Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse (1908)

“The mischief is in China; the money is in India.”

In 1907, Samuel Merwin, an American playwright and journalist, traveled to China to write a series of articles on the Opium trade. They were published year later in Success, a magazine where he himself served as an associate editor. That Merwin, unlike other progressive journalists of the era, has largely been forgotten, might have something to do with his subject. Even as we fight the “war on drugs,” we like to forget how important opium is to the history of laissez faire capitalism. From 1842. when a fleet of warships owned and operated by the East India Company opened up China to “free” trade, right up until the First World War,  opium paid for the British Raj in India. Napoleon famously said that the English were a nation of shopkeepers. It’s probably more accurate to say that they’re a nation of drug dealers. Unlike the present day media, Samuel Merwin doesn’t pull his punches. Drugging a Nation lays the responsibility for the “opium curse” right where it belongs, at the feet capitalism.

The most Mr. Clean Hands has been able to say for himself is that, “Opium is a fiscal, not a moral question;” or this, that “In the present state of the revenue of India, it does not appear advisable to abandon so important a source of revenue.” After all, China is a long way off. So much for Mr. Clean Hands! His partner, Dirty Hands, is more interesting. It is he who has “built up the trade.” It is he who has carried on the smuggling and the bribing and knifing and shooting and all-round, strong-arm work which has made the trade what it is. To be sure, as we get on in this narrative we shall not always find the distinction between Clean and Dirty so clear as we would like. Through the dust and smoke and red flame of all that dirty business along “the Coast” we shall glimpse for an instant or so, now and then, a face that looks distressingly like the face of old Respectability himself. I have found myself in momentary bewilderment when walking through the splendid masonry-lined streets of Hong Kong, when sitting beneath the frescoed ceiling of that pinnacled structure that houses the most nearly Christian of parliaments, trying to believe that this opium drama can be real. And I have wondered, and puzzled, until a smell like the smell of China has come floating to the nostrils of memory; until a picture of want and disease and misery–of crawling, swarming human misery unlike anything which the untraveled Western mind can conceive–has appeared before the eyes of memory. I have thought of those starving thousands from the famine districts creeping into Chinkiang to die, of those gaunt, seemed faces along the highroad that runs southwestward from Peking to Sian-fu; I have thought of a land that knows no dentistry, no surgery, no hygiene, no scientific medicine, no sanitation; of a land where the smallpox is a lesser menace beside the leprosy, plague, tuberculosis, that rage simply at will, and beside famines so colossal in their sweep, that the overtaxed Western mind simply refuses to comprehend them. And De Quincey’s words have come to me: “What was it that drove me into the habitual use of opium? Misery—blank desolation–settled and abiding darkness—-?” These words help to clear it up. China was a wonderful field, ready prepared for the ravages of opium–none better. The mighty currents of trade did the rest. The balance sheet reigned supreme as by right. The balance sheet reigns to-day.”

Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse

That might not be Joseph Conrad, but it’s close. If Conrad saw into the heart of King Leopold’s darkness in the Belgium Congo, Merwin points out the termite-infested foundation of the house that Adam Smith built. Not only has laissez faire capitalism slimed its way into a dying empire full of poverty and misery. It has also tried to make a profit off of the very addiction it created. Westerners, along with native hucksters, were already selling quack cures, a multi-million dollar business peddling useless junk to people who barely had the physical strength to get up out of bed. What’s more, even as the Chinese government desperately tried to cut demand — issue the opium smoker a license and then methodically reduce the amount of opium he could buy — the British wouldn’t let Chinese officials reduce the supply. To levy a heavy tariff that would have stopped the imports of high quality opium poppies from India would have been a violation of the principles of “free trade.” The Chinese government could cut domestic production simply by mobilizing troops and sending them into the countryside, but imported opium was always available in treaty ports like Hong Kong or Shanghai, both of which had been ceded to British control after 1842, and both of which quickly filled up with the very worst kind of Englishmen and other westerners.

If the first half of Drugging a Nation reads like a novel, the second half reads almost like a temperance pamphlet. One almost wishes that Samuel Merwin had confined himself to describing the problem, that he had had not offered a solution. While he correctly points out that the opium epidemic is a symptom, not the disease itself — which is poverty and social inequality — he’s a puritan moralist, not a communist revolutionary. What he wants, a movement of national revival organized around stigmatizing and suppressing opium the way it had been stigmatized and suppressed in Japan, would not have eliminated the material conditions that had made it possible in the first place. It will also inevitably remind most Americans of the Prohibitionist movement, which was gaining steam in the United States even as Merwin was traveling in China, and which would outlaw alcohol for most of the 1920s. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically since nationalism is almost always racist, as Merwin talks up Chinese nationalism, his language becomes more and more racist against the Chinese. We begin to suspect that real motive for his concern is that he fears the “the chickens will come home to roost,” that opium will spread to the west through Chinese immigration. “Where the Chinaman goes,” he reminds us, “opium goes.” That he was probably right, that the current heroin epidemic in the United States has its origins in the opium the British Empire peddled to the Chinese 150 years ago, doesn’t change how dated the language sounds. Nor does it make a national revival based on fighting a “war on drugs” any more feasible now than it was back then.

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5 comments

  1. Wow! I got a real lesson in history here👍..

  2. Incredible article, very detailed. Yeah the opium drug is something that has plagued China for a very long time. Hope more people read this. you must be quite a history buff.

    1. The more you learn about the British Empire, the more you realize just how evil it was and just what clever propagandists the British have always been. Merwin’s book goes into detail on the scale of the opium epidemic. It easily affected 100 million people, maybe more. It ruined families that had been established for countless generations. It depopulated whole towns and indirectly caused famines (since the land was used to grow opium and not food). Also, in 1907, you had cheap lightweight cameras so he took photos of the abandoned towns and the desolated landscape.

  3. Too bad we haven’t learned what not to do.

  4. […] Source: Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse (1908) […]

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