The Opium wars in China: the Indian connection

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Opium Wars history silent on Indians: Ghosh

The Times of India, Dec 02 2015

Opium Wars history silent on Indians

The acclaimed Ibis trilogy, comprising `Sea of Poppies', `River of Smoke', and `Flood of Fire', was a challenge to write due to the absence of history on the role Indians played in the Opium Wars. “Through these books, I was, on the one hand, writing the novels, and, on the other, writing history,“ he said. “The Opium Wars were financed by Indians, fought by Indians, planned in India, and yet Indians are completely absent from the narrative. You pick up any book on the wars, and you'll find that Indians find just a passing mention. It's so strange.“ “These soldiers from Bihar went to China and fought this war -they weren't stupid people,“ he said.

A historical timeline

The following are excerpts from the blog EAST INDIA COMPANY 1600-1857. Readers with an interest in opium, the East India Company or the history of China would greatly benefit from visiting this profusely illustrated blog.

An opium receiving/ production/ distribution centre in Patna, which claimed to produce some 1,30,00,000 pounds of opium juice annually, shipping it out to Bengal and then on to China
The Balling Room
Mr Ptak cites Opium/Sci American: “From the mixing room the crude opium is conveyed to the Balling Room, where it is made into balls. … Every man is required to make a certain number of balls, all weighing alike. An expert workman will turn out upwards of a hundred balls a day.”
From: Bengal Commissioner Lt. Col. Walter S. Sherwill’s collection.
The drying room
Mr Ptak cites Opium/Sci American: “The balls are placed to dry …Men examine the balls, and puncture with a sharp style those in which gas, arising from fermentation, may be forming.”
The stacking room
"The balls are stacked before being packed in boxes for Calcutta en route to China.”
Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy
Jejeebhoy and his Chinese secretary (portrait by George Chinnery)
“Born on 15 th. July 1783, in Bombay to a poor weaver, in all Jamsetjee made five voyages to China and back, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, becoming immensely rich, well known and highly respected, all by the tender age of twenty-four years.”
East India Company


THE OPIUM MONOPOLY[forcible sale of opium drugs made in India to china by the British east India company]

Jardine, Matheson and Co.

On 1 July 1832, Jardine, Matheson and Company, a partnership, between William Jardine, James Matheson as senior partners,

The firms operations included smuggling opium into China from Malwa, India, trading spices and sugar with the Philippines, exporting Chinese tea and silk to England, factoring and insuring cargo, renting out dockyard facilities and warehouse space, trade financing and other numerous lines of business and trade. In 1834, Parliament ended the monopoly of the British East India Company on trade between Britain and China. Jardine, Matheson and Company took this opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the East India Company. With its first voyage carrying tea, the Jardine clipper ship "Sarah" left for England.

Jardine Matheson then began its transformation from a major commercial agent of the East India Company into the largest British trading hong (洋行), or firm, in Asia

A bargain was then made between China and Great Britain, in 1907, China agreeing to diminish poppy cultivation year by year for a period of ten years, and Great Britain agreeing to a proportional decrease in the imports of Indian opium. A three years' test was first agreed to, a trial of China's sincerity and ability, for Great Britain feared that this was but a ruse to cut off Indian opium, while leaving China's opium alone in the field. At the end of three years, however, China had proved her ability to cope with the situation. Thus, for a period of ten years, both countries have lived up to their bargain, the amount of native and foreign opium declining steadily in a decreasing scale. April 1, 1917, saw the end of the accomplishment.

'Opium accounted for a large part of India's economy'

A timeline

1620s -1670s

Rajput troops fighting for the Mughals introduce the habit of taking opium to Assam. Opium is given daily to Rajput soldiers. From 1637 onwards Opium becomes the main commodity of British trade with China.


The Dutch export shipments of Indian opium to China and the islands of Southeast Asia; the Dutch introduce the practice of smoking opium in a tobacco pipe to the Chinese.


The British East India Company assumes control of Bengal and Bihar, opium-growing districts of India. British shipping dominates the opium trade out of Calcutta to China.


The British East India Company's import of opium to China reaches a staggering two thousand chests of opium per year.


East India Company assumes monopoly over all the opium produced in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Warren Hastingsintroduces system of contracts. Contracts for dealing in opium were awarded through auction.


The British East India Company establishes a monopoly on the opium trade. All poppy growers in India were forbidden to sell opium to competitor trading companies.


East India Company introduced Bengal Regulation IV to enable appointment of Opium Agents for purchase of opium from cultivators and its processing at factories owned by the company at Patna and Ghazipur


The British dependence on opium for medicinal and recreational use reaches an all time high as 22,000 pounds of opium is imported from Turkey and India.Jardine-Matheson & Company of London inherit India and its opium from the British East India Company once the mandate to rule and dictate the trade policies of British India are no longer in effect.

The factory [shown on this page]— “the architecture of 13,000,000 pounds of opium production,” as Ptak Science Books calls it — is part of a larger British colonial landgrab fuelled, at least in part, by pursuit of the immense profits to be earned from an unrestricted drug trade. As Amitav Ghosh, in an interview about his novel, Sea of Poppies, explains, “The Ghazipur and Patna opium factories between them produced the wealth of Britain. It is astonishing to think of it but the British Empire was really founded on opium and drugs trade”

1852 The British arrive in lower Burma, importing large quantities of opium from India and selling it through a government-controlled opium monopoly.


Britain passes the Opium Act with hopes of reducing opium consumption. Under the new regulation, the selling of opium is restricted to registered Chinese opium smokers and Indian opium eaters while the Burmese are strictly prohibited from smoking opium.


China and England finally enact a treaty restricting the Sino-Indian opium trade. Several physicians experiment with treatments for heroin addiction. Dr. Alexander Lambert and Charles B. Towns tout their popular cure as the most "advanced, effective and compassionate cure" for heroin addiction. The cure consisted of a 7 day regimen, which included a five day purge of heroin from the addict's system with doses of belladonna delirium.U.S. Congress passes the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring contents labeling on patent medicines by pharmaceutical companies. As a result, the availability of opiates and opiate consumers significantly declines.

1910 After 150 years of failed attempts to rid the country of opium, the Chinese are finally successful in convincing the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade.

Early 1940s

During World War II, opium trade routes are blocked and the flow of opium from India and Persia is cut off. Fearful of losing their opium monopoly, the French encourage Hmong farmers to expand their opium production.

Producing opium in India for China

John F. Ptak writes in JF Ptak Science Books about The Architecture of 13,000,000 Pounds of Opium Production :

These images [the black and white pictures, which were originally in colour and three of which have been reproduced on this page] present an excellent invitation to understanding the size and scope of one section of the opium industry in India. I found these pictures in the 29 July 1882 issue of the Scientific American, which in turn had reproduced them from the Bengal Commissioner Lt. Col. Walter S. Sherwill…

Sherill's scenes are all from the opium receiving/production/distribution center in Patna, India, which claimed to produce some 13,000,000 pounds of opium juice annually, shipping the stuff out to Bengal and then on to China.

There is a hint of abrasion about this trade in the article, noting that there was nothing that could be done to stem the tide of Chinese demand for the product, and that "if the government monopoly of opium were abandoned, India would not only lose a revenue which would have to be made up by some tax, but the extent of the poppy cultivation would almost certainly be largely increased in the hands of private growers." Also, if the British government gave up the trade altogether, the article notes that the Chinese demand would be supplied "by inferior quantities of Persian and native Chinese growth".

Avinandan Choudhury’s research

Opium Wars : The Wars That Devastated India and Crippled China, India Opines

Indpaedia encourages readers to click the above link to view beautiful, and relevant, colour paintings of the era, curated by Mr Avinandan Choudhury

The Opium wars which erupted between the Chinese Qing Empire and the British Empire has to a large extend shaped the Chinese Modern History and it is seen as the beginning of the western domination of China, a period which the Chinese refer to “ The Century of Humiliation”.

Opium Wars : The Wars That Devastated India and Crippled China

Background Of The Opium Wars

The war started because of trade conflicts between the Chinese and the British. In the Early to Mid 19th century the English suffered from a huge trade imbalances with the Chinese. The huge demand for Chinese tea in Britain and the Chinese insistence on selling tea in exchange of silver had led to great outflow of silver and money from Britain.

To reverse this trade deficit the British tried selling their woolen merchandise to the Chinese but it failed as the Chinese were more used to Padded cotton cloths and silk. The British then started trading with China in Opium. There was high demand for opium in China due to its medical and recreational use. This led to a reversal of the British trade deficit with China but it wreaked havoc on Chinese society as thousands of rich and poor Chinese alike were addicted to this drug. This societal degradation led the Chinese to ban trade on opium.

This action didn’t go down well with the English and they, in a bid to further their naked Imperial ambitions and economic interests, declared war on China. The Chinese were defeated and were forced to pay a huge indemnity, cede Hong Kong to the British and open their markets to western capitalists. This war is an example of how colonial powers used their military prowess to economically subjugate Asian countries and undermine the sovereignty of Asian rulers.

How We Indians Suffered

In India, not much significance is attributed to the Opium war. Most people are not even aware of it and the few who are, regard it as a foreign war that was fought far from the frontiers of India. What many people don’t know is the strong connection that the Opium war has with India.

The opium that the British sold to the Chinese was grown in India. It was from the fields of Bengal and Bihar that the opium, which led to an unjust war and deaths of thousands of Chinese, originated. This opium has not only caused trouble in China but also in our own country.

The agricultural fertile lands of Bengal and Bihar were forced fully used to grow poppy and it drove thousands of poor farmers off their lands. These farmers were later shipped to the Caribbean as indentured laborers. The cotton fields of India were transformed into poppy fields. Poppy, grown in these field were transported to Opium factories in Ghazipur and Patna, where these century old opium factories still stand.

High quality processed Opium were then transferred from the factories to Calcutta by the river Ganga. The East India Company then used to auction it off to the English and Indian merchants, who then shipped that to China and made huge profit by selling them. This was the trail of opium that triggered the war in China.

How It Benefited the English Merchants and Parsi Businessmen

It was not only the English Merchants who were eager for profits through the immoral Opium trade. The Parsi business community of India was also heavily engaged in Opium trade. The lack of Opium monopoly of the East India Company in Mumbai helped the Parsis in conducting hugely profitable opium business. Some Parsi businessmen like Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy took advantage of the Opium trade with China and amassed huge wealth, with which he later on started his own merchant fleet.

Mumbai as a city flourished with many prominent building likes the Central Municipal Library and David Sassoon Library being financed by the philanthropic businessmen engaged in Opium Trade. Whereas the farmers in Bengal and Bihar were being exploited by the English, the businessmen in Mumbai flourished.

This brought wealth into the city of Bombay and led to the boom of Banking and Insurance business in Bombay. This boom in business, banking and insurance would later build the foundation of India’s financial capital, Mumbai.

How Indian Soldiers Faces Racial Abuses From Either Sides, and Lost Their Lives in The Foreign War

The war in China was not fought by only British and Chinese soldiers. Indian soldiers were also involved in the battles of the Opium war. 1 coy Madras Rifles, 2nd Madras Native Infantry, 6th Madras Native Infantry and the 14th Madras Native Infantry of the Madras Army took part in the First Opium war. The Indian sepoys were widely used in the battles of Canton, Amoy, Tinghai and Chin-Kiang Fu.

In all the battles the Indian and British forces were vastly outnumbered but the discipline, morale and better weaponry of the British forces prevailed. The Indian forces had to face severe racial abuses by both the British and the Chinese.

The Indian soldiers would be used by the British Empire in other overseas war and conflict of the future. It was the exploitation and use of Indian resources and soldiers which kept the British Empire strong and made it an Empire where ‘the sun never sets’.

The Opium Wars Devastated India ~ What Next?

The opium wars had a profound effect on India. Its repercussions on the Indian economy and society have largely remained ignored. It was a war where the British used the resources of one vanquished Asian Giant to vanquish the other. It’s been 176 years since the Opium war but still the basic nature of geopolitics hasn’t changed much. Even now the West coaxes India to join the western security apparatus to ‘contain’ China and the west dominated IMF and world bank forces poor Nations to open their markets for foreign players, so that they all can enjoy the so called ‘fruits’ of Western model of Free Market Capitalism.

The history of the Opium wars and its relation to India should not be ignored and further research needs to be done in this context. History is the greatest teacher to Mankind and whenever man fails to take lessons from it, History repeats itself.


Amarka adds:

In Shanghai: City for Sale, pp. 6-7, published in 1940 by Harcourt-Brace & Co., New York, we read:

"This British desire for a wider sphere of operations precipitated Britain's first war with China" (in 1842). "It was called the 'Opium War' because the British urge to swamp China with India-grown opium and Chinese refusal to take it were its tangible cause.

"There is no doubt about the wanton aggression that marked the beginning of this undeclared war, nor about the singular brutality with which the British soldiers sacked peaceful cities, burned public buildings, looted, plundered and murdered . . . There was much ruthless bayoneting. Sacred temple quarters were soiled, exquisite wood carvings were used for camp fires. And British soldiers watched old men, women and even children cutting each other's throats in utter despair, or drowning themselves. 'The lament of the fatherless, the anarchy, the starvation, and the misery of the home- less wanderers', says the East India Committee of the Colonial Society in London in 1843, 'are the theme of a frightful triumph.' "

The famous Sassoon family, probably the most influential Jewish family in England today and one of the few intimate with the last three generations of the Royal Family, established their wealth and power in the Opium Wars.

"Davi'd Sassoon began with a rug factory and banking establishment, but he soon recognized the opportunities in opium . . . deft maneuvering netted him the most valuable prize an Indian merchant could strive for - a monopoly of the opium trade."

Amitav Ghosh’s findings: I

masoom gupte, SPOILS OF WAR, Nov 27 2016 : The Times of India

`History of capitalism is written like this heroic tale of great entrepreneurs. It's nonsense'

Amitav Ghosh on India Inc's link to the opium war, the resultant climate change and the 19th century rhetoric that is still repeated today

What role did India Inc play in the opium trade war?

They [Indian companies] played a pioneering part.In large parts, the opium war was financed by Indian money -by old Bombay money. M a ny of t he bi g Indian families made their money in opium. This is equally true about America.

Even institutions like Yale and Brown. Singapore and Hong Kong wouldn't exist today without opium.Essentially opium was the most important commodity of the 19th century.

Are companies hesitant to acknowledge their past connections to opium?

Ve r y h e sit a nt . Jardine Matheson was one of the most important opium trading companies in the 19th c ent u r y. T hei r close st partner was Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, who built half of Bombay. To this day, Jardine Matheson does not like this connection mentioned. In fact, they've been known to threaten journalists. Similarly, people who've been trying to work with papers of various Indian companies find it very difficult to access documents. Let me just say it tactfully that several companies don't like this to be spoken of in public.

Would it have been difficult for companies to hide their past if there was social media at that time?

The opium war was a very modern war. It was sold to the British government by merchants. They collected money and sent William Jardine to London to bribe politicians i nto sta r ti ng this war. It's a collusion between the State and the pri vate sector, which benefited not only from the policies of the opium trade, but also from the whole war being sub-contracted to them, in terms of provisions, supply ships etc. It was the template of the Iraq war. First, you pick up something, drum it up by publishing some articles about it, the people will get worked up, then you start the war. You keep hidden what is actually happening.

Opium was produced in India under an East India monopoly. The only part that entrepreneurs played was taking it from here to China and selling it. It was essentially a smuggling trade.

The history of capitalism is sold to us as a great history of financial innovations.That too is nonsense. To give you a minor example -if you look up commodities futures market on Wikipedia or any standard business history, what they'll tell you is that it started in Chicago in the 1850s. But the commodities futures markets ex isted in India going back to the early middle-ages. There was a very active opium futures exchange in Calcutta from the 18th century onwards. British tourists used to go see it. It wasn't a secret.


Neha Singh, China's Opium War Was 'Completely Indian Enterprise', not British: Indian Author Amitav Ghosh, IB Times, April 5, 2015

Amitav Ghosh came across the untold facts during his research for the third book of Ibis trilogy – 'Flood of Fire'.

History says opium wars in China was not only fought but initiated by Britain which objected to the then Chinese government's ban on abolishing opium trade. However India's noted author Amitav Ghosh has a completely different story to tell.

Ghosh definitely did not go back to history to explore the events of the war between the Chinese government and Britishers ruling India in the 1830s. He was merely researching for his last book of 'Ibis' trilogy – which revolves majorly around migration – when he came across completely different facts that the Indians are unaware of.

It was apparently co-incidental that he happened to turn the pages of history – the 1830s – when two major events were happening simultaneously – Indians were migrating from India and opium trade was at its peak.

At this juncture he found that the first opium war in China was an Indian undertaking. "The first opium war (was) planned in India, it was financed by Indian money, it was fought with Indian soldiers. But it has all completely vanished from our historical memory," Ghosh, whose third book of Ibis series 'Flood of Fire' is all about migration in the 1830s, told IANS.

China's Opium War

"The putting together of the expeditionary force took place in India. The British naval ships for the expedition were accompanied by 50 supply ships, all provided for by Parsi merchants in Bombay (now Mumbai). From top to bottom, it was a completely Indian enterprise; all the wherewithal for it came from India," he added.

History however has no mention of Indians being involved in the war against China over the trade of opium that was extracted from the plantation poppy plants in India.

According to historical facts, the British government which was ruling India at that time called a war against China when the Chinese government called off import of opium to its nation in view of mounting cases of opium addicts.

Along with the ban, the Chinese seized tons of opium, which was not at all welcomed by Britishers and as a result they declared war and defeated China, which surrendered Hong Kong to the British.

Two wars were fought with China, one between years 1839–42 and other from 1856 to 1860. The second opium war is also called 'Anglo-French expedition to China' as Britain was assisted by the second French Empire led by Napoleon III.

See also


Opium: India

The Opium wars in China: the Indian connection

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