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Opium, Empire, and India (Part II)

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s note: Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s piece by Dr. Kawal Deep Kour. Make sure to check out Part I


Southeast Asia

References to the significance attached to trade with China abound in British diplomatic correspondences, treaties and conventions. Yunnan (in China), with its rich reserves of gold and silver was alluring to adventurer-entrepreneurs, merchants, and explorers alike as much as for its “opium geography.” Of great interest was the location of Yunnan- from here, opium could travel to its destined locations: Hong Kong and Shanghai. Correspondences between the Bengal government and an imperial agent deployed in British Burma refer to instructions relating to the safe passage of Chinese labour to clear ground for tea plantations in Assam, and also to the conveying of Indian opium to Yunnan at the insistence of the British merchants following Chinese hostility. Further, a large amount of goods were smuggled through Margherita (Assam) to the villages of the Khampti and Singpho people inhabiting the area, what is present day Arunachal Pradesh (northeast India), bordering China. The trans-border tribesmen from Borkhamti and from the Hukong valley smuggled large quantities via Margherita and even as far as Titabar in Assam. It was therefore considered that the opening of the Borkhamti country would uncover tremendous possibilities of Assam-China trade being conducted through the river routes-Irrawady-Salwin (present day Myanmar) and thence into Yang-tse-kiang (China). Surveying the region in 1826, Captain Wilcox in his memoirs had taken incidental note of the great demand for opium, apart from salt, among all Indo-Chinese nations.


Mekong River map

In 1862, the Indian secretary of state, Charles Wood, directed the attention of the government to the numerous memorandum received from commercial associations of England for opening up of commerce with the Shans and the Western Chinese. Each of these memorandums suggested that the only practicable way for continuous commerce was by land route- direct from the port of Rangoon across Eastern Pegu to the Upper Kamboja or Mekong river (present day Myanmar) in the direction of the Chinese south-western frontier city. He also cited a dispatch from the Government of India, that the Chief Commissioner of British Burma was keen on prospects of trade with Western China and in favour of exploring different routes for tapping the commercial potential of China.

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 of a route across the extreme north of Burma for the transit of opium, either duty-free or on payment of a moderate transit duty from Assam to the extreme north of Yunnan. The dispatch further hinted at the route to facilitate the travel of Chinese labourers to work in the newly established tea plantations in Assam.

As a “border-crossing commodity,” with a variety of vested interests involved in its trade and traffic, opium posited both opportunities and challenges. 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 lines proposed were a) The most northern one via 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 would run through Assam, cross a small portion of Tibet and form its junction with the river Yang-tse-kiang (in China). Moreover, private opium interests in western and central India had violently upset the calculations of the colonial officials. British official 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, securing the opium trade of West Yunnan became important to the British merchants. 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 characterized global imperialism towards the closing decades of the nineteenth century-economic in nature and coercive in action.


Contemporary Indian opium cultivation

We also come across references to the commercial pursuits of the Indian (Assamese and the Marwari) merchants undertaking arduous journey from Sadiya (in upper Assam), thence across the Patkai via Burma into the southwestern province of Yunnan in China. 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, and kanee (opium) in large canoes. The Assamese merchants followed the overland routes through the villages of Jorhat and Rungpore carrying with them rice and kanee and bartered their wares for salt. The Marwari merchants similarly had great interests in the opium traffic in the northeast frontier and this often conflicted with the interests of the British merchants.

From the early years of the twentieth century, opium trade with China was clearly on the decline. Two factors can plausibly explain this descent. 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.


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