‘Smoke and Ashes’ review: Tracing the original drug traffickers

The US Administration has been requesting China to stop the supply of fentanyl and the chemical ingredients for opioids which kill thousands of American addicts every year. The US blames China and the Latin American cocoa farmers and drug cartels for the supplies although the main driver is the flourishing domestic consumer and demand involving billions of dollars of business. In this context, Amitav Ghosh has reminded the world that the Americans, the Dutch and the British were the original drug traffickers. Many Americans made fortunes by trafficking opium illegally into China. The West went even went to the extent of waging wars (Opium wars) and forced the Chinese government to legalize opium.

In his book “Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories” Amitav Ghosh has given a vivid account of the criminal drug trafficking done by the American, British and Dutch businessmen in collusion with their governments. He has done extensive and meticulous research of British, European, American, Chinese and Indian sources and quoted from documents, statements and archives.

While there is public knowledge of the British drug trafficking, the role of Americans in the dirty business is not that well known. Ghosh has filled this gap by documenting the smuggling of opium by American businessmen who made huge fortunes. According to his research, the Americans were, by some estimates, smuggling as much as a third of all the opium consumed in China at the peak time. There were the big opium-trading clans of Boston—the Perkins, Sturgis, Russell, Forbes Astor, Cabot, Peabody, Brown, Archer, Hathaway, Webster, Delano, Coolidge, Forbes, Russell, Perkins, Bryant as well as the families of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Calvin Coolidge. These families were all as intricately interrelated as the Sicilian Mafia. They called themselves ‘the Boston Concern’ and they became the single biggest opium-trading network in China. Many of the young Americans who became rich in opium trade had lived and worked personally in Guangzhou and boasted about the quick money they made.

The Americans were responsible for several important innovations in the nineteenth-century illegal opium trade. They set up a steady transportation channel between China and Turkey through the system of ‘floating warehouses’ at Lintin Island to facilitate the smuggling of opium. They designed the vessels called as Baltimore Clippers which played an important role in the opium trade. These clippers were fast enough to elude British warships which tried to stop non-British opium carriers in order to maintain the British monopoly. The Baltimore clippers were much in demand for the transportation of opium from India to China. Before, ships would have to wait for the turning of the monsoon winds in order to sail that route. But the schooner-rigged Baltimore clippers were able to sail against the wind, and so the opium trade went from being a seasonal affair to a year-round commerce.

The Opium fortunes were used by the Boston families to finance American railways, manufacturing, hotels and investment banking. Ghosh says, ‘Opium was really a way that America was able to transfer China’s economic power to America’s industrial revolution with the wealth generated by Indian poppy farmers who were forced to grow and the Chinese opium users who were forced to consume”.

Much before the British entry, the Dutch traders and colonialists had established opium trade in South East Asia. Even the Dutch crown joined the illegal business. In 1815, the newly crowned Dutch monarch, formerly Prince Willem Frederik of Orange-Nassau, founded an enterprise called the Royal Dutch Trading Company (Koninklijke Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij or NHM). Using its royal sponsorship, this company became powerful enough to take over the opium monopoly. Their opium business was consistently profitable and earned vast sums of money for the royal family. Ghosh says,“ it was the Dutch who led the way in enmeshing opium with colonialism, and in creating the first imperial narco-state, heavily dependent on drug revenues. Later British perfected the model of the colonial narco-state in India”.

The British started the opium trafficking to China initially to pay for the tea which they imported into UK. Chinese tea remained the British East India Company’s prime source of revenue. By the early eighteenth century Chinese tea was already an important article of trade for the British economy. The importation of tea was for centuries a monopoly of the East India Company and the customs duty on it was for a long time one of Britain’s most important sources of revenue. The duty ranged from 75 per cent to 125 per cent of the estimated value, which meant that the customs duty on tea fetched higher revenues for Britain than it did for China, which charged an export duty of only 10 per cent. The problem was that Britain had nothing much to sell to China in return. The Chinese had little interest in, and no need for, most Western goods. So the East India Company had a balance of trade problem with China. The company found the way to pay for Chinese goods with illegal supply of opium from India to China.

The first pivotal moment in the opium story was East India Company’s takeover of the opium industry in Bihar in 1772. The second big move occurred in 1799, when the company’s leadership decided to set up the Opium Department, a bureaucracy that was devoted entirely to the production of opium. This Department oversaw every aspect of the production and sale of the drug, from the planting of poppies to the auctioning of the product in Calcutta. The department determined which farmers could grow poppies, how much they could plant and what they would be paid for their harvest. The company paid low prices but the farmers had no other alternative and were forced to sell their The entire production exclusively only to the Opium Department. Cultivation of poppies required the labour of more than a million peasant households, probably some 5–7 million people altogether. The department had two geographical agencies, namely the Benares Agency in the west and the Patna Agency in the east. Each agency was presided over by a British official known as the Opium Agent, one of the most highly paid and most coveted posts within the colonial regime.

The East India Company forced farmers to cultivate opium in the lands where rice was grown earlier. Opium Department had stipulated that nothing else could be grown on land that had been earmarked for that purpose. This large-scale conversion of paddy fields for poppy cultivation was one of the major contributors to the famine in Bengal in 1770 which caused the death of ten million people.

China had officially banned the importation and consumption of opium since 1729. Because of these bans, the East India Company could not formally or explicitly acknowledge that its opium was intended for the Chinese market: doing so would have meant the loss of its trading rights and the end of its immensely lucrative tea business. So, the company resorted to an ingenious subterfuge. Opium from the Ghazipur and Patna factories was loaded on to heavily guarded fleets and sent to Calcutta, where it was auctioned to ‘private traders’. Thereafter the Company disclaimed all responsibility for its product, which was then transported by these traders to Whampoa (Huangpu) on the Pearl River, where they would sell the drug to Chinese smugglers. The money was collected from the smugglers secretly and transferred to London and India through agents.

1839, the Chinese put their foot down to stop the illegal supply of opium. They demanded that foreign merchants surrender all their stocks of opium. When the merchants refused, they were put under house arrest. After this, the merchants surrendered about a thousand tons of opium, which were publicly destroyed by the Chinese authorities. This loss gave the casus belli for war to the British government which attacked China in 1840. This was the First Opium War in which China suffered defeat and agreed to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Under this, the Chinese were forced to compensate foreign opium traffickers to the tune of 6 million silver dollars. The other conditions included the opening of four other ports to foreign traders (and smugglers) and ceding the island of Hong Kong to the British as a colony. The island thereafter became the main hub of opium smuggling in China accounting for three-quarters of the entire opium smuggling into China. After this, the Opium Department in India got the poppy acreage increased six-fold. An article published at that time in the US National Defense University mentioned that “the English merchants, led by the British East India Company from 1772 to 1850, established extensive opium supply chains, creating the world’s first drug cartel”. Besides China, the westerners smuggled opium into Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam also disregarding the ban in those countries.

Ghosh has concluded that “the British Empire’s opium racket was a criminal enterprise, utterly indefensible by the standards of its own time as well as ours”.

He has brought out the Chinese lesson to the west. When the westerners forced opium down the throats of Chinese at gun point, the Chinese turned the tables and beat the westerners in their own game. Unable to stop the illegal western supplies of opium, the Chinese started to produce their own and succeeded in import substitution. China’s domestic opium industry became the single largest producer and exporter of opium in the world, accounting for seven-eighths of global supply. The west has not learnt from this Chinese method and history. The western companies rushed into the Chinese market supplying products and technologies after the opening of the Chinese market in the eighties. The Chinese have simply repeated history by becoming the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter. The Chinese exports of 3.4 trillion dollars in 2023 is almost equal to the combined exports of US (2 trillion) and Germany (1.6 trillion). China has become the largest exporter of cars, solar panels and many other items, just as they became the largest exporter of opium. While the hubris-filled Westerners have failed to learn from the opium history, the Chinese have certainly learnt how to give it back to the west.

Book name: Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories

Author: Amitav Ghosh

Price: 1,765