I'd mentioned the colonial opium trade in passing in my previous post
. I couldn't help reading more about it as it was fascinating. It was also a big economic underpinning of the Empire.
I'd heard of the Slave Triangle
in the Atlantic, but there was also an Opium Triangle well established in the 18th Century. It consisted of Britain, India and China. The East India Company wanted to source tea and silk from China to sell in Britain, but they didn't have much to sell in return to the Chinese...except opium. So large amounts of opium were grown in India - during the process of colonization - and then smuggled
to China, because the Chinese emperor had put a ban on opium imports. The tea and silk thus obtained were exchanged in England for finished cotton products and other manufactures, which were sold back in India.
One thing to remember is that Indians were growing and selling opium to China even before the first Portuguese explorer arrived here, but the scale of this enterprise changed vastly thereafter.
There were two main regions where opium was grown: the plains of Ganga (which was called Benaras opium and traded through Calcutta), and secondly in the Malwa region
of Madhya Pradesh (which found its way to Bombay). Many prominent businessmen in these cities owed their fortunes to this trade,
In a book
titled Smuggling as Subversion - colonialism, Indian merchants and the politics of opium (1790 - 1843)
, the author explains the opium politics in fair detail. The East India Company had monopolized the Benaras opium supply chain in eastern India (Bengal and Bihar). They used imperial/government force to impose heavy restrictions on the growth and usage of opium domestically (under some moral guise I'm guessing), so that the Company would be the sole dealer and export enormously to China.
But it started facing heavy competition from Malwa opium which was being smuggled out via Bombay (the "Subversion" part of it). Though the British controlled Bombay itself and would try to examine outgoing goods at the port, they didn't control the interiors of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, where the drug was cultivated. To find out how the Company responded to this challenge, you have to read the book :P (it's very well written in fact
). Actually there's another essay set of essays by the same author which covers this topic and is available here
(PDF), and which quotes Lord Cornwallis as telling William Pitt back in 1780's that there was no point in the British retaining Bombay as it didn't earn them any revenue, and was in fact a sink for the profits gained in Bengal and Bihar. The author goes on to argue that the opium trade changed all that.
As I was writing this, I was wondering if there's any historic novel that covers the same ground, and then
I remembered the name Amitav Ghosh, and then his latest book Sea of Poppies
, which is set amidst the opium trade. Duh!