In 1830, that number had skyrocketed to 40,000. The last big spike in opium imports for China came in 1858; records show that in this year, China imported 70,000 crates of opium. By the 19th Century, when the ban on imports was put in place, China’s own opium production was so efficient that the need to import it from places like India was eliminated in any case.


The Chinese economy and culture was heavily influenced by opium usage and addiction. What’s more, two major wars were fought over the drug’s trade.



The first Opium Wartook place after Commissioner Lin ordered the destruction of opium reserves that were owned by the British India Company, who brought in massive amounts of opium into China. The Company sought compensation from the British government, by whom they were employed.


The British demanded that China pay the cost of the destroyed opium. When the Chinese didn’t comply, the British sent forces from India into China, attacking and destroying parts of the Chinese coast. China was then forced to come to terms with what the British wanted, signing the Treaty of Nanking.


Interestingly, the first Opium War had a significant impact on Hong Kong as well. It was through the Treaty of Nanking that Britain gained control of the islands of Hong Kong.


File source:,_Opium_smokers_by_Lai_Afong,_c1880.JPG


In the later part of the 1800s, China restricted the British trade once again, preventing them from trading opium as freely as they wanted, limiting their access to only the coastal areas and hindering them in other ways as well. There was a huge demand for Chinese products like silk, tea, porcelain and pottery in Britain and other European countries and the imports from China outweighed their exports to the country by nine times, resulting in a vast trade deficit. Britain solved the issue by exporting large amounts of Opium from India to China to fill the gap. 


It was at this time, when relations between Britain and China were growing strained, that a British trader was apprehended by the Chinese regarding allegations of salt smuggling. This ‘arrow incident’ is widely regarded as the event that sparked the second Opium War in China.



The second War ended with another British victory. The Treaty of Tientsin granted the British access to five new ports to trade their goods.


After the opium wars, production and consumption of opium slowed down considerably in China. Even though the government still had laws against it, opium production continued unofficially, as it was still a major part of the country’s economy and there was huge demand for the drug among the Chinese populace.


The British agreed to reduce and finally eliminate trade of opium with China in 1907. Domestic production reduced tenfold around the same time.


Abuse of opium became widespread again after the fall of the Qing government in 1911 and 1933, with a large minority of the Chinese population using it. Ever since the Communist Mao administration began in the 1950s, opium abuse has seen reduced popularity. However, in 2003, there were about 4 million recorded opium users in China, and 1 million registered drug addicts. 


It’s hard to imagine that a single substance managed to influence a country so much, influencing its economy, culture, history, politics, and even starting wars. The Opium Wars stand as warning that drugs like opium are best left alone!



Mozaic club proudly presents, local historian, Jason Wordie who will give a talk on “a Historical Overview of Opium and Hong Kong.” 


This talk will be held at the Café Siam, 2/floor, private room, 21 D Aguilar Street Lan Kwai Fong on Tuesday, 26 June 2018 from 7 – 9pm.  Cost of tickets include the lecture, unlimited beer, wine & soft drinks and Thai snacks.


Reserve your tickets here:  

Get the Tickets


#mozaic #HKHistory #Opium #OpiumWar #OpiumHistory

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