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Antique Boxes in English Society
1760 -1900
Tea and Opium

Tea and Opium



This article is in preparation:

John Barrow wrote in the Quarterly Magazine of 1836:

" is a curious circumstance that we grow poppy in our Indian territories to poison the people of China in return for a wholesome beverage which they prepare almost exclusively for us"


The image of tea drinking in England conjures up comfort, cosiness and eccentricity: idyllic cottages and grand houses, tea gardens and tea dances, part and parcel of a genteel society indulging in harmless and elegant fun.

Behind this facade of respectability the history of tea is one of the most sinister chapters of government manipulation the world has ever known. It can be argued that it was the catalyst, which brought about the expansion of the British Empire. In the 18th and 19th centuries the use of tea in England was inextricably and irrevocably interwound with opium, rendering it one of the two crops whose interdependence yielded vast financial and consequently political influence.

Many an English bank was set up on money earned from opium and tea dealing. Many grand houses and fortunes were made and sustained by trading opium for tea. The opium was derived from the poppy grown in British controlled India for the purpose of selling it to China.

The whole operation was administered by the British East India Company. The Company was set up in 1600 and it was granted trading rights in India early in the 17th century by the Mogul Emperor. In 1637 the first Company ships sailed to China with a view to exploring trading possibilities in the Far East. China did not allow free range to foreign traders. It allowed them to stay in the trading quarters, down river from Canton and only during the trading season. There, the Company established their warehouses and carried their transactions through the Chinese Hong merchants.

The events, which culminated in the Opium Wars of 1839-1842, are complex and confused. Different interests of involved parties often resulted in bungled outcomes. Here I am only trying to give the essence of the Tea/Opium struggle so as to enable the reader to realise why Tea was so precious in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Tea was deliberately allowed to be hyped so as to provide valuable revenue. The elaborate social rituals, which were nurtured around tea drinking, were more to do with money than the appreciation of the fine flavour of the beverage. These rituals needed beautiful accessories such as Tea Caddies, Teapots, spoons, strainers, tea gowns etc. to give gravitas to the business of drinking tea. Many artists and craftsmen turned their hand to creating little treasures for the tea table. Internal business was thus stimulated and unlike the aftermath of the opium trade the resulting products from this era of tea drinking are a beautiful legacy.

Tea was first imported to England from China in the seventeenth century. It was introduced in small quantities as a precious commodity. It is not clear when opium was first sold to China, although English traders first bought it in India in the seventeenth century. It must have been sold much earlier than the government was willing to admit.

The government of the day saw its chance of augmenting revenue by imposing heavy import duties on tea, which was perceived to be a rare and precious beverage. In 1701 less than 70lb of tea was imported rising to about a million by 1730 and nearing twenty million by the last decade of the century.

As the eighteenth century progressed and demand rose, the inevitable result was greed for more profits by more people and especially the Exchequer.

In an age of social change opportunists saw tea as a way of profiteering from a commodity, which after all was hyped with the blessing of the government. It is not easy to be certain how much tea was sold for. There were claims of 10 a pound early on but by the end of the eighteenth century it settled to about 16 shillings per pound. This made it impossible for poor people to afford and amongst other ways they obtained their tea by buying second hand leaves from inns. Smuggling and adulteration with amongst other things dried sheep droppings and cow dung became rife. Even so legitimate imports continued to rise.

To people who did not know all the machinations of the government it looked as if the scales of trading had tilted in favour both of China and Holland from whence a lot of the smuggled tea came to England. Too much coin was leaving England to pay for the tea and even though the Exchequer was doing very well out of import duties, there were rumbles of discontent and a concern that the country's economy was doing less well out of it than it potentially could.

Thinkers were beginning to air their views on what they saw as a beverage of little value-except perhaps for weaning people off the gin. There are numerous references to tea in literature and diaries of the period. Especially significant is the mention of tea in satire and caustic verse. The intellectuals suspected the social manipulation, which was going on in the teacup.

The government of course did not want such a good revenue spinner to disappear from the English table. Far from it. Tea image and drinking were actively encouraged by sustaining the social status of the new beverage. On the other hand it did not seem expedient to let the public know of the opium trade. This would have created more discontentment.

Mindful of the criticism, both actual and potential, which threatened such a good revenue spinner, the government of the day set out to create an alternative way to pay for the tea. Attempts to sell large amounts to America failed dismally. By the end of the eighteenth century one way forward was seen to be new markets for British products.

In 1793 an attempt was made to interest the Chinese in British manufactured goods. A delegation headed by Lord Macartney was sent over with samples of British wares. The Chinese were not impressed. The ambassadors were firmly dismissed albeit with impeccable courtesy.

China had developed a complex and sophisticated culture spinning over many centuries. When the first British embassy set foot on its soil there were more printed books and texts in China than the rest of the world put together. The Chinese Emperor secure in the belief of the superiority of his people, saw himself as the ruler of the world. All other nations were classed as vassals. The delegates were looked down upon with indulgent curiosity.

The Chinese considered the English in their pompous but inelegant over dress as little more than "monkeys in an opera" "prancing ponies" and their goodies as quite irrelevant to their spiritually superior oriental way of life. Their manner was considered crude and overbearing. They did not have the skill of interesting them in anything.

On their part the English thought of the Chinese as backward. The British sense of superiority was nurtured by the fact that England was stronger in terms of military might and manufacture. It was inconceivable to them that their industrial products would be scorned.

It is poignantly ironic that the Chinese invented gunpowder but did not exploit its use in the manufacture of armaments to the extent the British had done. To the Chinese, war, like everything else had a large element of art integrated with it. The result was that their own invention was applied in the devastation of so much of their own civilisation by a country whose government saw progress merely in terms of industry, trade and war machines.

We only have to think of Chinese fireworks faced by English artillery guns to realise the enormity of the chasm between the two cultures. There was absolute mutual incomprehension.

Subsequent attempts by England and to a lesser degree by Holland and other European countries failed. The Chinese did not need anything from Europe. In fact by the time of the second delegation in the second decade of the nineteenth century, the monster which was originally created by the British government, the Company opium merchants, sabotaged the proceedings by giving the ambassadors wrong advice as to protocol. They did not wish their opium trading to be diminished by alternative products.

In the meantime the East India Company was colonising large parts of India on behalf of the English Crown. For England India was a gold mine in all respects. It was nearer than China. It was fragmented by religion and system of government. Different rulers administered different areas. A sophisticated and ruthless power like England could easily manipulate and control them, by playing the interests of one against the other. Systematic colonisation and wealth extraction became policy.

The East India Company was the body responsible for most trading between England and the East. They were the tea traders and they realised that their own success depended on sustaining this trade according to the directives of the government.

Although it was supposed to exist as an independent entity, the East India Company operated and administered the will of the British government. It operated like government agencies and quangos operate now. It was an underhand way for the government to flaunt international laws and agreements by setting up contracts in circuitously devious ways and then wash its hands of blame.

The Company could not have been sustained without the support of the government. On the other hand the government could not have earned so much revenue without the overt criminality of the Company. When the Company ran into financial trouble in India before the opium operation was up and running the British government bailed it out. In 1784 the Prime Minister William Pitt divided control of the Company between the Court of Directors and a Government Board. The partnership was complete.

The East India Company set out to establish control of India by subterfuge and force. In 1757 Robert Clive won a decisive victory at the battle of Plassey which turned the tide very much in England's favour. The relationship between England and India changed from that of trading co-operation to that of Imperialism. The British ruled and the violence continued for several decades. In 1773 Warren Hastings who was the Governor General excused the use of force by the British as being compatible with "the customs of the country"!!!. Ironically Clive himself died in England in 1774 from an overdose of laudanum.

The Company financed its own armed forces by revenue derived from growing the opium poppy. The Company was given the monopoly for opium growing by the British government and it set out to grow the crop with fanatical zeal. Indian farmers were often forced to destroy other crops in order to grow opium for the Company at below subsistence income. The Indian cotton industry was devastated partly in order to boost the English cotton industry and partly sacrificed to the new crop. Even English observes at the time commented on how prosperous areas in India were destroyed for the sake of opium growing which was destined for China.

Opium had been used both in India and China for many centuries in small quantities for medicinal reasons. The British selling drive was something quite different. It was a systematic and deliberate attempt to addict healthy people to smoking the drug for the sole purpose of profit. It was carried to China in the company's clipper ships, which then brought tea back to England. When the going got tough with the Chinese complaining and refusing to sell tea, the trading metamorphosed and was carried out by "independent" merchants, or servants of the company acting privately. Different labels for the same activity.

At first the Chinese court did not actively object to the importation. The Imperial Court in Peking tried to impose an edict in 1729 forbidding the use of opium for anything except medicinal reasons, but nothing much was done about enforcing it. Cocooned by layers of officials and courtiers, the consequences of the activities of their own merchants who negotiated the buying of the drug took some time to penetrate the consciousness of the ruling elite.

The addiction in China was well advanced before the scale of importation was realised and measures were taken by the Chinese authorities. In 1815 an imperial edict from Peking forbade the traffic and use of opium. In 1819 a new emperor, Tao Kuang ascended the Imperial throne and hostilities between the merchants and the authorities began to escalate. In the early 1830s the emperor's own son died of opium addiction. The Chinese got tough. Vast amounts of opium were destroyed in the East India Company's warehouses in Canton. Complaints were dispatched to the government in England and to Queen Victoria.

The British government made disingenuous agreements with China not to allow the East India Company to export opium whilst allowing the Company to have the monopoly of growing it on the strict rule that the opium would only be sold to merchants who would export it to China! Opium was for a time transported in what were called "country ships" supposedly controlled by independent merchants. The birth of modern political structures had arrived. The public political stance was at complete variance with the real policy, which was to serve the treasury at any cost.

For their part the merchants of the Company were finding other ways of disposing their merchandise. They sailed their ships to the small island of Lintin in the Canton estuary and with the help of corrupt and bribable officials continued their business with the Hong merchants. The profits were vast. It is difficult to have precise figures for such an illicit trade but records suggest that up to 2000% profit could be made. At the beginning of the nineteenth century only one to three thousand chests were sold; by the 1850s some twenty thousand, which brought around £3,000,000; in the following decades possibly three or four times as much.

By the end of the eighteen century England really needed the revenue from tea to finance the Napoleonic wars. Figures suggest that in 1800 one tenth of the import tax revenue derived from Tea. This is without the indirect income from opium, which was vast. By 1833 when the tea trade was at its peak it brought in up to four million a year, two thirds of what was needed to keep the civil establishment including the Crown. Fiscal policy was unsustainable without tea and opium.

In the meantime fortunes were made by exploiting opportunities offered both by the war and the trading. The class system became more accommodating to new money. Entrepreneurs mingled with the landed gentry in unholy alliances. Great financial power was created which cemented the country's position as an imperial power. The contribution to England's success of the two beautiful plants the tea and the poppy cannot be overstated. Nor indeed can the misery, which this trade unleashed on the world.

For a time in the early nineteenth century it looked as if the opium/tea trade was going fine. However as more opium was grown, more tea was imported and more people were muscling in for a share of the cake. Over expansion brought about its own problems.

Bribery and discretion were keeping the trade going in China through the Hong merchants until eventually the addiction and its repercussions became too severe to be tolerated. By the 1830s the Chinese became more positively active in their attempts to destroy the opium trade. Unfortunately their beautiful swords and spears however artfully employed were no match for the British military capability.

In 1833 Lord Napier was dispatched to China as the "Superintendent of Trade" with the purpose of looking after British interests. He behaved in a provocative bellicose manner, which justly earned him the epithet "laboriously vile". He did not achieve much except to set up a warring agenda. By that time the English were no longer seen as merely ridiculous. The "monkeys" were now labelled the "foreign devils".

Serious hostilities started in 1839. Captain Elliot, a man with colonial and naval experience had replaced Napier. His agenda was to pursue a policy formulated since 1780 and lobbied for by the Company merchants, especially Jardine and Matheson, of obtaining more trading rights for the British. In 1840 Men of War ships and armed steamers were prepared in India and dispatched to China. The "Opium Wars" started in earnest. In 1841 China was forced to cede Hong Kong as a trading base for English merchants. The young Queen Victoria, who probably did not understand her new role as the first drug baron, was not pleased. She thought her negotiators, namely Captain Elliot should have extracted more! Her Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston was also vexed. So the war went on for another year until the Treaty of Nanking was signed in August 1842. The Company was compensated for opium burned by the Chinese authorities and five more ports were open to the English merchants. There was nothing more the Chinese could do to stop opium reaching their shores in vast amounts.

England gained the odious distinction of being the first country to promote drug addiction deploying military force. It also attained financial and thus political supremacy through crop control. The repercussions of the opium trade have left a legacy of poverty and addiction both in India and the Far East and indirectly throughout the world.

However by the time England had taken hold of Hong Kong the opium and tea trade had become more complex. Other countries were beginning to control opium production in parts of India not under British control. More mobility on the high seas weakened the English monopoly. The Company's monopoly in India, which was no longer easily controlled, was taken away by the government in 1834 under pressure from other interests. The floodgates were opened.

Some eminent politicians such as Gladstone had spoken out both against the war and the opium trade. Writers and the press were beginning to inform the public. Consciences were stirred. Tea for opium was no longer an easy option.

The obvious solution was to set up tea production in India and Ceylon. It was no longer possible to charge exorbitant duties on tea, nor was it possible to keep up the pretence of its rarity. The trading philosophy substituted quantity for exclusivity and the vast plantations, which we now know, were set up to supply the world with tea. The tea was of course British controlled and it made another round of fortunes. In 1838 the first tea from India reached London from Calcutta but it took more than twenty years before Indian tea really began to be imported in any quantities. By 1883 the scales had tilted: two thirds came from India and Ceylon.

Ironically the turning point for tea was synchronous with the defeat of China in the Opium Wars. Since the middle of the nineteenth century tea became increasingly plentiful. In the twentieth century appreciation of quality all but disappeared and it is only in the last few years that there is a move away from the ubiquitous tea bag back to fine teas. Once again there is recognition of the therapeutic properties of tea, something which the Chinese have known for thousands of years and which was one of the qualities first extolled when tea was first introduced.

Now that it is no longer interlinked with opium tea will perhaps come to a full circle once again. Appreciated for the fine beverage it can be when planted nurtured and gathered with care it does not need criminal interests to promote it.

© 1999 Antigone Clarke and Joseph O'Kelly