WHO ADDICTED A NATION
Queen Victoria was not just a powerful ruler: An entire era is named for her. In the course of her reign (1837–1901) the British Empire underwent its greatest expansion, and by the time she passed away, Britain controlled almost one-fifth of the world’s landmass and about a quarter of its population. Today the Victorian Age is a source of pride for most Britons, but many of them don’t regard the unpleasant truth: Millions of people paid a high price for its “successes.”
The year is 1839: “I have heard the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it harm other countries!” This letter to Queen Victoria from China’s
Commissioner Lin Zexu was an act of desperation: Britain was flooding China with opium—the East India Company’s main export to China— and opium addiction was a growing social problem.
By the mid-18th century, Britain was experiencing a growing trade deficit with China. British imports of tea, porcelain, and silk were on the rise, but Britain had nothing that China wanted in return. However when Britain captured Bengal on the Indian subcontinent in 1757, it suddenly had a monopoly on opium production. Rising consumption led to a Chinese decree in 1810: “Opium is a poison. Its use is prohibited by law.” In response, Britain’s East India Company hired British and American traders to transport opium to China, where smugglers brought the drug ashore and distributed it. The opium trade reversed the trade imbalance, addicted more and more people, and led the Chinese government to enforce the existing ban on opium. At Commissioner Zexu’s direction, 2.6 million pounds of opium were seized and destroyed, giving British politicians a welcome excuse to defend British imperial “interests.” War broke out in November of 1839 as Chinese warships clashed with British merchants, and Britain sent 16 warships of its own. It marked the beginning of two years of armed conflict from which Britain emerged victorious: China had to legalize the opium trade, concede Hong Kong to Britain, and grant Britain most favored nation status.