East India Company incorporated cultivation of opium in India, and export it to China within its financial system-Karl Marx (1858)

September 20, 1858

New York Daily Tribune


Trade or Opium?

THE NEWS of the new treaty wrung from China by the allied Plenipotentiaries has, it would appear, conjured up the same wild vistas of an immense extension of trade which danced before the eyes of the commercial mind in 1845, after the conclusion of the first Chinese war. Supposing the Petersburg wires to have spoken truth, is it quite certain that an increase of the Chinese trade must follow upon the multiplication of its emporiums? Is there any probability that the war Of 1857-8 will lead to more splendid results than the war of 1839-42? So much is certain that the Treaty Of 1842, instead of increasing American and English exports to China, proved instrumental only in precipitating and aggravating the commercial crisis of 1847. In a similar way, by raising dreams of an inexhaustible market and by fostering false speculations, the present treaty may help preparing a new crisis at the very moment when the market of the world is but slowly recovering from the recent universal shock. Besides its negative result, the first opium-war succeeded in stimulating the opium trade at the expense of legitimate commerce, and so will this second opium-war do if England be not forced by the general pressure of the civilized world to abandon the compulsory opium cultivation in India and the armed opium propaganda to China. We forbear dwelling on the morality of that trade, described by Montgomery Martin, himself an Englishman, in the following terms:

“Why, the ‘slave trade’ was merciful compared with the ‘opium trade’. We did not destroy the bodies of the Africans, for it was our immediate interest to keep them alive; we did not debase their natures, corrupt their minds, nor destroy their souls. But the opium seller slays the body after he has corrupted, degraded and annihilated the moral being of unhappy sinners, while, every hour is bringing new victims to a Moloch which knows no satiety, and where the English murderer and Chinese suicide vie with each other in offerings at his shrine.”

The Chinese cannot take both goods and drug; under actual circumstances, extension of the Chinese trade resolves into extension of the opium trade; the growth of the latter is incompatible with the development of legitimate commerce these propositions were pretty generally admitted two years ago. A Committee of the House of Commons, appointed in 1847 to take into consideration the state of British commercial intercourse with China, reported thus:

We regret “that the trade with that country has been for some time in a very unsatisfactory condition, and that the result of our extended intercourse has by no means realized the just expectations which had naturally been founded on a freer access to so magnificent a market…. We find that the difficulties of the trade do not arise from any want of demand in China for articles of British manufacture or from the increasing competition of other nations…. The payment for opium … absorbs the silver to the great inconvenience of the general traffic of the Chinese; and tea and silk must in fact absorb the rest.”

The Friend of China, Of July 28, I 849, generalizing the same proposition, says in set terms:

“The opium trade progresses steadily. The increased consumption of teas and silk in Great Britain and the United States would merely result in the increase of the opium trade; the case of the manufacturers is hopeless.”

One of the leading American merchants in China reduced, in an article inserted in Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine, for January, 1850, the whole question of the trade with China to this point: “Which branch of commerce is to be suppressed, the opium trade or the export trade of American or English produce?” The Chinese themselves took exactly the same view of the case. Montgomery Martin narrates: “I inquired of the Taoutai at Shanghai which would be the best means of increasing our commerce with China, and his first answer to me, in the presence of Capt. Balfour, Her Majesty’s Consul, was: ‘Cease to send us so much opium, and we will be able to take your manufactures.'”

The history of general commerce during the last eight years has, in a new and striking manner, illustrated these positions; but, before analysing the deleterious effects on legitimate commerce of the opium trade, we propose giving a short review of the rise and progress of that stupendous traffic which, whether we regard the tragical collisions forming, so to say, the axis round which it turns, or the effects produced by it on the general relations of the Eastern and Western worlds, stands solitary on record in the annals of mankind. Previous to 1767 the quantity of opium exported from India did not exceed 200 chests, the chest weighing about 133lbs. Opium was legally admitted in China on the payment of a duty of about $3 per chest, as a medicine; the Portuguese, who brought it from Turkey, being its almost exclusive importers into the Celestial Empire. In I773, Colonel Watson and Vice-President Wheeler — persons deserving to take a place among the Hermentiers, Palmers and other poisoners of world-wide fame — suggested to the East India Company the idea of entering upon the opium traffic with China. Consequently, there was established a depot for opium in vessels anchored in a bay to the southwest of Macao. The speculation proved a failure. In 1781 the Bengal Government sent an armed vessel, laden with opium, to China; and, in I794, the Company stationed a large opium vessel at Whampoa, the anchorage for the port of Canton. It seems that Whampoa proved a more convenient depot than Macao, because, only two years after its selection, the Chinese Government found it necessary to pass a law which threatened Chinese smugglers of opium to be beaten with a bamboo and exposed in the streets with wooden collars around their necks. About 1798, the East India Company ceased to be direct exporters of opium, but they became its producers. The opium monopoly was established in India; while the Company’s own ships were hypocritically forbidden from trafficking in the drug, the licences it granted for private ships trading to China containing a provision which attached a penalty to them if freighted with opium of other than the Company’s own make. In 1800, the import into China had reached the number of 2,000 chests. Having, during the eighteenth century, borne the aspect common to all feuds between the foreign merchant and the national custom-house, the struggle between the East India Company and the Celestial Empire assumed, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, features quite distinct and exceptional; while the Chinese Emperor, in order to check the suicide of his people, prohibited at once the import of the poison by the foreigner, and its consumption by the natives, the East India Company was rapidly converting the cultivation of opium in India, and its contraband sale to China, into internal parts of its own financial system.

While the semi-barbarian stood on the principle of morality, the civilized opposed to him the principle of self. That a giant empire, containing almost one-third of the human race, vegetating in the teeth of time, insulated by the forced exclusion of general intercourse, and thus contriving to dupe itself with delusions of Celestial perfection-that such an empire should at last be overtaken by fate on [the] occasion of a deadly duel, in which the representative of the antiquated world appears prompted by ethical motives, while the representative of overwhelming modern society fights for the privilege of buying in the cheapest and selling in the dearest markets-this, indeed, is a sort of tragical couplet stranger than any poet would ever have dared to fancy.

September 25, 1858


IT WAS the assumption of the opium monopoly in India by the British Government which led to the proscription of the opium trade in China. The cruel punishments inflicted by the Celestial legislator upon his own contumacious subjects, and the stringent prohibition established at the Chinese custom-houses proved alike nugatory. The next effect of the moral resistance of the Chinaman was the demoralization, by the Englishman, of the Imperial authorities, custom-house officers and mandarins generally. The corruption that ate into the heart of the Celestial bureaucracy, and destroyed the bulwark of the patriarchal constitution, was, together with the opium chests, smuggled into the Empire from the English storeships anchored at Whampoa.

Nurtured by the East India Company, vainly combated by the Central Government at Pekin, the opium trade gradually assumed larger proportions, until it absorbed about $2,500,000 in 1816. The throwing open in that year of the Indian commerce, with the single exception of the tea trade, which still continued to be monopolized by the East India Company, gave a new and powerful stimulus to the operations of the English contrabandists. In 1820, the number of chests smuggled into China had increased to 5,147; in 182I to 7,000, and in 1824 to 12,639. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government, at the same time that it addressed threatening remonstrances to the foreign merchants, punished the Hong Kong merchants, known as their abettors, developed an unwonted activity in its prosecution of the native opium consumers, and, at its custom-houses, put into practice more stringent measures. The final result, like that of similar exertions in 1794, was to drive the opium depots from a precarious to a more convenient basis of operations. Macao and Whampoa were abandoned for the Island of Lin-Tin, at the entrance of the Canton River, there to become manned. In the same way, when the Chinese Government temporarily succeeded in stopping the operations of the old Canton houses, the trade only shifted hands, and passed to a lower class of men, prepared to carry it on at all hazards and by whatever means. Thanks to the greater facilities thus afforded, the opium trade increased during the ten years from 1824 to 1834 from 12,639 to 21,785 chests.

Like the years 1800, 1816 and 1824, the year 1834 marks an epoch in the history of the opium trade. The East India Company then lost not only its privilege of trading in Chinese tea, but had to discontinue and abstain from all commercial business whatever. It being thus transformed from a mercantile into a merely government establishment, the trade to China became completely thrown open to English private enterprise which pushed on with such vigour that, in 1837, 39,000 chests of opium, valued at $25,000,000, were successfully smuggled into China, despite the desperate resistance of the Celestial Government. Two facts here claim our attention: First, that of every step in the progress of the export trade of China since 1816, a disproportionately large part progressively fell upon the opium-smuggling branch; and secondly, that hand in hand with the gradual extinction of the ostensible mercantile interest of the Anglo-Indian Government in the opium trade grew the importance of its fiscal interest in that illicit traffic. In 1837 the Chinese Government had at last arrived at a point where decisive action could no longer be delayed. The continuous drain of silver, caused by the opium importations, had begun to derange the exchequer, as well as the moneyed circulation of the Celestial Empire. Heu Nailzi, one of the most distinguished Chinese statesmen, proposed to legalize the opium trade and make money out of it; but after a full deliberation, in which all the high officers of the Empire shared, and which extended over a period of more than a year’s duration, the Chinese Government decided that, “On account of the injuries it inflicted on the people, the nefarious traffic should not be legalized.” As early as 1830, a duty of 25 per cent would have yielded a revenue Of $3,850,000. In 1837, it would have yielded double that sum, but then the Celestial barbarian declined, laying a tax sure to rise in proportion to the degradation of his people. In 1853, Hien Fang, the present Emperor, under still more distressed circumstances, and with the full knowledge of the futility of all efforts at stopping the increasing import of opium, persevered in the stern policy of his ancestors. Let me remark, en Passant, that by persecuting the opium consumption as a heresy the Emperor gave its traffic all the advantages of a religious propaganda. The extraordinary measures of the Chinese Government during the years 1837, 1838 and 1839, which culminated in Commissioner Lin’s arrival at Canton, and the confiscation and destruction, by his orders, of the smuggled opium, afforded the pretext for the first Anglo-Chinese war, the results of which developed themselves in the Chinese rebellion, the utter exhaustion of the Imperial exchequer, the successful encroachment of Russia from the North, and the gigantic dimensions assumed by the opium trade in the South. Although proscribed in the treaty with which England terminated a war, commenced and carried on in its defence, the opium trade has practically enjoyed perfect impunity since 1843. The importation was estimated, in 1856, at about $35,000,000, while in the same year, the Anglo-Indian Government drew a revenue Of $25,000,000, just the sixth part of its total State income, from the opium monopoly. The pretexts on which the second opium war has been undertaken are of too recent date to need any commentary.

We cannot leave this part of the subject without singling out one flagrant self-contradiction of the Christianity-canting and civilization-mongering British Government. In its imperial capacity it affects to be a thorough stranger to the contraband opium trade, and even to enter into treaties proscribing it. Yet, in its Indian capacity, it forces the opium cultivation upon Bengal, to the great damage of the productive resources of that country; compels one part of the Indian ryots to engage in the poppy culture; entices another part into the same by dint of money advances; keeps the wholesale manufacture of the deleterious drug a close monopoly in its hands; watches by a whole army of official spies its growth, its delivery at appointed places, its inspissation and preparation for the taste of the Chinese consumers, its formation into packages especially adapted to the conveniency of smuggling, and finally its conveyance to Calcutta, where it is put up at auction at the Government sales, and made over by the State officers to the speculators, thence to pass into the hands of the contrabandists who land it in China. The chest costing the British Government about 250 rupees is sold at the Calcutta auction mart at a price ranging from 1,210 to 1,600 rupees. But, not yet satisfied with this matter-of-fact complicity, the same Government, to this hour, enters into express profit and loss accounts with the merchants and shippers, who embark in the hazardous operation of poisoning an empire.

The Indian finances of the British Government have, in fact, been made to depend not only on the opium trade with China, but on the contraband character of that trade. Were the Chinese Government to legalize the opium trade simultaneously with tolerating the cultivation of the poppy in China, the Anglo-Indian exchequer would experience a serious catastrophe. While openly preaching free trade in poison. it secretly defends the monopoly of its manufacture. Whenever we look closely into the nature of British free trade, monopoly is pretty generally found to lie at the bottom of its “freedom.”


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