Opium War Memories in China and India: A Study in Contrasts

By Julia Lovell

I’ve spent the past three years researching the importance of the Opium Wars to China; for it is hard to underestimate the passions and sensitivities that the topic can provoke. The wars remain the founding episodes of modern Chinese nationalism, and the start of China’s terrible “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of the West. In 2006, China’s leading liberal weekly, Freezing Point, was shut down, after running an article by an academic called Yuan Weishi that challenged textbook orthodoxy on the Second Opium War. The entire incident unleashed an official and popular outcry. The article, the propaganda bureau pronounced, “viciously attacked the socialist system [and] attempted to vindicate criminal acts by the imperialist powers in invading China. It seriously distorted historical facts; it seriously contradicted news propaganda discipline; it seriously damaged the national feelings of the Chinese people…and created bad social influence.” One nationalist some way outside the government denounced the article as “pure treachery. [Yuan Weishi] was desecrating his own ancestors’ graves…He should have been drowned in rotten eggs and spit.”

In China, then, the opium trade and the wars that Britain fought to defend it in the mid-nineteenth century are a festering national wound. But India, to name but one territory, was also directly and adversely affected by these historical events. It was there that British overseers managed the opium monopolies that generated exports of the drug to China through the nineteenth century. By the 1850s, more than a fifth of the Raj’s income came from opium; this represents the systematic exploitation of India’s natural productivity to enrich the British government and private individuals. And as I examined the deep emotional impact of opium on China, I wanted to know whether other parts of Britain’s narco-empire—all equally entitled to feel fury at Britain’s misdemeanours—shared China’s resentment. This summer, I travelled to Delhi and Mumbai, to talk about the Opium War, and to explore differing attitudes to a shared history.

In the weeks before I arrived in India, memories of the opium trade had been stirred by the publication of River of Smoke, the second volume in Amitav Ghosh’s fictional trilogy set in India and China, against the backdrop of the Opium War. The first two books have richly evoked the atmosphere of the opium trade and its multicultural hodge-podge of English, Scottish, Indian and Chinese participants. But Ghosh seems to have felt that he was writing into a vacuum: modern India’s relationship with opium, he has complained, is enveloped in an “extraordinary silence…In any Western country,” he has observed, “by now you’d have had 200 books about it. There are books about sugarcane, about indigo, about cotton, but [opium] was the most important sector of the economy and the only person writing about it is [historian] Amar Farooqui!” Ghosh has equated a general Indian indifference to the opium trade with a broader lack of concern over the legacies of imperialism. “A consequence of Indians’ lack of interest in history is that the colonial experience begins to look more benign than it was.” My first encounter in Delhi seemed to confirm his diagnosis of Indian amnesia over the opium trade. Just off the plane, I was escorted out of the airport by a young man from the hotel with exquisite English. He asked me what had brought me to India. His forehead wrinkled when I mentioned the Opium War. What is opium? he wanted to know. His excellent Anglophone education had not seen fit to supply him with this piece of vocabulary.

David Sassoon Library in Mumbai

Mumbai boomed on money from the opium trade in the nineteenth century. Landmarks of neo-imperial or Asiatic Gothic architecture—the tall white colonnades of the Asiatic Society (now Mumbai’s Central Municipal Library); the rusty brick arches of the David Sassoon Library—are striking reminders of how profitable this Asian commerce was; several of such buildings were paid for by China-trading philanthropists. But there seemed to be limited awareness of Mumbai’s past connections with the opium trade, as I wandered about these now-decaying structures. A phlegmatic librarian in the Asiatic Society pointed up at an enormous hole in the ceiling: “That nearly killed me when it came down.” The Society’s once pompous interior—imperial pillars with frothy gold tops, statues of nineteenth-century British worthies—has been thoroughly desacralised by the readers snoozing over the tables and the shelves of down-to-earth titles. (The domestic science section seemed particularly well stocked, featuring practical volumes such as Step-by-step Garnishes, Rugs: All You Need to Know, and Ultimate Casserole.) “I know nothing about opium. Or the Opium War,” the librarian told me. “It was all such a long time ago. I like British people. They’re very good in their hearts and in their minds and they have lots of good ideas. They built lots of good buildings and government institutions here.”

I wondered if the psychology behind this forgetfulness was a little more complex than Ghosh allowed for. While in India, I tried to explain the resentment that memory of the Opium War and the “century of humiliation” can provoke in China, and asked if there was similar anger directed at India’s own experiences under British rule. The response that I often received borrowed from the language of psychoanalysis: “India’s over it,” one woman—born two years after Independence—pronounced. India has enough to worry about in the present day, others told me, with corruption scandals and relations with Pakistan. “I used to think that India had a cult of victimhood, but it seems it’s nothing compared to China,” remarked one novelist. “In India, we’ve generally been aware that we’ve been responsible for our own problems. Caste, social problems, the tension between Muslims and Hindus—they’ve always been there; some people might say they were exacerbated by colonialism, but they were always there.” Amongst those who have benefited most from India’s cosmopolitan education system, there was a relaxed openness towards Britain and its colonial legacies. “Diversity is our strength,” one NGO worker told me. “We have good relations with the British now; much better than with Pakistan. And Britain gave us so many things—rule by law, for one.” He told me about a hit stand-up show by the comedian Vir Das he’d seen in Mumbai the previous winter, called The History of India, which had made fun of “some of India’s most sacred cows”—even Gandhi. “Vir presents the funny elements that have been a part of our heritage and how much there was to laugh at in our struggles, how much humor there is in heritage,” its producer has commented. The idea of a Chinese comedian taking a similarly irreverent look at the Century of Humiliation is unthinkable (though India arguably diverts public sensitivities onto discussion of religious issues).

Indian memories of the opium trade were also, I detected, tinged with a degree of guilt. It’s well established that although private British traders got rich on selling opium to China, so did some Indian merchants—and especially Mumbai Parsis. They provided credit for British businessmen; they built ships for the trade; and sometimes they sailed them themselves. A Parsi opium trader in one of Ghosh’s novels expresses their actions pragmatically:

Today the biggest profits don’t come from selling useful things: quite the opposite. The profits come from selling things that are not of any real use…Opium is just like that. It is completely useless unless you’re sick, but still people want it. And it is such a thing that once people start using it they can’t stop; the market just gets larger and larger. That is why the British are trying to take over the trade and keep it to themselves. Fortunately in the Bombay Presidency they have not succeeded in turning it into a monopoly, so what is the harm in making some money from it?

If you look closely enough at the windows of the Bai Avabai Framji Petit Parsi Girls High School in Mumbai, you’ll find an image of an Indian opium clipper inlaid in stained glass. HMS Cornwallis, the ship on which the Treaty of Nanjing was signed, was built in a Parsi yard. An elderly Parsi man approached me after one of my talks: did I think it would be a good idea if leading members of the Parsi community organised themselves into an official delegation to apologise for India’s role in the opium trade? Would that make things better, would it clear things up between China and India?

His comments further reminded me of the unease and suspicion that currently cloud India’s relations with China. Although China often portrays itself as a victim of external aggression (a self-perception reinforced by emphatic commemorations of the Opium War and the Century of Humiliation), several of the Indian journalists I encountered took a very different view. They saw China not as an injured innocent, but as a threatening new imperial power, and were keen to discuss China’s ambitions in the region, alleging in detail that China was plotting to create a trade route to the sea, from its western borders down through eastern India. Memories of China’s war with India in the 1960s were still fresh; and there was considerable anger at China’s financial support of Pakistan.

But nonchalance rather than anger or bad conscience still seemed to dominate Indian attitudes to opium. As I travelled back to my hotel room on my last night in Mumbai, an advert in the lift for something called The Opium Den caught my eye, and the pitch went like this:

First came the flower delivery man.
Then the baby delivery woman.
Then the pizza delivery man.
It’s time to get addicted to each other again, before someone else comes knocking.
Opium Den. VERY ADDICTIVE. An intoxicating fusion of atmosphere, spirits and music that reminds you how it feels to be in love again. Rest assured you’ll be back for more of the same.

The concept was illustrated by a photograph of a glamorous Caucasian couple, grinning exuberantly at each other and generally living the Opium Den dream. I’m probably exaggerating only a little (if at all) when I say that if you set up such an establishment (trading on the word opium for yuppie chic effect) in mainland China, you would get death threats. I exclaimed with surprise. When my fellow passenger asked me what was wrong, I explained my sense of culture shock. He obviously felt that I’d spent too long in China: “Chill out,” he said. “It’s just a bar.”

And, I discovered when I went to have a look, it was indeed just that—filled on a Saturday evening with glamorous young Mumbai things enjoying a drink or a meal in comfortable, tastefully lit surroundings. The books decoratively arranged on the walls (only for atmosphere; no one was reading them) were high-brow: works of Great European Literature (Crime and Punishment; Mill on the Floss) rather than books more usually associated with opium dens – the Collected Sax Rohmer perhaps (Dope, The Yellow Claw, The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu, and so on). When I perused the menu, I found the juice section—cucumber, tomato, carrot and celery—also disconcertingly virtuous; I plumped for an innocuous plate of gloupy chicken noodles. While I was waiting for the bill, I idly fell into dispute with my waiter, after I made a remark about the beautifully carved antique ivory opium pipes displayed in a cabinet on the wall. “Oh no, they’re not pipes,” he told me. “They’re flutes.” Opium flutes? “No, no, just regular flutes.” They were definitely opium pipes, but I still needed to pack for my plane back to London later that night, so I let it go.

Julia Lovell is a lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London and author of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China (Picador, September 2011).

Photo from TravelPod.com

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