Remembering Father - 4 - more on opium and the trip
“Tell me more about the opium war. Did the English really not know how awful a
substance it was that they were providing the Chinese with?” asked Augusta.
“The Chinese leaders realised that opium was addictive, and that it was ruining their peoples' lives, but the big dealers were really only interested in keeping up this very profitable trade. William Napier, tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the Chinese officials in Canton. The Chinese Viceroy ordered the offices where Napier was staying to be blockaded and the inhabitants including Napier to be held hostages. Lord Napier, a broken and humiliated man, was allowed to return to Macao by land and not by ship as requested. Suffering a fever, he died a few days later.
“Jardine then took the initiative to use the debacle as an opportunity to convince the
British government to use force to further open trade. In early 1835 he ordered James Matheson to leave for Britain accompanying Napier's widow to England using an eye-infection as an excuse to return home. Matheson then met with groups of government officials and people in the trade to gather support for a war with China. He met with the Duke of Wellington, Foreign Secretary, who reported bitterly to Jardine of being insulted by an arrogant and stupid man. Matheson returned to China in 1836 to prepare to take over the firm as Jardine retired, much to the pleasure of the Chinese.
“The Qing government was pleased to hear of Jardine's departure, then proceeded to stop the opium trade. Lin Zexu, appointed specifically to suppress the drug trade in Guangzhou, stated, 'The iron-headed old rat, the sly and cunning ring-leader of the opium smugglers has left for the land of mist, of fear from the Middle Kingdom's wrath.' He then
ordered the surrender of all opium and the destruction of more than 20,000 cases of opium in Guangzhou.
“Once back in England, Jardine successfully persuaded the British Foreign Minister,
Lord Palmerston, to wage war on China, giving a full detailed plan for war, detailed strategic maps, battle strategies, the indemnifications and political demands from China and even the number of troops and warships needed. There was to be complete compensation for the 20,000 chests of opium that Lin had confiscated, a viable commercial treaty that would prevent any further hostilities, and the opening of further ports of trade, with Hong Kong being a main choice.
“The Queen saw the destruction of British products as an insult and sent the first
expeditionary force to defend Britain's 'ancient rights of commerce'. Thus started the First Opium War, and after a series of Chinese defeats, Hong Kong was occupied by the British in January 1841, and they claimed it as a colony in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking.
“The Opium War was ostensibly fought to liberalise trade to China. With a base in Hong Kong, British traders, opium dealers, and merchants launched the city which would become the free trade centre of the East.
“The taipan, Dr. William Jardine died on 27 February 1843, just three days after his
59th birthday, one of the richest, most powerful men in Britain and a respected Member of Parliament.”
“Did Mr. Matheson carry on?”
“He retired as taipan in 1842 and handed over control of the firm to his nephew. Sir
Alexander Matheson. David Jardine, a nephew of William Jardine, became taipan after him. So on it went with the management more or less staying in the control of Jardine and Matheson relatives.”
“So those were the people you were dealing with – Alexander Matheson and David
“Yes, that's right. The establishment of the free port of Hong Kong attracted people from China and Europe alike. The east portion was mostly dedicated to the British; filled with race courses, parade grounds, barracks, cricket and polo fields. The west portion was filled with Chinese shops, crowded markets and tea houses.”
“So the war was over and opium was still being traded.”
“Within fifteen years after this first war, there was another one, and again Great
Britain came off victorious. China had to pay another indemnity, three million dollars, and five more treaty ports were opened up. By the terms of the Treaty of Tientsin, the sale of opium in China was legalized in 1858.
“Seeing therefore that the opium trade was to be forced upon them, the Chinese
decided to plant poppies themselves. There should be competition at least, and the money should not all be drained out of the country. Thus it came about that after 1858 whole provinces ceased to grow grain and other necessities, and diverted their rich river bottoms to the raising of opium. Chinese opium, however, never supplanted Indian opium, being inferior to that raised in the rich valley of the Ganges. The country merely had double quantities of the drug, used straight or blended, to suit the purse or taste of the consumer.”
I realise that I have said little so far about the trip itself. Our steamer is very comfortable. The ship is subdivided into twenty-four water-tight compartments, and each class of passengers is furnished with its own bath-rooms, smoking-room, saloon, and dining-room.
Others travelling with Father and myself on the ship include a Church of England
clergyman and wife; a jolly, red-faced young Yorkshire squire; an Anglo-Indian army captain and wife; and another lady and gentleman. We all passed through sea-sickness, and the biting, damp cold. We had fine weather for only three full days. On the 22nd it changed, and as I wrote in my diary, “Wind and gale. Rain and fog came pouring into
the saloon. Everybody sea-sick except Mrs. Wise and Father. Mr. Moloney sang songs.” The next morning was fine again, but a terrific gale burst on us in the afternoon, and the Captain was “telling fearful stories of shipwreck and drowning the whole evening. Mrs. Wise and Mr. Irving were frightened out of their wits.”
After that the storm-fiends pursued us. I wrote, "Here followed a train of days and nights of boredom, turmoil, and distress. By night, we are tossed about like a shuttlecock between battledores. By day, the hours hanging so heavily as to seem whole days each. We passengers are tiring of the sight of each others' faces.”
The next day the weather broke and we had an azure sky and a sapphire sea. The air was balmy and spring-like, and we bedraggled passengers crawled out to bask in the brightness of the day.
At the rate of 250 to 300 miles a day, we sailed up the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar, past Algiers, on to Malta, where we anchored for the night, and filled the coal-bunkers.
We went ashore and viewed the picturesque fortress and town, so famed in history for the deeds of heroism done by its besiegers and defenders. Off again the next morning, with the ship "besmeared with coal-dust in its every nook and cranny”; and, as if in keeping, we encountered bad weather almost as soon as we left port.
The SS Ancona entered Port Said (pictured above) at 10.30 p.m. tied up that night opposite the Arab village of Khandara.
I should say something about the Suez Canal. Before 1830, passengers bound for the
East had no alternative to circumnavigating Africa. In that year the East India Company started a steam packet service between Bombay and Suez and the average journey time from India to Britain was reduced from six months to two.
But it was left to a Frenchman with French money to create a canal linking the
Mediterranean with the sea routes to the East. The canal was dug through the desert at its narrowest waist, from the delta of the Nile to the northern tip of the Red Sea at Suez. It is 90 miles long and took ten years to build, but once it was opened, it
began to attract the great bulk of traffic between East and West.
So now, here we are at Port Said and Father and I got off the ship and went to an Arab coffee-house, and had genuine black coffee and Father tried out smoking narghiles.
The next night, we tied up at a station five miles from Suez, where we passed a merry evening at the station-master's house, in company with two Corsican pilots who talked French fluently. At last, in the early dawn, we emerged into the Red Sea and began the next stage of our sea-pilgrimage.
On November 15th, at noon, we were but 160 miles away from our next port of call, and the next morning entered Ceylon.
Galle is the main city in the most southerly part of the island, with a population of
around 100 000, and the modern history of Galle starts in 1505, when the first Portuguese ship was driven there by a storm. However, the people of the city refused to let it enter, so the Portuguese took it by force.
In 1640, the Portuguese had to surrender to the Dutch East Indian Company and the
Dutch built the present fort in the year 1663. After the British took over the country from the Dutch in 1796, they preserved the Fort unchanged, and used it as the administrative centre of Galle.
Galle features a tropical rainforest climate. The city has no true dry season though it is noticeably drier in the months of January and February. Before sunrise I was on deck, and as we steamed rapidly towards our anchorage, and reveled in the panorama of
the Harbor that was spread before me.
But I had one more lesson that I wanted to hear from Father about - Opium. When I first heard from Father how enmeshed his employers were in the opium trade, I was quite upset about it. But Father said that in those days, and still today, opium was considered a vital part of medicine in England - and necessary for doctors to have it available. And as with whiskey or any other strong spirit, the product should not be blamed for its misuse by individuals.
Here is some of what I learned from him.
“Opium is an extract of the exudate derived from seedpods of the opium poppy,
Papaver somniferum. And archaeological evidence and fossilised poppy seeds suggest that Neanderthals may have used the opium poppy over thirty thousand years ago. The first known written reference to the poppy appears in a Sumerian text dated around 4,000 BC. The flower was known as the plant of joy. The Egyptian Eber papyrus of some 3500 years ago advises use of condensed juice of the unripe seed pod "to prevent the excessive crying of children". Egyptian pharaohs were entombed with opium artefacts by their side. Opium could also readily be bought on the street-markets of Rome. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), regularly enjoyed opium; it may have contributed to his celebrated stoicism. By the eighth century AD, opium use had spread to Arabia, India and China. The Arabs both used opium and organised its trade. For the Prophet had prohibited the use of alcohol, not hashish or opiates.
“Classical Greek physicians either ground the whole plant or used opium extract. Galen
lists its medical indications, noting how opium...'.resists poison and venomous bites, cures chronic headache, vertigo, deafness, epilepsy, apoplexy, dimness of sight, loss of voice, asthma, coughs of all kinds, spitting of blood, tightness of breath, colic, jaundice, hardness of the spleen stone, urinary complaints, fever, dropsies, leprosies, the trouble to which women are subject, melancholy and all pestilences.'
“Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), sometimes known as 'the English Hippocrates' and 'the Shakespeare of medicine', wrote 'Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.'
“Unlike other pain-relieving agents such as alcohol, opium doesn't impair sensory
perception, the intellect or motor co-ordination. Pain ceases to be threatening, intrusive and distressing; but it can still be sensed and avoided. In low doses, opium may sometimes be pleasantly stimulating rather than soporific. In the East, opium was typically treated as a social drug; and opium-smoking was a tool for conviviality.
“Changes in opium-processing occurred in the sixteenth century. In freebase form, the alkaloids found in opium are significantly less soluble in water than in alcohol. Paracelsus (1490-1541) claimed: 'I possess a secret remedy which I call laudanum and which is superior to all other heroic remedies'. He concocted it by extracting opium into brandy, thus producing, in effect, tincture of morphine. Thomas Sydenham went on to standardise
laudanum in the now classic formulation: 2 ounces of opium; 1 ounce of saffron; a drachm of cinnamon and cloves - all dissolved in a pint of Canary wine.
“Laudanum can be habit-forming. Yet the sometimes spectacular ill-effects noted by
early modern writers when coming off laudanum probably owed more to its ethyl alcohol content than its opium. Vials of laudanum and raw opium are freely available at any English pharmacy or grocery store. British opium imports rose from a brisk 91,000 lb in 1830 to an astonishing 280,000 lb in 1860.
“Youngsters were introduced to the pleasures of opiates at their mothers' breast.
Harassed baby-minders - and overworked parents - found opium-based preparations were a dependable way to keep their children happy and docile. Sales of Godfrey's Cordial, a soothing syrup of opium tincture effective against colic, were prodigious. But Godfrey's
Cordial had its competitors: Street's Infants' Quietness, Atkinson's Infants' Preservative, and Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup.
“The widespread use of opium in China dates to tobacco-smoking in pipes introduced by the Dutch from Java via the island of Formosa in the 17th century. Whereas Indians ordinarily ate opium, the Chinese smoked it. The Chinese mixed Indian opium with tobacco, two products traded by the Dutch. Pipe-smoking was adopted throughout the region. Predictably enough, this resulted in increased opium-smoking, both with and
“A leading American medical textbook (1868) revealed that opiates, 'cause a
feeling of delicious ease and comfort, with an elevation of the whole moral and intellectual nature...There is not the same uncontrollable excitement as from alcohol, but an exaltation of our better mental qualities, a warmer glow of benevolence, a disposition to do great things, but nobly and beneficently, a higher devotional spirit, and withal a stronger self-reliance, and consciousness of power. Nor is this consciousness altogether mistaken. For the intellectual and imaginative faculties are raised to the highest point compatible with individual capacity...Opium seems to make the individual, for a time,
a better and greater man...'
“In the aftermath of legalization, Chinese officials began encouraging local
production, and poppy cultivation spread beyond the country's southwest. Opium as a
appetite suppressant may have increased its appeal to users at a time of scarcity and high food prices. At certain periods, the use of opium may have suppressed appetite sufficiently to make its addiction economical in comparison to the cost of eating a normal diet.
“By the mid-1830s the opium trade had become the largest commerce of its time in any
single commodity, anywhere in the world.”
“So you approve of the opium trade then?”
“I believe, that it has its uses, and has made me rather rich.”