Opium and the East

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), from which morphine and codeine are derived, was first cultivated in lower Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago.

opium poppy

Science has never created a painkiller as effective as opium, a highly addictive natural derivative of the opium poppy. In the early 1800s, most opium poppies came from India, distributed to the world by the British East India Company. The Chinese port of Canton was a key trading hub; tons of opium were exchanged for manufactured goods and tea. As a result, millions of Chinese people became helpless opium addicts, spending their money in squalid urban opium parlors while their families suffered in poverty.

In the late 1830s, the Chinese government made an effort to address the problem. They destroyed opium reserves, prosecuted British traders, and attempted to close the country’s borders to opium trade. The British declared war on China, prevailing against them in a series of lopsided battles. In 1842, the Chinese were forced to agree to the Treaty of Nanking, a humiliating agreement that opened new trade ports to the British, exempted British nationals from Chinese law, and more than doubled the trade of opium to China.

The utter defeat of the Chinese in the Opium Wars, however, spurred the modernization of every aspect of Chinese culture. Investing heavily in scientific and technological research, China transformed itself from an undeveloped agricultural society to a world superpower in less than a century. Ironically, the country’s newly trained scientists also applied their skills to the study of opium, yielding derivative drugs such as morphine and codeine — important drugs used universally in medical care.