Home Topics Addiction Seeds of Addiction Take Root on Three Continents [History Of Opium: Part 3]
Seeds of Addiction Take Root on Three Continents [History Of Opium: Part 3]

Seeds of Addiction Take Root on Three Continents [History Of Opium: Part 3]

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“…a life destroying drug threatening to degrade the entire Chinese People to a level with reptiles, dogs and swine”

Nineteenth century Chinese official regarding opium

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America

Historians generally agree that opium first made its way to America’s shores via a doctor named Samuel Fuller who arrived with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620.  It is likely that he carried with him a form of laudanum that was similar to Paracelsus’ version and used it to treat the pain associated with small pox, dysentery, cholera and childbirth.

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Asia (China)

Many years later, on the other side of the world, China found itself in the middle a of full-blown opium frenzy.  By the beginning of the eighteenth century, nearly everyone was using opium recreationally.  Interest had increased dramatically due to the Dutch’s introduction of a product called madak, which was a smokable blend of opium and tobacco.  Its use resulted in widespread societal problems as opium smoking dens and shops sprang up in order to meet the public’s insatiable demands.  Fed up with its pervasive and destructive properties, the Yongzheng Emperor issued an order that prohibited the sale and smoking of opium in 1729.  Alas, demand for the drug was unquenchable and the opium trade continued to flourish in spite of the Emperor’s decree.

By 1773, England had become China’s leading opium supplier.  This was accomplished in large part due to the work of the British East India Company, which had established a huge base for opium production in the Indian province of Bengal.  Here they were able to produce opium very cheaply and efficiently.  The bulk of what these crops yielded eventually made its way to smugglers who funneled it into China illegally.

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America

Used regularly in eighteenth century Colonial America, laudanum was sold by herbalists for any number of maladies and its potency varied.  Sometimes called paregoric or tincture of opium, laudanum was a staple on the battlefields of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).  Both the Continental and the British armies used it to treat sick and wounded soldiers.

Several of the nation’s Founding Fathers regularly used laudanum, including Patrick Henry (who reportedly had a serious habit), Benjamin Franklin (who used it during the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia to treat gout) and Thomas Jefferson (who took it to ease his chronic diarrhea).  He once wrote to a friend, “with care and laudanum I may consider myself in what is to be my habitual state.” Jefferson also grew poppies at his Monticello estate.

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Asia (China)

In a continuing effort to curb opium use, the Jiaqing Emperor outlawed importation and cultivation of opium in China in 1796 and all ports (with the exception of Canton) were closed to foreigners. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the British who desired products from China including tea and silk.  China, on the other hand, claimed no use for foreign imports and demanded payment for their coveted goods in the form of silver.  This latest crackdown on the opium trade combined with China’s disinterest in acquiring foreign product gave China the clear fiscal advantage, which resulted in a huge trade deficit between the two countries.  This was an untenable situation for England, so the British government conceived of a plot to balance the economic scales.  They endeavored to spark an opium epidemic in China.

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Europe (Germany)

During this period, the scientific development of opium advanced significantly at the hands of a young German man named Freidreich Sertürner.  After his parents’ death in 1795, Sertüner, aged sixteen, and with no means of support, became an apprentice to an apothecary in Paderborn, Germany.  Short on formal education but possessing a brilliant mind and brimming with curiosity, he began experimenting with the resinous gum that was secreted by the opium poppy in his spare time.  Using the minimal equipment he had at his disposal and his vast intelligence, Sertürner was poised to make a significant contribution to the future of medicine.

In 1804, at the tender age of twenty-one, he successfully isolated a chemical from the poppy excretion that effectively induced sleep.  He named it morphium (after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams).  Following extensive testing on animals and humans (including himself) he concluded that morphium was ten times as potent as processed opium.  Heretofore, the pharmaceutical companies hadn’t given much credence to his work, but they quickly came calling after learning about this monumental achievement.  Sertürner’s discovery transformed the pharmaceutical industry and, even though he was addicted to morphine himself, he pioneered and promoted a new branch of science called alkaloid chemistry.  W. Meissner, a pharmacist, coined the term alkaloid in 1818 and the suffix “ine” was applied to the group, which resulted in morphium becoming morphine.

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Europe (England)

Laudanum use was widespread in England during the nineteenth century and especially rampant during the Industrial Revolution.  Because it was so cheap, even the working classes could partake regularly.  It was easily obtainable during this period and could be purchased without a prescription from pubs, grocers and barbershops.  It was cheaper than alcohol, which undoubtedly contributed to its appeal, and despite the fact that the medical community was well aware of its addictive properties, it was the most popular medicine of the day.

During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), writers and artists used it both medicinally and recreationally.  Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Lord Byron took it regularly.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge reportedly penned his famous poem, “Kubla Khan” after an opium-induced dream, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was initially prescribed laudanum for a painful condition at the age of fourteen, progressed to forty drops of morphine daily as an adult.  Nowadays, this amount would be considered a lot – even for an addict.  The well-to-do and the literati considered their usage a “habit” rather than an addiction.  English essayist, Thomas de Quincey, who is best known for writing Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), documented how his personal use of pills and pellets improved his creative powers.

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Asia (China)

Back in China, British officials were using a combination of commercial loopholes, smugglers, and crooked Chinese officials to illegally bring huge amounts of opium into China.  Predictably, this resulted in millions of people becoming addicted.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century the British had succeeded in their insidious plan to hook the Chinese people on opium and consumption skyrocketed.

By 1838 forty thousand illegal chests of opium were making their way into China annually.  Addiction began to affect everyone, including the Imperial troops and the official classes.  Alarmed by this ubiquitous abuse and the enormous amount of silver that was now flowing uncontrollably out of his country, the Daoguang Emperor was determined to make some changes.  In March of 1839 nearly two thousand opium dealers were arrested and millions of pounds of opium were seized and destroyed, triggering the beginning of the First Opium War (1839-1842).

During the first of these two armed conflicts, the commissioner in charge of the operation tried to extract a promise from the British traders that would bring an end to opium sales in China, but he was refused.  Shortly afterwards, a Chinese citizen was murdered by some British sailors.  After refusing to hand over the murderer, the British ships were blockaded as they made their way up the Pearl River.  This lead to months of negotiations and several skirmishes, but when the talks eventually broke down, the British sailors and their superior equipment easily defeated the Chinese.

The Treaty of Nanking (1842) brought an official end to the First Opium War, but it came at a humiliating cost to the Chinese.  They had to pay enormous amounts of money to the British government, cede Hong Kong and open more ports for trade.  Despite agreeing to a terrible deal, the Chinese steadfastly refused to legalize the opium trade.

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Europe (Scotland)

The administration of morphine was catapulted to new heights in 1853 when a Scottish physician named Alexander Wood invented the first hypodermic needle.  Inspired by a bee stinger, he combined a hollow needle with a syringe and ushered in the era of subcutaneous injections.  This method proved to be an infinitely more effective drug delivery system than anything up to that point.  Initially, it was used exclusively to dose patients with morphine and other opium preparations, but it would eventually enable physicians to administer many medicines directly into the bloodstream.

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Asia (China)

Despite the fact that the terms of the Nanking Treaty were deeply humiliating to China, England, the United States and France became increasingly dissatisfied with the agreement and China’s refusal to abide by it.  One day Chinese police boarded a British boat and arrested several Chinese citizens who were in its employ, including some well-known pirates.  Eventually, the workers were returned, but when the Chinese police refused to apologize for the incident, the British, who were spoiling for a fight, exercised their frustrations about the Nanking Treaty, by firing on the city of Canton.

This action marked the beginning of the Second Opium War (1856-1860).  The British captured Canton easily and installed an official who was more “cooperative” before attacking Tianjin and forcing the Chinese into negotiations yet again.  The Treaty of Tianjin opened more ports, allowed much more access to foreign travelers and residents and finally legalized importation of opium.

The British eventually withdrew from the treaty and the Chinese refused to ratify it after another battle in which the Chinese were victorious.  In 1860 British and French troops retaliated, which culminated in the plunder and complete destruction of the Emperor’s summer home.  Ultimately, the Second Opium War ended when the Chinese signed the Beijing Convention.  This agreement demanded that China cede a portion of the Kowloon Peninsula and honor the Treaty of Tianjin.

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Europe (England)

In England, the use of laudanum and morphine continued relatively unchecked until 1868, when the Pharmacy Act restricted the sales of opiates to registered chemists and pharmacists.  The law also demanded that bottles containing opium products be labeled as “poison.”

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Next week will focus on the story of America’s use and abuse of opiates during the Civil War.

Do you know which First Lady was an opium addict?

Sources:
Allingham, Philip V., “Opium Trade, Seventh Through Nineteenth Centuries,
http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/opiumwars/opiumwars1.html
Bushak, Lecia, “Civilization’s Painkiller:  A Brief History of Opioids,” August 7, 2016,
http://www.newsweek.com/civilization-painkiller-brief-history-opioid-486164
Castelow, Ellen, “Opium In Victorian Britain,
http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Opium-in-Victorian-Britain/
Cleary, Vern, “The First Opium War (1838-1842)
http://webs.bcp.org/sites/vcleary/modernworldhistorytextbook/imperialism/section_5/firstopiumwar.html
Hays, Jeffrey, “Opium in China,” July, 2015,
http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat11/sub74/item139.html
Harvey, Ian, “The Second Opium War was Largely British Revenge Against the Chinese for Their Real and Imagined Slights,” February 16, 2017,
http://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/02/16/the-second-opium-war-was-largely-british-revenge-against-the-chinese-for-their-real-and-imagined-slights/
Pletcher, Kenneth, “Opium Wars,” Britannica,
https://www.britannica.com/topic/Opium-Wars
Szczepanski, Kallie, “The First and Second Opium Wars,” October 25, 2017,
https://www.thoughtco.com/the-first-and-second-opium-wars-195276
The History of Opium,
https://opiumproject7d.wordpress.com/history-of-opium/
Opium Trade,
http://public.wsu.edu/~hallagan/EconS327/weeks/week13/opiumtrade.pdf
Papaver Sonmiferum,
http://www.entheology.org/edoto/anmviewer.asp?a=259
The Opening to China Part II:  The Second Opium War, the United States and the Treaty of Tianjin 1857-1859,
https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/china-2
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Michelle Poe Posted by Michelle Poe, a writer for DrDrew.com. Enjoy posts from guests and experts on life’s important topics. This website is for informational and/or entertainment purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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