The opium poppy has been around for a very long time. Three millennia before the time of Christ, it was cultivated in Mesopotamia, where the Sumerians and the Assyrians knew it as the “joy plant.” Its effectiveness as a narcotic, a painkiller, and a euphoriant was well known, and the dried, milky juice of the unripe seedpods was prescribed as a potent medicine by early Greek and Egyptian physicians. The plant made it possible for patients to endure surgery and the setting of broken limbs. By the time the Romans withdrew from England, the opium poppy was known in Europe and had migrated eastward to India and China.
Opium came into its own in Europe in 1527, when a German doctor named Paracelsus mixed it with citrus juice and called it laudanum. Throughout Europe, Paracelsus’ black pills became an increasingly popular painkiller and euphoriant. By the end of the century, Britain’s trading ships were returning from India loaded with opium for medicine cabinets all across the land. By the time morphine was refined from opium in 1803, the British East India Company completely controlled the poppy fields of India.
But opium doesn’t just deaden pain, it causes addiction—and that’s what led to war. British traders had introduced opium to China in the late 1700s, and opium addiction rapidly became epidemic. The Chinese government tried desperately to keep the drug from entering the country, but the British East India Company defied its restrictions.
Finally, in 1839, the Chinese government had had enough. Officials made a big drug bust, seizing some two-and-a-half million pounds of opium from ships and warehouses of the East India Company. In retaliation, and to enforce their right to sell opium to the masses, the British Home Office dispatched 16 warships to China. In brief but bloody battles, the Brits seized the cities of Canton, Shanghai, and Nanking—and then it was all over. The victorious British got Hong Kong, and kept on importing opium.
In 1856, still attempting to stem the narcotic tide, the Chinese government renewed the war—and lost once again. This time, they were required to pay for their defeat by legalizing opium imports. It wasn’t until 1910 that the British yielded to pressure from the international community and finally agreed to end their opium trade. And it wasn’t until 1997 that Hong Kong was handed back to China.
The opium poppy has given us a powerful and effective medicine. Properly used, it can relieve human suffering. But it is also an addictive drug with deadly consequences for its users, and society is still “at war” with those who illegally traffic in it.