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Britain’s Century Long Opium Trafficking and China’s Century of Humiliation (1839–1949)

In 1500, India and China were the world’s most advanced civilizations. Then came the Europeans. They eventually looted and wreaked havoc on both, just as they were to on the Americas and Africa.

History of the Opium Problem: The Assault on the East, Ca. 1600 – 1950,Hans Derks

For the Chinese, the trauma of the Century of Humiliation continues as a blunt reminder of their past defeat and neo-colonial servitude, as well as a reminder of the West’s self-righteous hypocrisy and arrogance.

In 1500, India and China were the world’s most advanced civilizations. Then came the Europeans. They eventually looted and wreaked havoc on both, just as they were to on the Americas and Africa. For India and China, Britain was the chief culprit, relying on state-sponsored drug-running backed by industrialized military power. The British Empire was the world’s largest producer and exporter of Opium—the main product of global trade after the gradual decline of the slave trade from Africa. Their “civilization” brought the Century of Humiliation to China, which only ended with the popular revolution led by Mao Zedong. This historic trauma and the struggle to overcome it and re-establish their country is etched in the minds of the Chinese today.

Before the British brought their “culture,” 25% of the world trade originated in India. By the time they left it was less than 1%. British India’s Opium dealing was for the large part of the 19th Century the second-most important source of revenue for colonial India. Their “Opium industry was one of the largest enterprises on the subcontinent, producing a few thousand tons of the drug every year—a similar output to Afghanistan’s notorious Opium industry [during the U.S. occupation], which supplies the global market for heroin.” Opium accounted for about 17-20% of British India revenues.

In the early 1700s, China produced 35% of the world GDP. Until 1800 half the books in the world were printed in Chinese. The country considered itself self-sufficient, not seeking any products from other countries. Foreign countries bought Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain, having to pay in gold and silver. Consequently, the balance of trade was unfavorable to the British for almost two centuries, like the situation the U.S. and Europe face with China today.

This trade slowly depleted Western reserves. Eventually, 30,865 tons of silver flowed into China, mostly from Britain. Britain turned to state sponsored drug smuggling as a solution, and by 1826 the smuggling from India had reversed the flow of silver. Thus began one of the longest and continuous international crimes of modern times, second to the African slave trade, under the supervision of the British crown.

(The just formed United States was already smuggling Opium into China by 1784. The U.S. first multi-millionaire John Jacob Astor grew rich dealing Opium to China, as did FDR’s grandfather, Warren Delano, Jr.)

The British East India Company was key to this Opium smuggling. Soon after Britain conquered Bengal in 1757, George III granted the East India Company a monopoly on producing and exporting Indian Opium. Eventually its Opium Agency employed some 2500 clerks working in 100 offices around India.

Britain taxed away 50% of the value of Indian peasants’ food crops to push them out of agriculture into growing Opium. This soon led to the Bengal famine of 1770, when ten million, a third of the Bengali population, starved to death. Britain took no action to aid them, as they did almost a century later with their orchestrated famine in Ireland. Another famine hit India in 1783, and again Britain did nothing as 11 million starved. Between 1760-1943,

As per British sources, more than 85 million Indians died in these famines which were in reality genocides done by the British Raj.

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At its peak in the mid-19th century, the British state-sponsored export of Opium accounted for roughly 15% of total colonial revenue in India and 31% of India’s exports. The massive revenues from this drug money solidified India as a substantial financial base for England’s later world conquests.

In 1729, the Chinese emperor declared the import of Opium illegal. At the time it amounted to 200 chests a year, each 135 pounds, a total of 14 tons. The emperor in 1799 reissued the prohibition in harsher terms, given imports had leaped to 4,500 chests (320 tons). Yet by 1830 it rose to 1100 tons, and by 1838, just before the British provoked the First Opium War (1839-1842), it climbed to 40,000 chests (2800 tons).

chest of Opium cost only £2 to produce in India but it sold for £10 [over $1,000 in today’s prices] in China, nearly an £8 profit per chest.

About 40,000 chests supplied 2.1 million addicts in a Chinese population of 350 million. China was losing over 4000 tons of silver annually. Addicts were mostly men, twenty to fifty-five years old, which should have been their most productive years. Smoking Opium gradually spread to different groups of people: government officials, merchants, intelligentsia, women, servants, soldiers, and monks.

Just before the First Opium War the Chinese “drug czar,” Lin Zexu, wrote to Queen Victoria, “Where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of Opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; this is because the harm caused by Opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries.” In standard imperialist arrogance, Britain ignored the letter and challenged the very legality of China’s sovereign decision to prohibit Opium imports.

Britain provoked this First Opium War in retaliation for China seizing and destroying 1300 tons of Opium held by British drug dealers off Canton (now Guangzhou). This had a value equal to one-sixth of the British empire’s military budget. British Foreign Secretary Palmerston demanded an apology, compensation for the Opium, a treaty to prevent Chinese action against British drug-running, and opening additional ports to “foreign trade,” their euphemism for drug dealing.

The British India Gazette reported on the sack of one Chinese city during the war:

A more complete pillage could not be conceived than took place. Every house was broken open, every drawer and box ransacked, the streets strewn with fragments of furniture, pictures, tables, chairs, grain of all sorts–the whole set off by the dead or the living bodies of those who had been unable to leave the city from the wounds received from our merciless guns… The plunder ceased only when there was nothing to take or destroy.

Once Britain defeated China, the Treaty of Nanking gave Hong Kong to the British, which quickly became the center of Opium drug-dealing, soon providing the colony most of its revenue. The treaty also allowed the British to export unlimited amounts of Opium.

In 1844, France and the U.S. forced China to sign similar unequal and unjust treaties, with the same unrestricted trading rights.

In the wake of the First Opium War, a devastating famine hit southern China, causing mass starvation among millions of poor Chinese peasants. Soon the Taiping Rebellion against Chinese imperial rule broke out, claiming 20 million Chinese lives between 1850 and 1864. As with many later civil wars, as in Syria a decade ago, the European states financed the rebels to undermine the national government.

Karl Marx detailed how Britain provoked the Second Opium War (1856-1860). France joined in the looting. The Times of London, propagandists for their state-sponsored drug mafia, declared,

England, with France . . . shall teach such a lesson to these perfidious hordes that the name of Europe will hereafter be a passport of fear, if it cannot be of love, throughout their land.

In October 1860 the British and French military attacked Beijing. Despite French protests, British commander Lord Elgin destroyed Yuanming Yuan, the emperor’s summer palace, in a show of contempt for the Chinese.

The Summer Palace was the quintessential treasure house of China. No such collection of wealth and beauty had ever existed anywhere on earth. Nor would it ever again.… in some 200 fabulously decorated buildings, thirty of them imperial residences, lay riches beyond all dreams of avarice. Jewels, jade, ceremonial robes, the court treasures, bales of silk, and countless priceless artifacts represented the years of accumulated tribute placed before the Chinese emperors. There were splendid galleries of paintings and irreplaceable libraries…For three days British and French troops rampaged through the palace’s marble corridors and glittering apartments, smashing with clubs and rifle butts what they were unable to carry away.” When the robbery and destruction was finished, they burned Yuanming Yuan to the ground. An estimated 1.5 million Chinese relics were taken away, many still filling museums and the homes of the wealthy in the West today.

Britain and France forced China to legalize the import of Opium, which reached 5000 tons by 1858, an amount surpassing global Opium production in 1995. China had to agree that no Westerner could be tried in Chinese courts for crimes committed in the country, and, ironically, to legalize Christian missionary work.

The 1881 pamphlet, Opium: England’s Coercive Policy and Its Disastrous Results in China and India, stated,

As a specimen of how both wars were carried on, we quote the following from an English writer on the bombardment of Canton: ‘Field pieces loaded with grape were planted at the end of long, narrow streets crowded with innocent men, women and children, to mow them down like grass till the gutters flowed with their blood.’ In one scene of carnage, the Times correspondent recorded that half an army of 10,000 men were in ten minutes destroyed by the sword, or forced into the broad river. The Morning Herald asserted that ‘a more horrible or revolting crime than this bombardment of Canton has never been committed in the worst ages of barbaric darkness.’

By the mid-1860s, Britain was in control of seven eighths of the vastly expanded Opium trade into China. Opium imports from India skyrocketed to 150,000 chests (10,700 tons) in 1880. British Opium earnings amounted to $2 billion a year in today’s money and accounted for nearly 15% of the British Exchequer’s tax revenue. The London Times (Oct. 22, 1880) outrageously claimed that “the Chinese government admitted Opium as a legal article of import, not under constraint, but of their own free will.” Lord Curzon, later Under Secretary for India,

denied that England had ever forced Opium upon China; no historian of any repute, and no diplomatist who knew anything of the matter, would support the proposition that England coerced China in this respect.

China began domestic production to curtail losing more silver to imported Opium. After 1858, large tracts of land were given over to Opium production, and provinces turned from growing food and other necessities to Opium. Eventually the Chinese were producing 35,000 tons, about 85% of the world’s supply, with 15 million addicts consuming 43,000 tons annually.

China, now greatly weakened by the British narco state, surrendered territory to Russia equal to the combined size of France, Germany, and Spain. In 1885 France seized Chinese Southeast Asia. In 1895, Japan seized Taiwan and Chinese-controlled Korea.

The Eight-Nation Alliance (Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary) invaded again in 1900 to crush the nationalist Boxer Rebellion. An indemnity of 20,000 tons of silver was extracted, and China reduced to a neo-colony.

By 1906, besides British India, Opium dealing also provided 16% of taxes for French Indochina, 16% for the Netherlands Indies, 20% for Siam, and 53% for British Malaya.

That year, the British, still exporting 3500 tons to China, finally agreed to end the dirty business within ten years. The British crown had the distinction of being the biggest Opium smuggler in history—a central factor in their wrecking Chinese and Indian civilizations.

World Opium production by 1995 was down to 4,200 metric tons (4,630 tons), mostly from Burma and Afghanistan. The Taliban banned it in 2000, and production fell from 3400 to only 204 tons. The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan reversed this, and by 2008, U.S. occupied Afghanistan was producing 90% of the world’s Opium, reaching 10,000 tons in 2017. After the U.S. was driven out in 2021, the Taliban quickly stopped Opium production. The United States Institute of Peace, possibly revealing U.S. support for narco-trafficking, pronounced, “the Taliban’s successful Opium ban is bad for Afghans and the world” and “will have negative economic and humanitarian consequences.”

The blight of Opium on China was not resolved until the revolutionary victory in 1949—though it continued in British Hong Kong. Mao proclaimed “China has stood up,” ending its Century of Humiliation during which at least 100 million Chinese were killed in wars and famines, with up to 35 million during the Japanese invasion from 1931-1945.

By 1949, China had been reduced to one of the world’s poorest countries. Just 75 years ago four out of five Chinese could not read or write. But since 1981, China has lifted 853 million of its people out of poverty, has become an upper middle income country according to the World Bank, and regained its stature in the world. The West now views China as a renewed threat, again seeking to economically disable it and chop it into pieces. However, this time, the Chinese people are much better prepared to combat imperialist designs to impose a new era of humiliation on them.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.

Stansfield Smith is an anti-war activist focused mostly on combating U.S. intervention in Latin America. He was a member of Chicago Committee to Free the Cuban Five, which has become Chicago ALBA Solidarity. He can be reached at stansfieldsmith100 [at]

Monthly Review began publication in New York City in May 1949. The first issue featured the lead article “Why Socialism?” by Albert Einstein. From the beginning, Monthly Review spoke for a critical but spirited socialism, independent of any political organization. In an era of Cold War repression, the magazine published pioneering analyses of political economy, imperialism, and Third World struggles, drawing on the rich legacy of Marxist thought without being bound to any narrow view or party line. The McCarthy-led inquisition targeted MR‘s original editors, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, who fought back successfully. Against these odds, the magazine’s readership and influence grew steadily, and in 1952, Monthly Review Press published its first title, I. F. Stone’s Hidden History of the Korean War.

In the subsequent 1960s upsurge against capitalism, imperialism, and inequality, MR played a global role. A generation of activists received no small part of their education as subscribers to the magazine and readers of Monthly Review Press books. In the decades since, with the rise of neoliberalism and successive capitalist crises, MR has kept its commitment both to radical critique and to the building of a just economy and society.

For a more detailed look at MR‘s history, interested readers may consult this essay, published in 1999 for the magazine’s fiftieth anniversary.

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