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An ‘Opium Zone’ From Assam to Yunnan

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Opium Trade, Imperial Interests and Politics of Control in a Frontier Landscape

A careful examination of the epigraphic and literary sources, including accounts left by early European travellers to Assam like Tavernier, Bernier, Manucci and Glanius, speak of Assam as a very fertile country with trading links across Burma into China. Marketable commodities were exported not only to the neighbouring provinces but also to adjacent countries; Burma, Tibet, China- by the mountain passes, land and water routes. Indeed, it was the lucrative trade with Tibet and China passing through Assam that was a vital factor in efforts of the Turko-Afghan kings and the Tai-Shans to capture the Brahmaputra valley.

Colonial reports foreshadow the growing importance of the region as central to the Imperial strategy of opening up communications. Cold statistics and correspondence from the personal papers of leading British firms of the time, Jardine Matheson and Baring Brothers, and debates in the British press and parliament reveal how the issue of opening up of trade with China was intensely pursued. Following the opium imbroglio culminating in the Opium Wars, the colonial power was on the lookout for new routes. The opium trade had grown fundamental to Britain’s economic framework to be ignored/abandoned. So, how did Assam fit into the power play of the politics of trade and expansion? In opium, they found a plausible approach. Opium was all over the frontier. Despite the growth of local poppies in Yunnan, the ‘Chinamen’ exhibited preference for the Patna opium for smoking. The ‘Assam’ opium was also much in demand in Yunnan. Opium became a valuable article for exchange and was found to be traded for gold across the frontier.

As early as 1826, Captain Scott, the then agent to the Governor-General in Assam, had with much foresight, tried opening up of a direct trade route between China and India through Assam. It was realised that for a comprehensive monopoly of opium exports, a centralised control of the land routes through which opium was being poured into Yunnan (southwest China) was important. While it is claimed that they strangled the Pali-Karachi route by the year 1839 to redirect the Malwa opium trade through Bombay and thence into China, they now sought control of the opium traffic, which they discovered, laced the northeastern frontier of India. The Government was keen on exploring the possibilities of opium trade into China through Assam via Burma which is clearly evident from the dispatch sent by the Viceroy and Governor General of India, Lord Elgin in 1862, which ‘exclusively directed’ the Chief Commissioner of British Burma ‘to negotiate for the opening-up of a route across the extreme north of Burma proper, by which opium should be conveyed-either duty free or on payment of a moderate transit duty-from Indian territory(Assam) to the extreme north of Yunan, and by which Chinese coolies should also travel from Yunan to the unpeopled districts of Assam, granted by the Bengal Government to be cleared for tea plantations.’[i]

As a ‘border-crossing commodity’, with a variety of vested interests involved in its trade and traffic; opium posited both opportunities and challenges. By the end of the nineteenth century, state making projects everywhere in the region were trying to tax and control the trade flows as never before. The surveillance and control of routes required improved communication and information channels. Not without reason, it figured as a priority in local imperial agendas. The ‘opium zone’ had to be secured. The colonial government was contemplating the possibilities of setting up a direct rail link between India and China. It was opium, which was meant to be carried on to China along with tea and general merchandise. Among the major line proposed was the most northern one via, or through, Assam which was strongly advocated by M.A.Purcell, Chief Engineer and Lieutenant-Colonel D. Briggs, then Superintending Engineer of Assam, deemed useful to the local trade of the region and the tea planters. It was proposed to run through Assam, across a small portion of Tibet and form its junction with the river Yang-tse-kiang.

Correspondences between Bengal Government and the Political Agent deputed at Burma refer to the instructions to the Agent to ensure a safe passage to the Chinese ‘labourers’ to clear ground for tea plantations in Assam and also of conveying the opium of India to Yunnan at the insistence of the British merchants following the Chinese hostility. Moreover, private opium interests in western and central India had violently upset the calculations of the colonial officials. Colonial anxieties over rising French influence following the construction of the rail link from Haiphong to Kunming also influenced policy decisions. The Tonkin route had also fallen under French influence. A large quantity of opium sent through the Tonkin route, was being smuggled into Canton via the French leased territory of Kwang Chou Chan. In the wake of the crisis, the opium trade of West Yunnan was a matter of much importance to the British merchants who wanted to find a market for their goods in West China. To them, the desirability of extending the West Yunnan trade lay in exploring the possibilities of opium as a staple export. The plan for the expansion of railroads is suggestive. They were intimately connected to the imperial designs on peripheral expansion and a link from India to China was one of the most spectacular plans for expansion ever anticipated. This reflected the new intonations that now characterised global imperialism towards the closing decades of the nineteenth century-economic in nature and coercive in action.

Although anti-cultivation measures were in force in major part of colonial India along with Burma, poppy cultivation was still carried on in remote Kachin villages for home consumption, while smuggling of Indian excise opium and Chinese opium was rampant. We also come across references to the commercial pursuits of the Assamese and the Marwari merchants undertaking arduous journey from Sadiya and thence across the Patkai via Burma into the southwestern province of Yunnan in China, famed as the prime region for the cultivation of poppy. References abound on the track of the Beparies (Assamese merchants) from the Muttuck country in Upper Assam, along with their cargoes of rice, tin, goor (molasses) and kanee (opium) in large canoes. After all this was bartered with the Nagas, the farmer received one fourth of all the salt received in return. The Assamese merchants followed the overland routes through the villages about Jorhat and Rungpore carrying with them rice and kanee (opium) and bartered their articles for salt, depending on the market being cheap or dear. The Marwari merchants had their establishments at Beesa and were actively involved in trading activities into the valley of Hukwang (China). It needs be mentioned here that the Marwaris had great interests in the opium traffic in Assam and the northeast frontier and were viewed as serious rivals to any European engaging in trade. Even in the absence of any reliable statistics, their involvement in the trade of opium cannot be completely ruled out, as by the end of the nineteenth century, they were fairly established as owners of opium mahals (revenue divisions) and later as owners of large number of retail outlets and very often as opium smugglers.

With the beginning of tea cultivation in the Indian possessions-in Assam and later Darjeeling, the need for trade with China was substantially reduced. This apart, by the early years of the twentieth century, domestic cultivation of poppy in China began to soar in Yunnan and Szechwan so much so that the demand for Indian opium decreased. By 1907, when the Anglo-Chinese treaty for abandonment of the opium trade was signed, opium trade was passing through its most critical phase with addiction theories precipitating domestic activism and the emergence of international drug control systems alongside increasing international criticism of Britain’s imperial proclivity.


[i] The Parliamentary Paper, ‘Burma Commercial Treaty ‘in Correspondence between Captain Richard Spyne and Hon.William-Ewart Gladstone on the commercial opening of the Shan states and Western Inland China, 1853.Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons.Great Britain: LLC 1853.(reprinted in 2009).


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