News & Tall Tales

° Chinese in San Francisco ° Chinese Interpreters ° Anti-Coolie Tax  ° Chinese Merchants  ° Buddhist Temple 1856 ° Little Pete ° Opium (China, Europe, North America)


Early in the 19th century, Britain's continuing copious consumption of Chinese tea was adversely affecting its economic balance. Tea was China's second largest export after silk, and the Chinese wanted nothing in return except silver bullion. The Chinese Emperor, Ch'ien Lung, said, "The Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders."

This placed Britain and its East India Company at a serious trading disadvantage. The deficit with China was so alarming that Parliament threatened the company with loss of charter. 

The British East India Company knew which crop would turn this around: They controlled the production of opium over the entire Indian subcontinent. The product was sold at auction in Calcutta, and British merchant ships smuggled opium into China. Since opium was contraband, they paid no duties. The British employed Chinese opium buyers to bribe Chinese officials with "tea money" or "squeeze."

While British East India Company directors in London publicly condemned the opium trade, they continued production and worked through proxy traders instead of their own vessels. By 1830, output reached 30,000 chests per year, fetching ,981,203 sterling. That same government granted permission to extend expand poppy cultivation increase supply opium." 

By the mid-1830s, about one percent of the Chinese population was addicted. In coastal provinces, where smuggling occurred, 90% of the adult population were opium addicts. Enough opium was imported in 1836 to cater to 12-million addicts.

In 1839, the Chinese emperor appointed a special commissioner, Lin Tse-hsu, and commanded him to eradicate the opium trade. However, all attempts to control opium commerce failed. In 1844, the new governor of Hong Kong reported, "Almost every person possessed of capital who is not connected with the government is employed in the opium trade."

Invention of International Crime. Paul Keppner, Author.

Only six weeks after the Union Jack was raised in Hong Kong, the "Canton Register" predicted that the island would be the rendezvous of all Chinese smugglers. "Opium dens and gambling houses will soon spread. To those haunts will flock the discontented and bad spirits of the Empire." Crime and vice did indeed spread in Hong Kong, and brothels opened to provide for the needs of smugglers, sailors and military personnel.

Opium profits soared. By 1848, 40,000 chests of opium were stored in Hong Kong, and 75% of India's opium was traded through Hong Kong at a value of six million pounds per annum.

October 11, 1853, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

The East India Opium Trade A Sad Picture.

About two years ago, Dr. Nathan Allen, of Lowell, Mass., published a very able article on the Opium trade in the East Indies. It has since, as we learn from the Boston Journal, found its way into the East Indies, and has been made the subject of much criticism in the Bombay, Calcutta and Canton papers, all of which command its views, endorse its positions, and pass upon the British East India Company the most severe censure, for persisting in a contraband traffic, which is sowing broadcast among an entire people the misery, degradation and death; enslaving them by a habit more potent and irresistible than any other species of intemperance, and sending to a premature and dishonored grave annually, four hundred thousand human beings.

This trade is carried on under the authority and regulations of the East India Company, and sanctioned by the direct legislation of the Imperial Parliament at home, notwithstanding it is a contraband trade, and forbidden by the laws of China under the most severe penalties. England thus places herself in the disgraceful position of nullifying the commercial regulations of an independent foreign power, and forcing upon it against its will, a most pernicious, demoralizing and death producing trade.

Tea Ships. BRitish East India Company Docks.
Unloading Tea-Ships
British East India Company Docks.
London c. 1860

While the Chinese Government has put forth its most strenuous endeavors to extinguish the accused traffic, British officials, authorized by law, and encouraged by government, through means of steamships and fast sailing clippers, persist in the trade, which is making them and their government rich, at the fearful sacrifice of the Chinese people, body and soul.

The Bombay Telegraph and Courier, of May 17th, 1852, makes the review of Dr. Allen's essay the occasion of a powerful article upon the same subject, concurring fully in these views, and holding up the conduct of the East India Company and the home government, as connected with the trade, in a very unenviable light. The reviewer says:

As an article of commerce, opium stands out without a parallel. From the skilful management and cultivation of about 100,000 acres of land, the East India Company produces an article which sold at a profit of several hundred per cent, yields to them a net revenue, annually of nearly three millions sterling. We do not here include the Malway opium, a seventh of the whole revenue of the country, raised from an extent of more than a million of square miles.

The most astounding fact of the opium trade needs yet to be specified, viz: that christian sensibilities have not yet been adequately roused in relation to its iniquities and horrors.

The professedly Christian government should, by its sole authority, and on its sole responsibility, produce a drug which is not only contraband, but essentially detrimental to the best interests of humanity; that it should annually receive into its treasury scores of rupees, which, if they cannot, save by a too licentious figure, be termed "the price of blood," yet are demonstrably the price of the physical waste, the social wretchedness and moral destruction of the Chinese; and yet that no sustained remonstrance's from the press, secular or spiritual, nor from society, should issue forth against the unrighteous system, is surely an astonishing fact in the history of our christian ethics.

It is a matter of pride and gratification that an American at such a distance from the location of the subject on which he treats, has been able to produce a pamphlet which passes as authority, and elicits from an East India paper of high standing the following commentary upon its author:

While he writes with the indignation of a man and the faithfulness of a Christian, he shows nothing of the partiality of an American citizen. He has been at great pains to collect facts from Calcutta and Bombay as well as China, to illustrate his subject, and has altogether produced a pamphlet which certainly ought to be circulated extensively among the European residents of this country.

What unparalleled destruction! The immolations of an Indian Juggernath dwindle into insignificance before it. We again repeat, nothing but slavery is worthy to be compared for its horrors with this monstrous system of iniquity. As we write, we are amazed at the enormity of its unprincipledness, and the large extent of its destructiveness. Its very enormity seems in some measure to protect it. Were it a minor evil, it seems as though one might grapple with it. As it is, it is beyond the compass of our grasp. No words are adequate to expose its evil, no fires of indignant feeling are fierce enough to blst it.

The enormous wealth it brings into our coffers is its only justification. During the 1850s and 60s opium was being shipped into San Francisco, listed in incoming cargo logs, and sold by reputable auctioneers, right along with rice, limes, silks, etc.

In 1871, Sir Rutherford Alcock, a British ambassador to Peking, informed the Parliament, "We forced the Chinese government to enter into a treaty to allow their subjects to take opium." Over the years, a few individuals raised their voices in opposition. The Earl of Saftesbury said, "I am fully convinced that for this country to encourage this nefarious traffic is bad, perhaps worse than encouraging the slave trade."

An article written by one Dr. Masters in 1892 expressed concern about San Francisco's opium joints.

Nor is it only the Chinese who use the demoralizing drug. The vice is spreading among Americans to a serious extent. But they do not go to the joints. If done at all, it must be very secretly. The movements of white people about Chinatown are so carefully watched, and the different hells under almost half-hourly surveillance, that it would be impossible for them to frequent these places without soon attracting the attention of the police. There is plenty of smoking done by American people, but it is carried on in private houses or in rooms secretly kept by white people.

Notwithstanding the constant increase of tax on opium it continues to come into country in greater and quantities; last year, under $12 per pound McKinley tariff, importations amounted 63,189 pounds prepared opium. Crude is not imported such a proportion as formerly, because heavy duties make impossible manufacture or "cook" product this compete with foreign variety. But fact fosters numerous illicit establishments, which now then light.

In San Francisco a city ordinance attempted to regulate the selling of smoking opium by a high license proportional to the gross business done, and in 1889 another ordinance made it "illegal to sell any extract of opium except on a written order of a practicing physician, and requiring that the amounts sold, with the name, sex, color and residence of the purchaser, and the name of the prescribing physician, be entered in a book. The City Council thus passes an ordinance practically declaring a business illegal which it has already legalized, and from which it is not ashamed to draw a revenue."

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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