Anthropium; a historical, environmental,
and social view of opium’s role in the Anthropocene
with a focus on the Opium War
By Emily Jorgensen
shāng yī yǒu bì dòu xiāng hǔ èr
“When two tigers fight, one will surely get hurt.” – Chinese Idiom
In thinking of the various narratives of the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil describes the ‘eco-Marxist narrative’. This narrative style presents the main issue surrounding environmental concerns to be capitalism, in fact claiming that the human race now lives in a Capitalocene era. This era is characterized by the exploitation of foreign resources to maximize trade profits and results in uneven distribution of responsibility when it comes to environmental change. The Opium Wars between China and England during the 19th century provide a classic example of this. When two tigers fight, one will indeed get hurt. In the case of the Opium Wars, China was the tiger that suffered the damage, losing control of Hong Kong and many other trading ports after trying and failing to stem the flow of Indian-grown opium from the British. In this context, opium demonstrates itself as a clever commodity used by the British to earn money from an increasing population of addicts by selling goods not even grown on their home soil. This situation was made possible by a fair portion of militarized enforcement of continued opium trade on the part of the British. Opium trade at this time provides a prime example of living in the Capitalocene and its negative affects to the people and environments that it plunders.
The proposal made by the eco-Marxist narrative is that capitalism has created a dependence on this Earth in a way that profits off of materials that previously did not have monetary value. A capitalist system at this time would seek to profit off resources that had not yet entered the market at large, like opium. The system also keeps most of the income with the merchant, and the smallest amount with the makers, which in this case are the Indian growers. The eco-Marxist narrative additionally emphasizes the inequality of societies stemming from imperialism. In this way, humans are not collectively responsible for the condition of the environment, but particular countries that use force to extract materials and increase profit are held at higher responsibility for Anthropogenic change. This behavior is especially prevalent in the history of Europe and North America. One example is the forceful and violent means by which the British inserted themselves within the Indian cotton trade, which is known as war capitalism. Instead of directly opening and controlling these trading options, private companies working for Britain, like the British East India Company, dominated this area with privatized violence. The British established Cotton Empire was indeed formidable. The British also use this method of coerced trade to insert themselves into the Chinese merchant system, only this time using opium grown in India.
The opium poppy, or Papaver somniferum, is truly a substance that has been used for thousands of years; it has served as an ancient remedy, a recreational drug, and a subject of scientific and technological advancement. As far back as 3200 BC, Sumerians produced opium poppy plants in Mesopotamia, a plant that they called the “joy plant.” Around 460 BC, Hippocrates endorsed opium as a useful medicine and sleeping aid. Much later in the 1500s, the Portuguese began recreationally smoking opium. At that time, most Chinese abstained from use because it was an unaccepted behavior in their culture. Friedrich Sertürner, a German pharmacist, managed to extract morphine from the plant in 1803, which then became quite a popular painkiller until people realized it’s addictive potential. Finally in 1874, C. R. Wright, who was a chemistry and physics researcher, boiled the morphine over a stove to create heroin. The poppy continued to spread, and the Golden Triangle in South East Asia, consisting of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, became notorious for poppy growth and export, and numerous efforts around the world to halt this trade have been for the most part unsuccessful. Moving to the present day, drugs originating from the opium poppy have become serious issues for those concerned with drug trafficking. Mexico and Colombia are the largest opiate producers in Latin America, and the illegal trade with North America is lucrative. Always putting trade first, the USA enacted NAFTA to increase free trade with Mexico in the 1990’s, knowing full well that the increase flow in trade would also mean an increased flow in drugs crossing the border. This plant, the poppy, has been of use in vastly different ways throughout the years, all according to the function that humans were looking to get out of it.
In the 19th century, opium was traded forcefully and abused to the point of engagement in war and the complete restructuring of British power in China. The conflict emerged essentially because the Chinese were displeased with the trading system between themselves and the British. Chinese goods were valuable in Britain, where they drank Chinese tea and ate Chinese rhubarb. However, Governor Tang, who ruled over the Southernmost province where opium trade was occurring, highlights the fact that the Chinese had no need whatsoever of products from Britain. Opium was the solution for the British East India Company to use as a trade material rather than feeding more silver into the Chinese system. Opium had already been traded in China since the 1600s, but in 1793 the British obtained a monopoly of the poppy in India and increased its trade with gusto. Lord Robert Jocelyn was a military secretary, later to become a British Member of Parliament, who travelled China and chronicled the events of his travels and conflicts. He wrote that “the monopoly of the drug… is entirely in the hands of the East India Company”. This was the nature of the opium trade. British soils would not allow the growth of opium, so they monopolized and profited off of the environmental conditions of India, and the opium from India was then traded with China, despite repeated prohibitions.
Not unexpectedly, the British and the Chinese felt very differently about the trade. Lord Jocelyn’s views were standard of the British people. He describes the Chinese as people who refuse to move forward from their simple technologies, using “the same unscientific construction used by their forefathers many hundred years ago” driven by the “systematic darkness inculcated by their rulers”. He viewed the Chinese people as a simple and submissive society. He even exclaims how “the power of this empire is on no firmer base than that of other Eastern nations”. Lord Jocelyn’s perspective is in modern times known as a Eurocentric view. Eurocentrism is the attitude that European societies and technologies arose earlier and are superior to other societies. Eurocentrism provides a simple justification for utilizing a war capitalist approach, that being that European involvement could bring nothing but improvements to foreign lands.
On the other hand, to the majority of Chinese leaders and politicians the opium trade was a source of infuriation and frustration. Governor Tang, exclaims, “the evil has gradually spread over the whole coast, and infected every province of the empire”. Word deserves to be given to the effect of the opium drug on the people of China. Opium was then so prominent in China that people of all social strata were succumbing and becoming hopelessly addicted. Jocelyn describes the “faded cheek and haggard look of those being abandoned to the power of the drug”.Both Governor Tang and Keshen, who was a prominent figure in Chinese public affairs, demanded that the British be cut-off from trade in China. Keshen revels over how the British would later beg to be allowed back into trade with China, and how, given this, the Chinese should accept only silver in payment. Under this plan, Keshen hoped that, “the sycee silver that previously went out of our country in payment for opium, will gradually return to us”. Given these strongly opposing views and determination to strap down on the illegal smuggling, it was no surprise when hostilities arose.
The opium trade involved more than simply the conflict between the British and the Chinese. India was the source of the drug, and its people and environment were both impacted. Once the British East India Company successfully monopolized poppy growing plantations in northern India, the land used to cultivate the crop increased. In 1818, land under cultivation was a mere 25,000 acres. By the late 1830s, this area increased to 176,745 acres, most of which was traded at Canton ports. The production region for intensive opium stretched around 150 to 180 miles down the Ganges River. The Indian Empire counted on opium profits to improve the economic conditions of the country, and so allowed only peasants with a caste history of gardening skills to grow poppy and allotted them the most “fertile soils and irrigation” to “grow poppies of the highest quality”. In fact, these areas were blessed with loamy soils, were primed with the most manure, and irrigated with the highest frequency. This means that the most productive land in India was being delegated not to grow food-based crops, but an export good. The British and the Indian government insisted that that this export would bring in silver to the Indian economy, but there is serious doubt as to how this impacted the opium farmers. It was observed by the anti-monopoly Commission that the payment to the opium-growers would have to double in order to qualify as a fair wage. This outcome shows it’s capitalist roots, as it is standard for those in positions of power to receive disproportionate amounts of the profit. This system also led to a large change of land-use in India, to that for British use in trade.
In the course of the Opium Wars, the trade of Papaver somniferum significantly altered social conditions in China and environmental conditions in India. This network of trade proves how much impact a simple flower, albeit an extremely potent one, was used by the British to achieve their goal. The drug influx not only meant that less silver was flowing into Chinese hands, but that a whole generation of addicts were created that would affect the future culture of China. It could be said that the presence of British trade throughout China helped to force open China’s economy and mold a country that would be so prominent in the world today. The effects of the monopoly on India were seen on both its environment and people, with the poppy taking the place of other crops and farmers. Not only did the British act as war capitalists in the standard way of militarized trade, but they used a more subtle and powerful way to weaken the resistance. The opium poppy allowed them to do this. This modification of the use of the poppy is characteristic of human action, and played a critical role in this era called the Capitolocene.
Beckert, Sven. “Building War Capitalism.” In Empire of Cotton, 29-55. New York: Knopf, 2015.
Bonneuil, Christophe. “The Geological Turn: Narratives of the Anthropocene.” In The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis, by Christophe Bonneiul and Clive Hamilton, 17-30. London: Routledge, 2015.
Booth, Martin. A Brief History of Opium. Simon & Schuster Ltd. 1996. http://www.opioids.com/timeline/ (accessed April 19, 2016).
Burnett, M. A., and G. T. Burnett. “”Papaver somniferum. Poppy-white or opium”.” Wellcome Library. London: James Sangster and Co., 1853.
Dermota, Ken. “Snow Business: Drugs and the Spirit of Capitalism.” World Policy Journal (Duke University Press) 16, no. 4 (1999): 15-24.
Jocelyn, Robert Lord. Six Months with the Chinese Expediton. London: John Murray, 1841.
Richards, J. F. “The Indian Empire and Peasant Production of Opium in the Nineteenth Century.” JSTOR (Cambridge University Press) 15, no. 1 (1981): 59-82.
Slade, John. Narrative of the Late Proceedings and Events in China. Delaware: Canton Register Press/ Scholarly Resources Inc., 1839.