The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley, 2009, Excerpts
Bengal in northern India had long produced opium, for centuries used across Asia as a medicinal and social drug. England controlled a vast swath of prime opium-growing country, stretching five hundred miles across Bengal, and the British Empire invested enormous sums in state-of-the-art opium farming and productive systems. More than two thousand British opium agents oversaw the efforts of one million registered Indian opium farmers. The Bengal-to-China opium business became the world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century, opium accounted for 15 to 20 percent of the British Empire’s revenue. Western banks, shipping companies, and insurance companies sprouted to serve this enormously profitable trade.
Realizing the harm to their people, the Chinese government banned opium’s sale and use in China. White Christian opium smugglers could not legally sell the banned drug on Chinese soil, so they installed floating wooden warehouses in the Pearl River Delta, where they sold their booty to Chinese criminals who rowed out under the cover of darkness. It was Christians who smuggled the poisonous drug into China, so the Chinese called it “Jesus Opium”.
Between 1814 and 1850, the Jesus-opium trade sucked out 11 percent of China’s money supply. China lost more silver in thirty years than had flowed into the country in the 125 years leading up to the opium trade. As the Chinese money supply contracted, silver became unnaturally scarce, peasants had trouble paying their taxes, counterfeiting rose, waves of inflations and deflation whipsawed the economy, and unrest grew.
The Chinese government dispatched a royal representative to Canton in 1839 to stop the Foreign Devil drug trade. Buckingham Palace shook at the news. Queen Victoria was just twenty years old at this point, on the British throne less than two years, but when the Chinese threatened to cut her largest single source of income, she understood the dire financial consequences, the drug trade provided easy money, silver, that most sustained her empire. Victoria dispatched her industrialized navy to enforce Britain’s ability to push an illegal drug. What followed were the two Opium Wars – one from 1839 to 1842, the other from 1856 to 1860. What Victoria spent on these military operations against China was paltry compared to her take of profits from the illegal Jesus-opium trade.