skip to content


The East India Company - involvement with opium : a lucrative business

“The East India Company, formerly known as the ‘Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’ was given ‘royal approval’ by a charter from Queen Elizabeth I on 31 December 1600. The Company was granted a monopoly on all English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope.” One of the greatest demands the East India Company endeavoured to supply was that for tea. Indeed it was the demand for the “cups that cheer but not inebriate” that led to British involvement in the opium trade.

“By 1813 Britain was buying almost 32 million pounds (14.5 million kilograms) of tea. This presented the East India Company with problems as China demanded payment for tea in silver and Britain was left drawing on its own rather limited reserves of this precious metal. The East India Company resolved this problem by illegally smuggling Indian opium into China and demanding payment in silver. This could then be used to pay for the tea. It was China’s fierce resistance to this activity that led Britain to force China to buy the drug in the Opium War of 1840-1843”.

2) J.M. Scott : The white poppy : the history of opium (p83) RCS.C.11t584 (Request in Rare Books Reading Room)
3) Company.html


The Opium War brought the activities of the East India Company, and indeed the British government to the fore, provoking outcry among many:

“On the company lies the responsibility of fostering the trade in every way possible, the revenue from this source alone, in Bengal and Bombay amounting probably to some five millions sterling a year … at present the British government holds the position of a producer and dealer in opium; a postion not only anomalous, but highly derogatory to the dignity of, and which can hardly be maintained with honour to, the crown”.

William Lockhart: The medical missionary in China : a narrative of twenty years’ experience (pp. 401-2)
Jj.4.3 (Request in Rare Books Reading Room)


Back to captions


Unscrupulous endorsement : cultivation of the poppy

 “The East India Company secured to itself the monopoly of the opium trade, fostering the production of the drug by large loans or bonuses to the cultivators, who were required to bring all their opium to the warehouses or godowns of the Company”.

William Lockhart: The medical missionary in China : a narrative of twenty years’ experience (p. 401)
Jj.4.3 (Request in Rare Books Reading Room)


All cultivators growing opium in India were required to enter into an agreement with the government, and consequently the East India Company:

“Should an individual undertake the cultivation without having entered into engagements with the government to deliver the produce at the fixed rate, his property would be immediately attached, and he compelled either to destroy the poppies, or give security for the faithful delivery of the product.  The cultivation of the plant is compulsory, for if the ryot refuse the advance for the year’s crop, the simple plan of throwing the rupees into his house is adopted ; should he attempt to abscond, the agents seize him, tie the advance up in his clothes, and push him into his house.  There being then no remedy, he applies himself as he may to the fulfilment of his contract”.

S. Wells Williams: The middle kingdom : a survey of the geography, government, literature, social life, arts and history of the Chinese Empire and its inhabitants (p. 375)
625:22.c.85.12 (North Front, Floor 6)


Back to captions


Foreign pressure results in legalisation of the opium trade

Before legalisation of the opium trade in 1858 opium had to be smuggled into China.  A few of the more curious ways in which opium has been smuggled over the years are portrayed here.

The problem of narcotic drugs in Hong Kong : a white paper …
RCS.L.38.Z3 (Request in Commonwealth Room)


In 1858 giving way to the “overwhelming pressure from the ministers of England, France, and America”  and to support his own “tottering throne” Jien Fung legalised the “nefarious trafficking” … [placing the] opium importer and the opium seller … on the same legal platform as the Gospel messenger and the Bible distributor”.

Justus Doolittle: Social life of the Chinese : daily life in China (pp. 589-590)
C202.c.500 (Request in Reading Room)


Back to captions


Harmful effects of smoking opium are played down by officials

The last two paragraphs of the Victoria Gaol section of the ‘Annual Report of the Colonial Surgeon’ of Hong Kong for the year 1876 are displayed here.  The surgeon, Ph. B. C Ayres, shows little sympathy for opium smokers admitted to the prison.

Hong Kong blue book for the year 1876
RCS.L.BB.38.1876 (Request in Commonwealth Room)


Back to captions


Others note the reality is rather different

Some of the injurious effects of opium can be seen in the extract here.  Note the headings in particular.  Headings on the following pages include:

          6)       Enfeebles the army
          7)       Loosens the bonds of society
          8)       Corrupts the morals of the people

Reply of the K’euen Keae Shay, an association of Chinese inhabitants of the city and province of Canton, for the promotion of the abstinence from Opium
RCS.A.11t584/2 Opium pamphlets (Request in Rare Books Reading Room)


“The smoking of opium injures one’s health and bodily constitution.  Unless taken promptly at the regular time and in the necessary quantity, the victim becomes unable to control himself and to attend to his business.  He sneezes.  He gapes.  Mucus runs from his nose and his eyes.  Griping pains seize him in his bowels.  His whole appearance indicates restlessness and misery”  … [If still not able to procure the drug] He has no appetite for ordinary food; no strength or disposition to labour.  Diarrhoea sets in of a dreadful and most painful description; peculiar to opium smokers; and if still unable to procure opium, the unhappy victim not unfrequently dies in most excruciating agonies”.

Justus Doolittle: Social life of the Chinese : daily life in China (p. 587)
C202.c.500 (Request in Reading Room)


This statistical table shows the opium-smoking returns of some of the treaty ports of China, including four of the five ports, Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai, established by the Treaty of Nanjing (1842).  This treaty marked the end of the First Opium War.  Figures given include those for amounts of opium produced, costs, quantities smoked, imports, taxes and periods in months or years after which the habit is not easily given up.

Chinese customs’ : reports on opium, 1864-1909
RCS.L.377.Z1 (Request in Commonwealth Room)


Back to captions


Missionaries show particular interest

“It is mainly the missionary class who have felt the interest and taken the trouble to [publish their views on the subject]” as they believe this to be “in their line of duty”.

Chinese customs’ : reports on opium 1864-1909 (p36)
RCS.L.377.Z1 (Request in Commonwealth Room)


One man who, in 1904, made the decision to go to India as a missionary himself was Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940), former graduate of Cambridge and Vice-principal of Westcott House.  Andrews was later to become a campaigner for Indian independence.  His work on the subject of  the “opium evil” is displayed here.  A map alongside the text shows the extent of opium consumption in India.

C. F. Andrews:  The opium evil in India : Britain’s responsibility
RCS.C.22m95 (Request in Rare Books Reading Room)


Rev. Eric Lewis was another religious figure involved in fighting the “morally indefensible” trade in this “horrible drug”.  The title page of his book is shown together with a poem contained therein by W. Maxwell.  A list of “associations for the suppression of the opium traffic” given at the back of the book is also shown.

Rev. E. Lewis: Black opium : an account of a “morally indefensible” trade in “this horrible drug”
RCS.A.11m95 (Request in Rare Books Reading Room)

Contact us

Please address enquiries about RCS holdings to:

RCS Curator
Cambridge University Library
West Road