Source: Pixabay

The current global heroin trade is a product of its predecessor. The trade in opium. It was the trade in opium which made it possible for chemist Charles Romley Alder Wright to first make diamorphine in London, 1874. A decade later a German drug company, Bayer, went on to sell diamorphine under the trademarked name ‘Heroin’. This article will begin by outlining the 18th-century trade in Opium most importantly because it was this trade which led to the trade in heroin.

The Rising popularity of Chinese Tea

The story begins in 1672, the English East India company secured a trading post in Taiwan. A few years later they relocated to Canton where most foreign traders were confined. First efforts by the British to establish a permanent minister in China. And second efforts, to have trade barriers lifted were denied by Emperor Qianlong and the Chinese government. So, Chinese tea became increasingly popular in the UK. Leading to increasing imports from China. But British and Indian exports to China were not as widely in demand, therefore a trade imbalance arose (Morse, 1926).

The East India Company

Above all, The East India Company were responsible for the production of opium in India for medicine. They obtained profits from the opium trade through the state-controlled monopoly in Bengal, collected pass fees from the Malawa opium producing region, and imposed excise taxes on domestic sales (Deeming, 2011, p.2). These British actions from 1790 to 1816 resulting in Bengal being shaped into the most effective opium producing center in the world and led to steady revenues for the 19th century (Deeming, 2011, p. 2). After the East India Company was abolished in 1833, private agencies continued selling opium to the Chinese black market (Greenberg, 1951; Morse, 1926).

Source: Pixabay

The black-market trade in opium was weakening the Chinese state, emperor, and security. For centuries, the Chinese had restricted foreign traders from accessing the country. As a result, the directors of the British East India Company had illegally begun importing Indian opium to China, and corrupting Chinese officials to keep them on side. This opium trade was necessary for the British government to keep the economy afloat. The effects of opium on Chinese people were ignored. Colonial drug laws applied a double standard. They allowed the imperial authorities to appropriate revenue from the state-run opium monopoly, while pushing the private traders to become involved in the contraband trade (Haq, 2000, p. 11).

The First Opium War

In 1839 the Chinese government stopped the importation of Opium starting the first Opium war when British and US ships did not comply with the ban their drugs were publicly burned, the East India Company with strong ties to the British government convinced parliament to go to war. The Chinese outgunned by the British signed the treaty of Nanjing ending the first opium war in 1842. The British crown rule of India began in 1858, soon after the government adopted mechanisms to forcibly involve farmers in poppy cultivation.

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Although the farmers were resentful and suffering, poppy cultivation in central India flourished (Haq, 2000, p. 24-25) this meant extra profits could be gained from the Chinese market. Opium was regulated in the United Kingdom under the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1819, making it illegal for recreational use. Opium use was also limited in India, although a small amount was permitted for consumption (Deeming, 2011, p. 6). On the other hand, in China and South East-Asian, there were between 13 – 14 million opium consumers who smoked opium daily (Richard, 2002).

Source: Solik

The Second Opium War

The Treaty of Nanjing made no mention of the opium trade, it created 5 new trading ports in China and ceded Hong Kong to the British. Within China, issues associated to opium addiction were exacerbated, in 1856 a British-registered ship was seized by Chinese authorities leading to the Second Opium War. This time Britain was allied with France. The Chinese Imperialist Army was defeated by the allied forced and made to compensate for lost trade, Europeans acquired greater trading privileges, and Christian missionaries gained access to China. In the fifty-year period from 1842-1880 opium revenue on average was 15% percent of India’s total revenue (Deeming, 2011. P. 3). Making up such a large fraction of the countries revenues meant that had China been successful in either opium war British government’s finances would have been largely curtailed.

The Anti-opium movement

Towards the second half of the 19th century, an Anti-opium movement was growing in Europe. In 1874 a group of Quaker reformers in London formed the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade. The society enrolled among its members many radical, reform-minded members of parliament. In 1875, 1880, 1883, and 1889 the society wrote resolutions calling for the abolition of the opium trade. These resolutions were introduced into the House of Commons only to be defeated (Richard, 2002, p. 8).

The anti-opium movement was being fuelled by accounts from Christian missionaries in China and India. The varying denominations began exerting power and in 1891, an anti-opium measure gained a majority vote in the House of Commons (Richard, 2002). A Royal Commission was created to investigate the problem but was not entirely successful, this was largely due to alcohol being considered more dangerous than Opium at the time (Richard, 2002).

1870’s to the 20th Century

The quality and quantity of opium produced by Chinese poppy cultivators rose appreciably after 1870 because native-grown opium could be smoked seven or eight times compared with at most three times with imported drugs. In 1890, as a ploy to reduce Indian imports further, the Chinese imperial government revoked all edicts prohibiting the cultivation of Opium poppies (Davenport-Hines, 2012, p. 113). In the 20th century, China and India would succumb to British and American pressure to attempt to halt all trade in opium. Although heroin was created in 1874, it was not as popular as Opium in this period.

By Shaneka Knight

Instagram: Shaneka Knight


Davenport-Hines, R. (2012). The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Social History of Drugs. Retrieved from:

Deeming, S. (2011). The Economic Importance of Indians Opium and Trade with China on Britain’s Economy, 1843-1890, Economics, 25. 1-17. Retrieved from [Accessed 15/02/2017].

Greenberg, M. (1951). British Trade and the opening of China 1800-42. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Haq, M. E. (2000). Drugs in South Asian: From the opium trade to the present day. Palgrave: New York.

Morse, H.B. (1926). Chronicles of the East India Company trading to China, 1635-1834. Clarendon: Oxford.

Richard, F.J. (2002). Opium and the British Indian Empire: The Royal Commission of 1895. Modern Asian Studies, 36(2), 375-420. doi: 10.1017/S0026749X02002044.

Article Name
The 18th - 20th Century trade in Opium
Shaneka Knight discussed the East India Company's domination of the 18th-20th century Opium trade.
Publisher Name
The Sociological Mail

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