Narcotics East and West—In Colonial and Modern Asia

By George Fowler. Regarding Asia, the post-World War II West has endured decades of self-flagellation within its literature, theater, media and written history. This month Hong Kong reverts to the often untender mercies of Red China. With China’s communist government an increasingly cryptic relic of an expired era, that country’s future dealings with the West may be strongly influenced by what it claims happened in lands where incredible wealth was never far from dire poverty.

There are many bitter memories handed down from events of this and prior centuries. But the influences of the West held no monopoly on cruelty, avarice and exploitation. Those in China and Asia who grasp the standard racist canard, shouting “payment for past sins,” must be brought to the table of history’s record.

Destroying Chinese war junks

In 1497, five years after Columbus had reached “the Indies” under the Spanish flag, Portugal’s Vasco da Gama set out on the first known Western sea passage to India. He was provided a letter of credence to the Rajah of Calicut and valuable presents. In 1847 Bartholomeu Diaz left Lisbon, and rounded the Cape of Good Hope in early 1488. He returned with the news that a sea route to the Indies was evidently open. Also in 1488, an Arabic-speaking Portuguese squire, Pero de Couilha, traveled overland and reached the west coast of India. By the dawn of the 16th century, the Portuguese had established a monopoly on Indian Ocean sea trade.

R. Boxer wrote in The Portuguese Seaborne Empire—1415-1825 of the 13th century trips by way of the Euro-Asian land mass; from the shores of the Black Sea to those of the China Sea. In that age Mongol khans imposed their Pax Tartarica over Central Asia and beyond. Successful Western round-trip travelers such as Marco Polo “recounted the wonders and marvels of the East” to their compatriots. Either they were disbelieved, or their recollections “were too highly coloured and fragmentary to give an accurate idea of Asia to the Western world.”

In his famed History of England, Vol. II, G.M. Trevelyan wrote that by the 15th century the less liberal Turks had eclipsed Tartar rule over the medieval land trade routes to the East. The Turks exacted greater tolls, and “medieval Europe was being constantly denuded” of gold and silver to pay for Asiatic spices, etc. This was largely alleviated in the post-Columbus decades by new supplies of gold and silver flowing to Europe from the Americas. But the transport by sea of the goods, particularly those of bulk, proved a vast relief relative to markets in the East.

If one entity personifies the ages of Western colonialism it is the British East India Company. In its many salad decades it was a unique enterprise, ruling nearly a fifth of the world’s population. It possessed its own Crown-allied army, and navy and civil service.

Many who would be associated with it were among the mightiest subjects of the mightiest empire—Clive of India, Lord Cornwallis following his Yorktown de feat, Lord Raffles and Arthur Wellesley prior to his becoming Duke of Welling ton. It held unchallenged sway from the St. Helena’s Island of Napoleon’s demise to Britain’s long-brightest Asian jewel, Singapore.

In The East India Company, A History author Brian Gardner recounts the 1580’s exhilaration of the English people following Sir Francis Drake’s voyage around the world—accomplished nearly a century after it was achieved by the remarkable but eventually fading maritime capacities of Portugal. With the defeat eight years later of Phillip II of Spain’s Armada (due largely to poorly prepared ships, poor seamanship and storms than to England’s superior seamanship) the England of Elizabeth I reached a youthful pride.

Elizabeth I and her advisors thought it time to launch an operation that would be instrumental in bringing England fame and fortune. Thus “Queen Bess” signed a charter granting broad monopoly rights to the Honorable East India Company. Marked with the royal seal of England, it was valid for 15 years.

The prior centuries of East Asia’s wide trade among its various kingdoms and with such outsiders as Indians, Arabs and Portuguese, would prove very interesting reading on its own. Trade between India and China involved Japan, Korea, Siam, Indochina, etc. Officially sanctioned piracy, far from extinct in today’s Asian seas, thrived. Its volume no doubt dwarfed that practiced by the buccaneers of the “Spanish Main” who have fascinated generations of Western children.

In The Traditional Trade of Asia, author C.G.F. Simkin wrote that, in the decades following Elizabeth I’s 1603 death, China “had a remarkable economic growth within the limits of its traditional methods of production.” Although faulty, census estimates of China’s population listed 64 million in the “Armada” age of 1578, over 143 million in 1741 and 432 million by 1851. These population increases were largely the result of increasingly sophisticated farming methods. New crops brought substantial benefits to all classes. Rice was of course a multi-regional staple, but in sandy south China the staple food of the poor became the sweet potato.

Simkin continued that “a less fortunate development was the spread of the opium poppy. It had been known in China for some centuries but most supplies had come from India and had been used medicinally.” Indian imports of opium had been much limited by piracy and by suppression of it by the Ming Dynasty.

Carlton Hayes points out in his History of Modern Europe that 17th century India was ruled by a dynasty of Moslem emperors called Moguls. They had entered the country as conquerors in the previous century and had established a splendid architectural complex in Delhi, off the Ganges River. Overwhelmingly, the people maintained their ancient, highly caste-structured Hindu religion.

The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602, the year prior to Elizabeth’s death. It was composed of an amalgamation of several smaller interests in Holland. Brian Gardner notes that it “was a mighty military and naval organization, and it looked upon the English company as an impertinent but potentially dangerous intruder into a trade which it considered was a monopoly belonging to itself.” But circumstances of war and internal dynamics would eventually favor England. Al though the Britons were often stretched thin in terms of purse and military power, their alliances and their fortunes (save in relation to a newly born United States) worked toward their sea power-borne primacy.

Trevelyan wrote in History of England, Vol. III that the French East India Company was “hopelessly inferior to the English in trade,” and had decided to enter into military alliances with some of the native powers; in India raising “Sepoy regiments under French officers.” French activities included pressures on “the stations of the British East India Company at Madras (a major British port-fortification) and elsewhere.”

During the early 18th century reign of George II, England’s Sir Robert Clive (Clive of India) was provided with the British and allied Indian troops to destroy French power in India. Under Clive, Bengal became the first great area of British rule within the huge peninsula. The early stages were set for the British East India Company’s use of India as China’s “supplier.” In India as in China, this deadly traffic would also mean immense to middling profits for favorably placed Indians and Chinese.

Trevelyan wrote that by “the era of Waterloo,” the ever growing British Empire had become “the characteristic representative of European trade and influence in Asia. The Industrial Revolution had given fresh speed and vigour to the outward expansion of English life which had been going on ever since the days of Elizabeth.”

But before the “era of Waterloo” and shortly after America gained her independence, the first American ships set out for China. In Americans and the China Trade, Margaret C.S. Christman notes that Robert Morris, centrally heroic in his efforts to finance George Washington’s perpetual-shoestring Continental Army, was instrumental in the first, and successful, American trip to China. On Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1784, the Empress of China set sail from New York. Upon her return, Morris wrote John Jay, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, that “our ship from China does tolerably well for the concerned; she has opened new objects to all America.”

Trade by Americans and Europeans centered in Canton. Christman wrote that “The Emperor of China did not deign to recognize foreign trade. But he allowed a guild of some half dozen merchants, called Co-Hong, to pay [the throne] handsomely for the privilege of controlling the barbarian trade.”

From the beginning most Americans, as far as we know, dealt in non-narcotic trade. Prominent among the minority of American dope barons were the Delanos. The name had been semi-anglicized from the French (in their case Huguenot) de la Noye, following the family’s coming to America in 1621. In FDR—A Biography author Ted Morgan wrote that, like his father and his grandfather, Warren Delano Jr. “went to sea not to hunt whales but to bring tea from China. It was a profitable trade, if you had ships swift enough to get the tea to market before it lost its flavor… In 1851 Warren Delano bought a 60 acre farm on a point of land overlooking the Hudson near Newburgh… Buddhist temple bells and teakwood screens [in the home he built] indicated the origins of the family fortune.”

Warren Delano Jr. was FDR’s maternal grandfather. Periodically, and for many of this century’s middle years, Westbrook Pegler was one of America’s most prominent reporter-columnists. The Hearst papers and hundreds of other newspapers carried his column. Pegler detailed the opium-based fortune that had built what would become Hyde Park, the estate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Morgan skips over the China trade activities of Warren Delano Jr.’s father and grandfather with this explanation of Warren Jr.’s opium activities: “In 1859, aged 50, he dealt in a cargo no bulkier than tea but a hundred times more valuable: opium.” His timing could not have been better, for when the Civil War erupted in 1861, opium became a vitally needed medical supply, and opium traders were upgraded from disreputable suppliers of addicts to patriotic savers of lives. Warren Delano was under orders from the government to ship this widely used anesthetic to the Medical Bureau of the War Department. He was also named the agent of the State Department in China for the war’s duration.

Morgan added that the Lincoln administration was “a good paymaster, and within three years Delano was able to charter a ship to transport his entire family to Hong Kong” for an extended holiday. Thus an administration obsessed with “setting all men free” (as well as the vast, “incidental” profits), was expending great amounts of money that would result not only in the relief of suffering but in the enslaving to opium of many thousands of Union soldiers.

In allowing the westerners access to Canton, the foreign traders enjoyed a location offering the best trading facilities in China. Its native population had reached a million during the 17th century, and it was sheltered from the open sea by a funnel-shaped bay 30 miles long. In The East Indiamen Russell Miller wrote that, after Britain’s eventual dominance following “long and bitter power struggles with the Dutch and the French,” outward-bound British passenger traffic grew steadily. In India, what the British needed most was “not merchandise but men.” A strong civilian, civil service and military presence was needed to build an empire in India as well as in Africa. For purposes related to expansion of Her Majesty Victoria’s Empire, the largely opium-derived in come that flowed into the royal coffers—sums probably never to be disclosed—was magnificently opportune.

In 1857, at the time of the Crimean War, the reason for rebellion of the Sepoy regiments in India may sound humorous to Western ers but not to the religious sensibilities of the natives. Although there was no intent to insult, it was realized that issued cartridges had been greased with the fat of cows (sacred) and pigs (repulsive). A mutiny at Bengal the same year was prompted by excessive severity toward Indian troops by British officers. The hardest fighting to regain control took place in the upper Ganges region of Central India. Gallant British defenses, some as magnificent as those of the Thin Red Line at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa that saved several British garrisons from annihilation. Loyal Indian troops complemented the excellent fighting on the part of reinforcements (disproportionately Scottish) from England.

By the summer of 1857 India was quieted, and its Native States would remain pillars of the Raj until the Gandhi-immediate post World War II years, when Lord Mountbatten, the last Raj, lowered the Union Jack.

In his book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia Alfred W. McCoy noted that “China’s political situation changed dramatically toward the end of the 19th century.” Humiliating defeat by Japan in their 1894-1895 war led to demands for reform. Retaliations suffered by China following the 1899-1900 Boxer Rebellion against the European presence saw China again beaten and even more strapped financially. McCoy wrote that “opium was a clear-cut symptom and symbol of foreign intrusion and national decay.” Of course the Chinese, who could affect a sanctimoniously righteous stance as imposing as that of the Indians, would not admit that the generations of drug-induced internal problems would have been impossible without generations of collusion on the part of thousands of Chinese; from humble smugglers to imperial insiders.

In 1906 the Chinese government launched an opium suppression campaign. An imperial edict of that year stated plans for the elimination of China’s opium problem within 10 years. McCoy wrote that “the officially sponsored British contribution was finally eliminated, and domestic cultivation was temporarily, yet drastically, reduced.” In compromise, “His Majesty’s Government signed an agreement that went into effect in 1908, committing itself gradually to reduce the export of Indian opium intended for Hong Kong and China. However, many British officials, particularly those ruling India, were less than wildly enthusiastic about this decision,” expressing skepticism regarding both China’s determination and capacities to effectively suppress opium.

McCoy recounts from cable traffic carried on by Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary then and during World War I. Grey stated that His Majesty’s Government stood prepared to resist any effective Chinese efforts that would “discriminate” against foreign opium. McCoy wrote that “this meant that the British, who had perfected the technique of opium monopoly for government profit, strenuously objected…” British documents for the first years of the suppression campaign are full of accounts of incidents in which Chinese attempts to restrict opium sales provoked outraged cries from opium merchants, who were almost invariably backed up by British officials. A subsequent book by a Chinese named Ch’en, Opium and Anglo-Chinese Relations, found that imports of Indian opium actually increased slightly during the years 1907-1911.

However, by 1911 Britain’s official and practical positions began to change; no doubt largely due to the bad publicity Britannia was receiving. In that year Britain and China signed a strong anti-opium agreement. By 1915 most of China’s provinces were declared closed to foreign opium. During the early period of suppression, morphine began to grow in popularity with Chinese. Not long after morphine’s derivative, heroin, was used with increasing frequency by ever greater numbers.

Clearly, an immense demand for dope had long been cultivated in China and elsewhere in Asia. In The Peking Bomb —The Psychological War Against America, author Gerd Hamburger noted that from the beginning of the 19th century, 2,000 boxes and chests of opium were exported from India each year. And “it was planned that by 1837 more than 40,000 boxes would be shipped every year.” The value of this export (in 1830s pound sterling value) was more than four million pounds.

In recent decades the story of the international narcotics problem is so vast and so worldwide that it has been a major component in world power struggles. Narcotic substances were used by the Asian Reds and the Soviet Reds, and they were a clandestine funding device of Republican administrations faced with the anti-anti-Communist balkings of Democratic Congresses. Few would deny that large amounts of narcotics were moved in Asia by Air America, the CIA’s airline, by unscrupulous station chiefs making deals with anti-communist drug runners, some with substantial military might of their own.

As Hong Kong reverts to still-Red China, a country with ever widening strips of private enterprise luxury crossing its coastal underbelly, what will be its future relative to narcotics? Granted, it has other, very big economic fish to fry. And Beijing shows no immediate indication (for what that is worth) of putting away its frying pans. But Hong Kong and narcotics have long been as close as pastrami and rye.

McCoy’s book pointed out that Hong Kong bears many physical similarities to Marseilles, France’s polyglot sin port. Marseilles locations long served as the heroin labs for Turkish opium, a largely Corsican Mafia operation. But “Hong Kong chiu chau chemists have a longer tradition, produce a higher grade of heroin… It was not until American GIs serving in Vietnam began using alarming quantities of No. 4 heroin refined in the Golden Triangle region that any attention was focused on the Asian heroin trade.”

Despite the West’s recent years’ “financial news” emphasis regarding Hong Kong’s future, it must be realized that capitalism’s favorite Disneyland has the world’s highest per capita addiction rate, and remains a Mecca for high rolling dealers and Triad syndicate operators. Therefore, quo vadis Hong Kong?


The East India Company—A History, Brian Gardner, The McCall Publishing Co., New York, 1971.

The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, C.R. Boxer, Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., London, 1969.

Americans and the China Trade 1784-1844, Margaret C.S. Christman, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., 1948.

FDR—A Biography, Ted Morgan, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985.

The Traditional Trade of Asia, C.F.G. Simkin, Oxford University Press, Ely House, London, 1968.

The East Indiamen, Russell Miller, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Va., 1980.

History of England (Volumes II & III) , G.M. Trevelyan, Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., London, 1926.

Ways That Are Dark, Ralph Townsend, P.G. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1936.

A Political and Cultural History of Europe, Carleton J. H. Hayes, The MacMillan Co., New York, 1947.

The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Alfred W. McCoy, Harper & Rowe, New York, 1972.

The Peking Bomb, Fred Hamberger, Robert B. Luce, Inc Washington—New York, 1975.

 Taken from
The Barnes Review, June 1997: British East Indian Opium Trade

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