This page last revised 23 June 1999
Although opium has been imported to Britain for hundreds of years for medicinal purposes it was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that its use as a pharmaceutical panacea and exotic recreational drug became epidemic within all strata of British society. Prior to the 1868 Pharmacy Act which restricted the sale of opium to professional pharmacists, anyone could legally trade in opium products: by the middle of the nineteenth century hundreds of opium based potions, pill, and patent medicines were available to the general public. Among the most famous preparations were Dovers Powders, initially marketed as a cure for gout; Godfeys Cordial which was sold as a soother for crying babies; and laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol, which was both easily made and readily available (Berridge, 24).
The widespread availability of the drug by the mid-nineteenth century was in no small part due to the expansion of the British Empire into India. In the eighteenth century opium had been imported chiefly from Turkey, which was not under British control. With the conquest of India Britain soon realised that the sub-continent could be utilised as a new source for the drug. In 1829 a physician called Dr. Webster exhibited at the Westminster Medical Society a specimen of pure opium which had been sent to him from Calcutta. Webster hoped that his fellow countrymen would see that if it [opium] could be obtained from one colony, we should have it from thence rather ... than we should go to the rascally Turks (Berridge, 4). In 1830 permission was granted from London to extend the cultivation of the opium poppy in India. By 1832 a report commented that the monopoly of opium in Bengal supplies the government with a revenue amounting in sterling money to £981,293 per annum (Booth, 115). To create the basis for this huge trading mechanism, whereby opium could be imported cheaply by Britain, and exported profitably to China, vast tracts of agricultural land were turned over to the growth of the opium poppy. In fact the profitable export of the drug to China was worth so much to the British Empire that two Opium Wars were fought, from 1839-42 and 1856-58, to preserve this valuable source of income and trade.
The huge expansion of the growing of opium in India was of course to have great implications for the availability and subsequent use of the drug by its native population. Opium had been used in India long before the British came to its shores, but with the imperial expansion of the traditional growing of opium into a great capitalist venture, drug addiction inevitably increased among the native population. In a report in the New York Times of March 29 1896 the following graphic description of an opium den in Lucknow was given: you will find yourself in a spacious but very dirty courtyard, around which are ranged fifteen or twenty small rooms. This is the establishment of the Government collector -the opium farmer. The stench is sickening, and the swarm of flies intolerable. Enter one of the small rooms. It has no windows and is very dark, but in the centre is a small charcoal fire, the glow of which lights up the faces of nine or ten human beings - men and women - lying on the floor like pigs in a sty. A young girl fans the fire, lights the opium pipe, and holds it to the mouth of the last comer till his head falls heavily on the body of the inert man or woman who happens to lie near him. In no groggery, in no lunatic or idiot asylum, will one see such utter, helpless depravity as appears in the countenances of those in the preliminary stages of opium drunkenness (Schaffer, par. 6) The reporter suggests that up to 14,000 people in Lucknow alone were abject slaves of this hideous vice. This report suggests that to the late nineteenth century mind the image of opium was very much entangled with concepts of the Orient, of deviance, and sexual licentiousness in an Eastern context - a very different image of the drug than the pharmaceutical panacea it was seen as earlier in the century. In Rudyard Kiplings 1901 novel Kim the author makes a pointed comment about the ready availability of opium in India and its power to addict and corrupt: Kims father came across the woman who smoked opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites died in India (Kim, 1); later, a wicked priest plots to rob Kims Lama while he is under the influence of opium (Kim Ch.3).
In Wilkie Collinss 1868 novel The Moonstone opium is used as a plot device for both its medicinal properties and its exotic and deviant connotations. Franklin Blake steals the diamond against his own knowledge after he has been secretly given a night-cap laced with laudanum. The drink has not been spiked by the Indian Brahmins who are trying to recover the diamond, but by a doctor as teasing experiment to demonstrate its power as a sleeping draught. Nonetheless, in the context of the imperial tensions present within The Moonstone - explored in the essay Imperial Resistance in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone within the Imperial Archive at http://www.qub.ac.uk/en/imperial/india/moonstone.htm - the oriental connotations of the drug cannot be ignored. Blakes actions are proven to result from the psychological effects of taking the drug when ones head is full of tales of Eastern treachery and conspiracy. Interestingly, the author punishes the Colonel whose theft of the diamond initiates the action of the book by making him an opium-smoker (Moonstone, 34), although Collinss seeming disapproval is tempered by his sensitivity in drawing the character of Ezra Jennings, the laudanum addict who effectively solves the mystery at the heart of The Moonstone. Collinss ambivalent attitude towards the drug can be explained by his own addiction to the substance, a circumstance explored in the page on Wilkie Collins: his Life and Work within the Imperial Archive.
The publication of The Moonstone in 1868 coincided with the Pharmacy Act, which restricted the sale of opium, and the establishment of the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade. Public opinion began to swing against the drug. One of the first literary explorations of opium-use as a sign of degeneracy was Dickenss unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870): its central character, John Jasper, is an opium addict who lives a seedy double life.
The wonder-drug of the early nineteenth century was finally being recognised as a dangerously addictive substance, although the interests of imperial traders kept it legal for another five decades, until the Dangerous Drugs Act was passed in 1920. This Act made it illegal to possess opiates without a doctors prescription.
Berridge, Virginia and Griffith Edwards. Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth Century England. London: Allen Lane, 1981.
Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. London: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. 1868. London: Oxford UP, 1982.
Hayter, Althea. Wilkie Collins. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. 1901. Ware: Wordsworth, 1994.
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Bronagh Clarke. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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