The Opium Trade
Flora Bain talks with Dr. Julia Lovell about how the British Empire was bankrolled by the opium trade.
Flora Bain: I’m talking to Dr. Julia Lovell who teaches Chinese History at the University of London. We’re really fortunate to have you here today, Julia, to talk to us about the Opium War. And you’ve just published a book on the Opium War: ‘Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China’. Can you tell us a little bit about that book?
Julia Lovell: I think in Britain, either deliberately or lazily, we’ve become rather blurry on the extent to which our Empire in the 19th Century was bankrolled by Opium. Revenues from the Opium trade between British India and China paid for much of the British tea addiction, and it was customs duties from the tea which was imported from China to London that covered many of the costs of the Royal Navy.
I think in Britain today our overwhelming emotion, when we’re thinking about the Empire, is embarrassment because there is so much to be ashamed about: the slave trade; centuries of institutionalised racism; and the countless massacres of barely armed indigenous peoples, and so on and so forth. But I think that Britain’s role in the Opium trade and the Opium Wars that it fought in China in the 1840s and the 1850s, have become a strangely overlooked skeleton in the cupboard of British imperialism, and through this book I hoped to bring British readers to reflect more deeply on our colonial misdeeds in China in the 19th Century, and on their legacy for contemporary relations with China.
Flora: Wonderful. Thank you.
And I also wanted to ask – this is the sixth lecture in our lecture series on the East India Company, marking the opening of the new gallery, Traders: The East India Company and Asia. Can I ask you about why this subject is so pertinent to a series on the East India Company?
Julia: Because it was the East India Company that ran the factories in Bengal that produced the Opium. Very soon after the East India Company took over the running of Bengal in the second half of the 18th Century, they established a monopoly over Opium production there. They forced Indian farmers to sign contracts to produce poppy harvests. When the harvests were ready, they were brought to these EIC run factories. There the Opium was turned into resin. It was packed into chests, sold off to private traders, and these private traders took the Opium to China where the Opium was sold for substantial amounts of silver, which then bought tea for the British market.
So the East India Company was deeply complicit in this Opium trade between India, China and Great Britain, so it seems a very pertinent episode to re-visit in a series of lectures about the history of the EIC, and also about the legacy of the East India Company today.