Numero Uno—“Of the tens of thousands of powerful and fascinating sources that might guide the student in this area, a recent monograph assumes pride of place as a reference. History of the Opium Problem: the Assault on the East, 1600-1950, stands as the Dutch author’s magnum opus, a deeply researched and profoundly thoughtful and staunchly thought-provoking monograph that shows equal measures of originality, erudition, and intelligence.
He documents Portuguese and Dutch and Italian endeavors. “The British and the French went further, with the important assistance of American smugglers and their clippers. From their ‘possessions’ in China and Southeast Asia, certain innovations in opium management were introduced. They exported, furthermore, to the other side of the Pacific, the U.S.A., and the opium snake started to bite its own tail. Both are largely responsible for leaving a heritage of present production centers in Southeast Asia and the Middle East of world-economic importance. A new cycle of exploitation and repression of the minds of the people started, which could eventually be followed up by (Ahmed) Rashid’s ‘drug epidemic.’”
The analyses that predominate in this arena of drugs and empire and lucre present as central several aspects of this evolution of the bourgeois ascendancy. One was the simple availability of astounding profits that increased an individual’s or collective’s take over other ventures by substantial margins in almost all instances. Moreover, opium, so valued was its presence in an exchange, acted as a substitute for the specie that Chinese merchants were otherwise liable to insist on receiving.
These same factors would later entice the English as well, of course, though earlier national networks laid the basis for what England executed over the century and a half from 1750 to 1900. A summary of Dutch historical experience in the 1600’s makes this case. It points out that engaging with opium trade permitted bypassing a need to produce hard cash, since poppy’s derivatives always found a market, ‘as good as gold.’
“Wijbrandt van Warwijck mentions the profitable trades in the Indonesian archipelago in his Noticiën ofte memoriën voor Capiteyn Witte of 1603. He includes opium in the list of items traded with Banda, Moluccas, and Atjeh. Governor-General Both reports in 1613 that the Moluccas, Siam, Pegoe (Burma), and China are places where the trade in opium is profitable for the (Dutch East India Company). In a description of the Indonesian archipelago from 1656 it is stated that in Brunei (Kalimantan) opium could be traded for gold dust and that in Jambi and Palembang (Sumatra) pepper could only be bought with opium or Spanish reels (silver). François Valentijn, a seventeenth century clergyman living in the Dutch East Indies, reports from his stay in Cochin (Java) in 1664 that opium is seen there as ‘the most important kind of profitable business.’”
The Dutch experience handily illustrates the way that European national force impacted widely dispersed parts of Asia during this period of capital’s early development. Malay, Indochinese, and Indonesian traders formed cartels, organized joint ventures, and generally made plays to participate in this lucrative trade that stood at the center of so many varied transactions. Thus, one way of summarizing the initial potency of opium as an item of exchange was in its dual advantages of profitability and fungibility. It reliably boosted capital and acted as a grassroots ‘currency of account,’ so to speak.
Another element of this puzzle of power was logistical, even as geographical matters repeatedly made further impressions on socioeconomic relationships. The logistical expressions of opium worked both for small-scale, individual enterprises and shippers and on much higher levels, in relation to imperial plans and global strategies.
In relation to the former, merchants who would later have more or less absolute social cachet and political imprimatur started out humbly. But for the super-profits that associated with opium, for instance, the Astor family might not have ruled New York society so fully for going on two centuries.
As with all logistics issues, the election to load opium was in part a matter of convenience. How to minimize runs devoid of cargo; how to maximize the return per load; how to make new routes and venues part of the firm’s regular retinue—these were the sorts of benefits that transporting poppy products permitted. Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean led ineluctably to South and East Asia; a triangle developed in this way that reflected the more common triangulation of slaves and sugar and rum, yet another cradle of capitalism that involved controlled substances.
Nor were the Astors the only American plutocrats to establish themselves via opiates. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grandfather, Warren Delano, made the fortune that he bequeathed on FDR while running Russell and Company’s fleet of opium cutters , which in turn created the superstructure for the Sassoon billions that had blossomed from Baghdad banking roots to blanket the world with power on the basis of over and over and over again making the month-long voyage from Calcutta to Canton, in one direction with a load of fragrant opium, on the return laden with tea.
The Churchills, the Clives, and many more titled estates either came into being or avoided history’s dustbin because an opportunistic forebear had made a pact to sell opium to China and facilitate the transfer of tea to the British Isles and Europe. This story of commerce and wildness and lusty travel toward imperial rule appears in lyrical and evocative fashion in Amitav Ghosh‘s recent novels, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, yarns based on solid research that elicits from fiction a powerful correspondence with fact.
And this allows readers to reflect on the higher logistical plane on which opium also operated. Piracy and plunder and clever logistics had allowed England to co-opt or displace Spain and France and Holland and Portugal in the Americas. In the form of tobacco and coffee and sugar and rum, furthermore, this imperial coup had depended on consciousness-altering goods only slightly less intoxicating than Palaver’s alkaloids.
Unfathomable riches came forth from the soil and toil and blood of Africans and Native Americans, loot and lucre with which England and Europe initiated a manufacturing capacity that would soon enough rule by main force but which in these initial stages of commodity production also depended on mercantile methodologies. Had opium not found the market that it did in China, which fostered a sustainable tea habit in the British Isles, at a minimum a different and less colossal British Empire would have been the result.
Thus, a chain of essentially logistical links—ports and docks and ships and shipyards and banks and counting-houses and more—by chance and arbitrary choice yielded what took shape as a grand strategy of empire. And if poppies were not the piece-de-resistance in this process, they certainly had a huge amount to offer.
In a related sphere, geopolitically, one could hardly overstate the gigantic influence opium in the development of capitalism, the evolution of modern Asia, and the path of the bourgeoisie and colonialism in countries like India and China. In a real sense, the fiscal desperation of agents of the East India Company led them to overthrow established regimes in the subcontinent, to create schematic ways of producing and negotiating exchanges for opium, and to utilize the profits from those trades to consolidate the control of India as a colonial nation—in some ways mirroring events in Italy and Germany a century hence.
As well as these business and strategic pieces of the mosaic in which the genus Papaver played such an outsized part, particular commodities and the trade relations surrounding them also came into the picture. And in every instance, until dispersal overthrew seed-export-bans, every such nexus stated a geographical fact.
Tea, for example, was a key element in capital’s early, mercantile stages. English workers and peasants and gentry all developed an almost fiendish taste, one might say an addiction, for the bitter brew, appropriately laden with sugar from the Americas. And China’s head-start in producing tea trees stood it in good stead to dominate that marketplace.
This craving for a product that for a time mimicked a natural monopoly caused year after year, as the eighteenth century continued, English trade deficits that in lean times were barely manageable. Piratical looting aside, England’s leading lights as well as the East India Company’s board were constantly hoping to manifest ways of doing business that would impede the outflow of cash, that could reduce the outgo of capital.
Serendipitously, a confluence of tobacco and opium had an especially desirable taste, a touch to the palate that those who liked either nicotine or opiates or both often enough found irresistible. And upland Appalachia and elsewhere in the slave economies of the American South proved nearly as apt for the production of addictive leaves to smoke as China had shown itself apropos for the growing of habit-forming leaves to brew. Thus, though in so doing it violated Chinese official proclamation and practice, England’s joining of two intoxicants, or the profferal of the stronger substance on its own, by the early 1800’s at the latest had turned an ongoing loss into a permanent surplus.
Multiple investigators note additional combinations of socioeconomic and political economic factors that sound especially noisome notes to the student of history. England had through duplicity and force overthrown or subverted all sayso but its own on the subcontinent. It had imposed a colonial administrative monopoly on every aspect of poppies and its products. It was diverting to the other side of the world millions of pounds of surplus value.
And yet the humble farmers who were providing the labor and land and seed to fuel this economic miracle were dying on the vine. “At the time of growth and development of the opium monopoly in Bengal from 1773 to 1856, the economic condition of the poppy farmers…had deteriorated and tension had erupted between the local zamindars(landlords) and the colonial authorities. This conflict aided in the eventual uprising of 1857, also known as the Indian ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ In an attempt to further control the private cultivation of opium poppies and the free trade in opium, the government adopted the Opium Act of 1857… .The colonial drug laws applied a double standard, as they allowed the imperial authorities to appropriate revenue from the state-run opium monopoly, while pushing the private traders to become involved in the contraband trade.”
Thus, at the same time that the Second Opium War came to the fore, and Britain was consigning untold millions of opium-smokers to their slow and lowly fates while butchering a few squadrons of Chinese in the process, British mandates were approving the once again opium-fueled slaughter of tens of thousands of Indians who dared to resist England’s imprimatur. Empire’s ugliness should never have erupted from so beautiful a flower.
A young scholar has carefully documented the background and expression of the Opium Wars in such a way as to note how transformation and expansion of imperial plans create an environment of social contradiction and political tension. In 1834, as the monopoly position of the East India Company in the opium business came to an end, a massive upsurge in participants and product occurred, just as the Chinese were insisting that ‘enough’s enough,’ as it were.
Of course, such contrariety took place in the context of longstanding relationships of profit and conspiratorial collaboration too. In fact, entire sectors of eighteenth-nineteenth-century Indian society consolidated their ties with each other and with other groups—both in China and England, for instance—as well as enhancing their commercial viability, on the basis of opium . The Parsi community in Mumbai, impresarios of which retain wealth and influence to this day, with roots in Persia, was one of the few Subcontinent’s ethnic groups that successfully found a niche in the drug trade.
The kin and organizational linkages that underlay this coup against the East India Company’s monopoly forms the plot line for Sea of Poppies, and scholars recognize that both the narrative in the novel and the commodity exchanges and elite-relations of the historical trade are telling the same story . One of the upshots of the entire affair was the enrichment of Mumbai, producing “a capitalism that despite the constraints of colonialism could be a little bit more modern and a little bit more generous to the common Indian.”
In this vein, Amar Farooqui’s most recent collection of investigative essays calls itself Opium City: the Making of Early Victorian Bombay, one of many such assessments that notes the congruence between progress and decimation to so speak. Networks that produced addiction and dissolution on the one hand, created black-market super-profits and modernity on the other hand.
One expert source, a seminal thinker in this historical arena, notes the conjunction of mega-profit, British productive efficiency, and the inevitable rise of competitors as the rubric that defined the heart of this commodified eventuality at the heart of early capitalism. “The system’s success was the cause of its downfall. The vast profits of the Britain’s opium trade attracted competitors. Moreover, the Company’s steadfast refusal to raise Bengal’s opium exports beyond the quota of 4,000 chests per annum left a vast unmet demand for drugs among China’s swelling population of opium smokers. As demand drove the price per chest upward from 415 rupees in 1799 to 2,428 rupees just 15 years later, the Company’s monopoly on Bengal opium faced strong competition from Turkey and west India.”
To an extent, the solidification of opium as the key to China was the result of more mundane occurrences, such as the importance of silver in Chinese culture and political economy, a factor that earlier paragraphs also noted. Not any inherent metallic ‘magic’ was the causal spark here, however, but rather the struggle that two empires—one rising and based on wage-labor and commodities, the other floundering and based on a vast landed peasantry’s produce that spread out over five percent of the Earth’s land surface—joined to garner the riches of a ‘new-world’ and thereby elevate one of two distinct ‘old-world’ elites to run the Earth’s affairs.
To imagine the sorts of developments under discussion here most tangibly, one need only think of the actual flows of labor and goods and cash in the world economy of the time. Slaves plundered from Africa sweated for the Earth’s bounty of tobacco and sugar and coffee in a ‘New World’ where conquerors worked indigenous inhabitants to death in order to extract silver and gold from shafts sunk into the ground.
Half a world away, comparatively ancient farming practices yielded rice and spice and tea aplenty, for which Europeans had increasingly insistent cravings. From the perspective of the savvy merchants of England and France and Spain and Italy—as often as not former pirates or other masters of ‘primitive accumulation’—parting with less specie in the process of exchange was, to put the case mildly, highly desirable, since factories and mines and facilities to engage former peasants in textile and coal and metals and weapons production necessitated hard currency to blossom.
The humble poppy flower proved a key ingredient in this centuries-long process. By offering opium or other inebriating products of the poppy directly, or—most seductive—by mixing opium with tobacco, each of the major mercantile powers of Europe gained profound leverage in its oriental trade. In the process, new alliances with the recently overthrown families of India and Indochina and more solidified both these methods of doing business and the linked alliances that further entrenched the power of the corporate and kin groups at the forefront of these processes.
Nor did some mystical Oriental border contain the effects of Papaver somniferum. The poppies intense and extensive impact on British culture is a well-documented story. “In the eighteenth century the British Society of Arts awarded prizes and gold medals for growing the most attractive Papaver somniferum. By the nineteenth century many babies in the United Kingdom were being soothed to sleep with a sleeping preparation containing laudanum. British Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-98) put laudanum in his coffee so that he could speak better in front of Parliament. British writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were addicted to opiates like laudanum, while author Charles Dickens calmed him-self with opium.”
Thomas de Quincey was thus just one of innumerable yarnspinners whose work emanated ‘under the influence,’ as it were. And though the tendency to the throes of horrific habituation may itself have been a product of clever commoditization, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater does not present a pretty picture for observers to gaze at.
“The reader is aware that opium had long ceased to found its empire on spells of pleasure; it was solely by the tortures connected with the attempt to abjure it, that it kept its hold. Yet, as other tortures, no less it may be thought, attended the non-abjuration of such a tyrant, a choice only of evils was left; and that might as well have been adopted, which, however terrific in itself, held out a prospect of final restoration to happiness. …I saw that I must die if in continued the opium; I determined, therefore, if that should be required, to die in throwing it off.” And this was the product for which Britain’s vaunted principle of ‘free-trade’ was to test its imperial mettle and slay the Chinese imperial way of life.
Notwithstanding troubling social trends in any case, opium assumed the role of the keystone for English capital. An article from Monthly Review has summarized this dynamic. “The opium trade was of vital importance to British Imperialism at this time. It was one corner of an Eastern triangular trade that mirrored the eighteenth century Atlantic slave trade. The smuggling of opium turned a large British trading deficit with China into a substantial surplus, paying for British tea imports from China, for the export of British manufactured goods to India and for a substantial proportion of British administrative costs in India. The opium trade was ‘the hub of British commerce in the East.’”
A Chinese scholar depicts these developments as in many ways “shameful,” inasmuch as they involved clear-cut predation and routine corruption. More practically, they at first undermined and ultimately eviscerated the Chinese protocols and techniques that for a millennium or more had made Sino elements of power first and foremost over land and peoples that made up plus-or-minus half the world.
In some tangible sense, the imposition of these new practices in conducting trade, backed by new systems of production and evolving networks of interconnected social relations of rule, doomed any but fantastical hopes of continued Chinese hegemony. Whether these systematic innovations operated in the form of smugglers or of legitimate ambassadors, whether through frontal assault by force of arms or through religious and cultural engagement, the rise of Europe—of an English empire, for example, on which the sun never set—was like a growing light that comes from an inevitably imminent conflagration.” “Capitalism on Drugs–the Political Economy of Contraband From Heroin to Ritalin,” by Jim Hickey–‘Networking of Empire—Production & Distribution:’
Documentation: Is Liberation Theology Marxist? An Interview With Ernesto Cardenal
Question: In what do you see the main task of Christians’ struggle for a more just world in general and in Latin American countries in particular, and how does the liberation theology contribute to this effort?
Ernesto Cardenal: First of all I should like to say that your movement, Christian Peace Conference, help us Christians in Latin America to follow the path of revolutionary struggle for justice in the understanding that peace cannot be attained in our region without complete liberation. In this endeavor liberation also plays an important role, which strictly speaking means a practical application of the message of the Gospel to the concrete situation of the people of our countries. This theology differs from traditional theology above all in the fact that it is not laid down by certain professional theologians for others, but grows up out of everyday practice, where it develops and addresses first of all the simple, oppressed Christian. Its representatives are persecuted, imprisoned, and sometimes murdered.
This theology, like traditional theology, was inspired by the classical philosophy of Aristotle, whose work, although he was not a Christian, clearly influenced the thinking of the whole Christian church. Liberation theology also draws inspiration from the philosophy of Karl Marx who, despite the fact that he didn’t confess to the Christian faith, was certainly nearer the Christian tradition than Aristotle. There is however further difference between the theology of liberation and traditional theology, the latter being based primarily On the Word of God made incarnate in the Holy Scripture Liberation theology is of course also inspired by the Word, but its representatives are convinced that God also speaks to us in everyday events and that, for example, information obtained through the mass media can be a special way in which God speaks to us.
Question: What does liberation theology take from Marxist thinking in concrete terms?
Cardenal: There are differences of opinion about this. Some liberation theologians maintain that they are not influenced by Marxist philosophy at all. In this case it is necessary to discern whether they say this for tactical reasons, so as not to be compromised politically or whether they are really convinced that Marxism doesn’t influence them in any way. I personally think that it is not possible to evade the influence of Marxism, as we cannot commit ourselves to the revolutionary struggle without drawing support from the conclusions of scientific socialism.
Another group of theologians claims that they only take the method of analysis from Marxism. Others maintain that it is possible to accept the philosophy of dialectical materialism in its entirety and that it can greatly enrich liberation theology. The problem of atheism is closely connected with this question. According to some liberation theologians atheism is not the cause of the conflict between Christianity and Marxism, but is rather the link between them. What Marxism calls atheism is basically the negation of an idol, which sometimes bears the name of God. I think that the proclamation of the Gospel is sometimes nearer to an atheistic point of view than to traditional religious attitudes, for when God calls us to judgment, as Jesus Christ told us, it will not be faith in God or lack of it which will decide, but whether we loved our neighbor or hated him during our lifetime. According to St. John the Apostle, he who loves his neighbor shall know God, and for that reason he who calls himself a believer and yet doesn’t love his neighbor cannot know God.
Question: In comparing the relationship between Christianity and revolution in Nicaragua and in our own environment we see that revolutions took place without the participation of Christians, and often even against them. The understanding of the real meaning of revolutionary activity was prevented by its atheistic character.
Cardenal: I fully appreciate this difference. You find yourselves in a different situation, because the anti-religious character of the revolutions in your environment was created by, among other things, the fundamentally anti-revolutionary and conservative attitude of the churches. If the revolutions in our sphere are different in this respect it is because they are supported by most of our believers. The revolution in Nicaragua was the first of its kind to be accomplished with the mass support of Christians, a fact that cannot fail to influence the further development of revolutionary movements in the whole of Latin America, whose inhabitants are predominantly Christian. Radical revolutionary changes can’t, therefore, be brought about without the active presence of Christians, or against their will, for this would be revolution without the people’s support and as such would have no chance of victory. You in the CPC [Christian Peace Conference] took, in your time, a bold and progressive step which substantially helped Christians in other countries and continents to find their place in the revolutionary process.
Question: How do representatives of official churches accept liberation theology?
Cardenal: Liberation theology was accepted positively not only by the Catholics but also in Protestant circles. I should mention that it affects our ecumenical life too: representatives of different churches and denominations meet round the table and their confessional differences are no longer as important as before. It is possible to say that in Latin America today there are basically two types of Christianity: first, the popular theology which has developed from the ritual traditions of each country. This is a rather superficial belief, although on the other hand it is also a deeply emotionally [sic] matter for our people. And for these people there is no contradiction between their faith and their participation in the revolution. The second type of Christianity is represented by the liberation theologians, who are in the minority and for whom revolutionary commitment stemming from Christian faith and theological reflection is a matter of course. It is possible to say in the case of Nicaragua that liberation theology is “the ruling power” because our people are the ruling power, although at the same time it retains the subversive character so typical of it. It is subversive towards imperialism and the traditional church hierarchy, even if, in rare cases, some bishops or even cardinals — a Brazilian cardinal for instance — are on the side of the people. Sanctions were imposed against some of them by the Vatican, as in my own case, that of several of my countrymen and those of the Brazilian theologian Boff and the Mexican bishop Mendez Arcea.
Question: How do Catholic priests react to these sanctions?
Cardenal: Those of them who are deeply convinced of the need for revolutionary changes don’t allow themselves to be intimidated. And they are in the majority. It is, in fact, a matter of individual conscience and fidelity to the Gospel, for if I am convinced that the orders of the Vatican and even those of the Pope himself are in contradiction with my conscience and with the orders of the Gospel, then I cannot obey.
Question: What kind of relationship exists today between the official Catholic Church and the revolutionary Government of Nicaragua?
Cardenal: The Bishop’s Conference in our country is not united on this. Some are on the side of the revolution, others hesitate, while others take an open stand against it. One of the bishops even approached the Government of the USA during his visit there with a request for financial aid to the contras. He organized a press conference on his return to Nicaragua and on this occasion declared himself a firm follower of the counterrevolution and its armed resistance to the revolutionary government. This was evidently a piece of provocation with two possible aims: on the one hand to force our Government to imprison him and thus show its aggressivity, and on the other hand to compel it to do nothing and thus show its own weakness. Nevertheless the Government found a third solution: it expelled him from the country and in doing this the Government showed itself to be neither inhumanly hard nor politically weak. Bishop Vega, as this church dignitary is called, now lives in Honduras and his influence is slowly diminishing. Even the Pope himself, to whom such open support of counterrevolution was evidently not acceptable, didn’t stand by him.
Question: Nevertheless, Cardinal Obando, who is hostile towards your Government, is still in the country.
Cardenal: Cardinal Obando was a leading figure of the political opposition but he never resorted to such extreme language. After an example was made of Bishop Vega he fell silent, afraid of meeting a similar fate and became rather cautious. Then came the dialogue between our bishops and revolutionary Government, of which even the Pope approved, as he was no doubt aware of the evil effect of such aggressive attitudes on the state of the Roman Catholic Church in my country. The Nicaraguan Government respects the decision of the Vatican in the church sphere, but where the Church starts to have a direct influence on politics, this must be considered as a political matter and should be handled as such.
Question: President Reagan has recently issued a directive which makes possible direct intervention in your country. What would this mean for you?
Cardenal: We have always been aware of the fact that President Reagan would step up the pressure on our revolution. But we are convinced that he cannot destroy this revolution since it is defended by the vast majority of the people. For it is not merely an army or political party that supports the revolution, it is all the people. And therefore any intervention would come face to face with these people, and they would be armed with guns. Our tanks could be destroyed by the aggressor within several hours, the entire country could be occupied. But so many of the intervention forces would die that their position would become unbearable. Today there is a strong movement worldwide in solidarity with our country which has so far prevented President Reagan from sending his troops to Nicaragua4:2Not because he considers world public opinion so much as because the opinion of American voters is important to him: they wouldn’t support him in any direct military intervention. I do believe that our revolution will not be destroyed, for this would mean that our people would also have t o he annihilated. However, we must still be prepared for martyrdom, for this is really the only way to achieve the final victory of our revolution: we must be prepared to die.
Question: What role do women play in the revolutionary process in Nicaragua?
Cardenal: Women took part in the revolutionary struggle in all spheres: they stood by the men during the famine strikes, they were engaged in armed combat, we have women in our country with the rank of commandant (corresponding to the rank of general), and now they are active in all spheres of public life; not least I should mention the role of the woman and mother, who to a large extent shapes the revolutionary attitudes of her children of the new generation. Women are also gaining a new position within the Church, unknown in the past: a woman merely used to be a passive, obedient listener.
Question: What ought we in the Christian Peace Conference do to contribute to the victory of your people and to a better future for your country?
Cardenal: From all I know about your work — and this isn’t the first time I’ve come across it- – I can say that you are already doing it. I’d like to thank you for it, and I’d like to ask you to continue in it. And I’m convinced that you will.” “Documentation–Is Liberation Theology Marxist? An Interview With Ernesto Cardenal,” Crisis Magazine, 1987