Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Recreational Opium Use in the UK and Canton

Opium is a very important subject for us. Hong Kong, the city of moneyed dreams, was founded after all on the Opium trade. But today we'd like to expand on two less-known facts: that there was stiff resistance in Britain to the Opium War at the time, and that recreational opium use became an 'accepted' or 'normal' activity in both the UK as well as in China.

We have discussed in weeks past about how Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, using the well-thought out strategies of William Jardine, convinced Parliament to go with China over ensuring Britain's right to trade. But we have not talked about some of the more brave opposition to the war from more liberal Tories. None were more brave, nor more eloquent, than the young William Gladstone, already an important voice in the house. I quote some excerpts here from a old piece by Maurice Collis:

". . . I will ask the noble Lord a question. Does he know that the opium smuggled into China comes exclusively from British ports, that it is from Bengal and through Bombay? If that is a fact-and I defy the right honourable Gentleman to gainsay it-then we require no preventive service to put down this illegal traffic. We have only to stop the sailings of the smuggling vessels; it is a matter of certainty that if we stopped the exportation of opium from Bengal, and broke up the depôt at Lintin, and checked the cultivation of it in Malwa, and put a moral stigma upon it, that we should greatly cripple, if not extinguish, the trade in it . . . The great principles of justice are involved in this matter. You will be called upon, even if you escape from condemnation on this motion, to show cause for your present intention of making war upon the Chinese. They gave us notice to abandon the contraband trade. When they found that we would not, they had the right to drive from us from their coasts on account of our obstinacy in persisting in this infamous and atrocious traffic. I am not competent to judge how long this war may last, but this I can say, that a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know, and I have not read of. The right honourable Gentleman opposite spoke last night in eloquent terms of the British flag waving in glory in Canton. We all know the animating effects produced when that flag has been unfurled on a field in battle. And how comes it to pass that the sight of that flag always raises the spirit of the Englishmen? Because it has always been associated with the cause of justice, with opposition to oppression, with respect for national rights, with honourable commercial enterprise, but now, under the auspices of the noble Lord that flag is become a pirate flag to protect an infamous traffic."

It does demonstrate that there were people troubled by the dubious morality of the War. Sadly, then as now, there were too many flag-waving patriots eager to see an English victory, particularly in the wake of Britain's disastrous misadventures in Afghanistan. Gladstone, ever the classical liberal, supported free trade and low tariff barriers, but vehemently opposed supporting a British traffic in an illegal commodity with the use of armed force.

Perhaps, though, it will be the cause of some circumspection that later in life, Gladstone apparently enjoyed imbibing a small amount of opium with his tea. It does demonstrate though, that opium in its legalized context created desperate addicts but also sometimes with moderate consumption a pleasant, non-violent medium for friendly conversation or for creative endeavors, as Coleridge's poem Kublai Khan demonstrates.

Tomorrow evening at 6:30, Xavier Paules of the University of Hong Kong Sociology Department will give what should be a fascinating talk on "Canton Opium Houses, 1924-1936". It is sponsored by the French Center for Research on Contemporary China, and will be hosted at Room 304 in the Yu Yuet Lai Building on 43-55 Wyndham Street by Gilles Guiheux. Interested parties should contact Ludovic Lesur at

The abstract on the talk is as follows:
The 1924-36 period stands as a golden age for Canton opium houses as they enjoyed a legal status and became fully part of the official opium system. If their number was not very impressive, however, the concentration of Cantonese opium houses in certain districts was
remarkable. As I shall argue, this situation was the result of complex interactions between the authorities, anti-opium activists, dens rulers, and the smokers. As to their social life, opium houses were not necessarily halls of fame patronized by coolies and gangsters. On the contrary, they were most of the time places where common people liked to gather after work to
smoke a few pipes, relax and have a chat with other habitués."

Enjoy this little piece of .

No comments: