A K Agnihotri: THE SMUGGLING OF AN EMPIRE

THE SMUGGLING OF AN EMPIRE

 

India may have been known as the Land of the Golden Bird and this name was nurtured in the irresistible demand for gold and silver. So many conquerors came and carried out vast booty from India, yet the riches never diminished. Conversion of cash into precious metals was an inane distrust of the rulers (nothing much has changed over centuries and the position is quite the same). With the advent of the British a new era of smuggling began: that of OPIUM.

Opium poppy cultivation had long been established in India and had provided an important source of revenue to the Moghul Emperors. In 1761 the East India Company obtained a monopoly over the opium production of British India, and soon afterwards the drug began to be shipped to China as part of the Company's triangular trade between India, Guangzhou and Britain.

Opium Addiction
The opium addict often sold all his possessions to pay for the opium.
This woodcut shows an addict's wife being sold to support his habit
.

Since the Chinese government had repeatedly banned opium smoking, the Company preferred to sell its production at annual auctions in Calcutta to licensed private firms so as not to jeopardise its legal trade in tea. The 'country traders' shipped the drug in specially built and heavily armed opium clippers to fortified receiving ships permanently stationed off the coast of southern China. From these floating warehouses the illicit cargoes were transferred to multi-oared 'fast crabs' and 'scrambling dragons', crewed by Chinese pirates who took the opium to coastal and riverine depots where bribed officials permitted the drug to be unloaded for distribution along extensive smuggling networks run by gangsters and Triads.

The opium traffic was of considerable economic importance to the British. The profits from the Company's auctions contributed significantly to the revenue of the government of British India, to the British government itself via tax on imported tea from China, and of course to the traders themselves. From the 1820s onwards British trade with China was in surplus, as the huge outflow of silver used to buy opium greatly exceeded the money the traders paid for Chinese tea.

The East India Company nurtured the cultivation of opium essentially to sell to China. Even though the Central Government at Peking vainly sought to prevent the (import) smuggling, the opium trade gradually assumed larger proportions, until it was valued at above $2,500,000 in 1816. The throwing open in that year of the Indian commerce gave a new and powerful stimulus to the operations of the English contrabandists also known as THE EAST INDIA COMPANY.

In 1820, the number of chests smuggled into China increased to 5,147; in 1821 to 7,000, and in 1824 to 12,639. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government, at the same time addressed threatening remonstrance’s to the foreign merchants, punished the Hong Kong merchants, with more stringent measures. The final result, like that in 1794, was to drive the opium depots from weaker hands and more sane persons to more organised gangs.

The trade shifted hands, and passed to a lower class of men, prepared to carry it on in spite of all hazards and by whatever means. Thanks to the paradigm shift in the class of Smugglers, the opium trade increased during the ten years from 1824 to 1834 from 12,639 to 21,785 chests.

The year 1834 marks an epoch in opium trade. The East India Company lost its privilege of trading (and) had to discontinue and abstain from all commercial business whatever. It being thus transformed from a mercantile into a merely government establishment, the trade to China became completely thrown open to English private enterprise which pushed on with such vigour that, in 1837, 39,000 chests of opium, valued at $25,000,000, were successfully smuggled into China, despite the desperate resistance of the Celestial Government.

The double standards of the British Government must however be flagged i.e. the self-contradiction of the Christianity (no offence to Christians, but around this time the British actively encouraged Proselytisation) Canting and Civilization-Mongering British Government. In its Imperial capacity it affected to be a thorough stranger to the contraband opium trade, and even to enter into treaties proscribing it. Yet, in its Indian capacity, it forces the opium cultivation upon Bengal, to the great damage of the productive resources of that country; compels one part of the Indian ryots to engage in the poppy culture; entices another part into the same by dint of money advances; keeps the wholesale manufacture of the deleterious drug a close monopoly in its hands; watches by a whole army of official spies its growth, its delivery at appointed places, its inspissations and preparation for the taste of the Chinese consumers, its formation into packages especially adapted to the convenience for smuggling, and finally its conveyance to Calcutta, where it is put up at auction at the Government sales, and made over by the State officers to the speculators, thence to pass into the hands of the smugglers (who work under the benign eyes of the rulers) who land it in China.

The chest costing the British Government about 250 rupees is sold at the Calcutta auction mart at a price ranging from 1,210 to 1,600 rupees. But, not yet satisfied with this matter-of-fact complicity, the same Government, tasks the merchants with proper accounting of the profit and loss accounts with the merchants and shippers, who embark in the hazardous operation of poisoning an empire, not their own of course, the rest be damned.

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“The Indian finances of the British Government have, in fact, been made to depend not only on the opium trade with China, but on the contraband character of that trade. Were the Chinese Government to legalize the opium trade simultaneously with tolerating the cultivation of the poppy in China, the Anglo-Indian exchequer would experience a serious catastrophe. While openly preaching free trade in poison it secretly defends the monopoly of its manufacture. Whenever we look closely into the nature of British free trade, monopoly is pretty generally found to lie at the bottom of its “freedom.” ( Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune Articles ON CHINA-1853-1860 FREE TRADE AND MONOPLY.;