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Discover how the opium trade became such a problem for the Orient during the 18th century. Co-Authored by Byron Thorson. 

Opium was introduced to China in the seventh century. For centuries, man had used it for medicinal purposes, both as a pain reliever and as a sedative. Turkey first brought opium to China. Little did it know that a thousand years later the drug would cause mass opiate addiction in the Orient and encompass most of the civilized world.

The Dutch were probably the first to mix opium with tobacco. They brought this mixture to the Pacific South Seas Islands in the mid-17th century where it eventually found its way to Mainland China. Portugal was the first country to import the drug but the British capitalized on the trade.

The British Tea Trade

China had what Britain wanted: tea (the demand for tea was overwhelming), silk and porcelain. The only payment for these luxuries at the time was either gold or silver bullion. This currency drain on the British reserves was too much. In 1733, Great Britain traded opium for tea. It did not take long for the British to become the main suppliers of this highly addictive substance.

Although the British did not introduce opium to the Orient, they did exploit the demands of the addicts that smoked it in the dens throughout the country. Chinese society, from peasant to government official, smoked opium for recreational purposes as well as an "escape" from everyday life. The increased addiction became such a problem that in 1729, Emperor Yung-Cheng prohibited the sale and smoking of opium. In 1796, the Chia-ch'ing emperor outlawed its production and importation. Both of these attempts failed.

The British East India Company (B.E.I.C.) was the primary trader of goods between the two countries but they did not sell opium directly to the Chinese. To get around any bans the B.E.I.C contracted out this business to private traders who would then sell it to smugglers along the China coast. In turn, the merchants would give the profits back to the company.

Aftermath

The direct results of these attempts to stop the drug trade were the two Opium Wars of the early 19th century between Great Britain and China. Britain won both wars and gained the city of Hong Kong and its port for 99 years in the process. Hong Kong became the entry point for Indian opium sold by the British.

Resources

The Opium Trade
The Maritime Heritage Project Web site has this in-depth article about the British involvement in the Opium trade during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Tea and Opium Trade Statistics
This page from the University of New York at Binghamton gives us the statistics of the tea and opium trade during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Opium Throughout History
This page from the PBS Program, Frontline, displays a timeline of opium history from Ancient times through 1996.