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The Opium Trade: Why did it flourished in 19th century China Essay

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Updated: Sep 15th, 2019

Throughout human history, the trouble that emanates from the activities of smugglers, pirates, and black market profiteers has been a major problem for monarchs and other heads of state. The same thing can be observed today from the pirates of Somalia to the Colombian drug cartels.

There are three reasons why smugglers, criminals and lawbreakers would risk their lives to buy contraband such as opium and these are listed as follows: they have found a lucrative business; they are desperate; and they find it a matter of personal opinion whether they must be considered as astute businessmen or enemies of the state. This argument stems from a close study of a book written by Captain Arthur Cunynghame.

Cunynghame served as a British sea captain and also as the aide-de-camp to Major-General Lord Saltoun. He was a commander of a ship under the royal crown of Britain and at the same time commander of troops assigned to the East India Company. The main argument stated earlier was the result of studying Cunynghame’s personal recollection of the cause and effect of the Opium War of the late 19th century. The following is taken from one of his recollections, an insight into the mindset of the people involved in the opium trade and Cunynghame wrote:

The difficulties and dangers which were placed by the Chinese authorities in the way of obtaining it, together with the immense price to which, in consequences, it had obtained, caused its sale to be undertaken only by the most lawless as well as avaricious of the community, who risked their lives in this pursuit … the cruelties resorted by the mandarins in its suppression, and by the smugglers in retaliation, are almost incredible.[1]

Lucrative Business

It is easy to understand why business-minded people flock towards a money-making scheme that assures them a tidy profit. This is simply the dictates of human nature. No person in his right mind would do something that promises verylittle pay if there is an alternative source of income that promises a three-fold increase in income.

More importantly human nature dictates that a person should find an efficient method for achieving a particular goal. In this case the goal is to make money and the methodology adopted is smuggling banned products.

The high yield profit from the importation of opium is the result of the insistence of the 19th century Chinese government that opium is destructive to the health and well-being of the general population. Opium was therefore ruled as an illegal substance. It created a dilemma within Chinese society. For many centuries opium was never considered a deadly menace and a prohibitive drug. On the contrary it was viewed as something of a miracle cure that provided relief to different maladies ranging from headaches to emotional stress.

According to one commentary “It would be normal at such times for some people to use opium to relieve stress, much as the modern world has used Valium.”[2] As a consequence the demand for opium began to increase dramatically as supply dwindled. It was therefore necessary to deal with the consequences of the demand of paying customers. There was a tremendous incentive to bring in opium from outside sources.

As a result opium began pouring in huge quantities but only through the able hands of smuggler and unscrupulous individuals. The presence of the British merchants exacerbated the problem because just like the others, they saw nothing wrong with the sale of opium. The drug must be regulated and not banned.

It can also be argued that growth of the illegal trade in opium was also due to the porous security and law enforcement capability of the Chinese government. At a time when there were too many ports to unload opium and that there were many areas that cannot be efficiently monitored by nation attempting to manage and secure an incredible land mass – the biggest country in the world. Thus, combining the profitability of the illegal activity and chance for success it was not surprising that many took the risk.[3]

Floating in a Sea of Despair

The second major reason why people in late 19th century China would risk life and limb in the smuggling of opium is rooted in desperation. This desperation stems from poverty. Many of the minor players in the opium industry struggled to make ends meet and the possibility of augmenting their income is something that is difficult to pass up. Consider for instance the number of employed needing a source of income. There are also people who went through difficult times and the smuggling of opium was an easy way out.

The sense of desperation is not only limited to monetary reasons. There is also the desperation that comes from those who desperately needed a dose of the opiate drug. There are two forces that intensified this feeling of depression. On one side were the legitimate users of opium and limited their use for medicinal purposes only. But on the opposite end there are the opium addicts that require their regular fix.

It has to be pointed out that there was a serious problem when it comes to the supply of opium. The Chinese people from mainland China are not the only ones consuming large quantities of the illegal substance. When the Lord Cunynghame was on his way to China he passed by Singapore and he documented the deplorable state of the nation of Singapore because many of her citizens were opium junkies.

Many Singaporeans during that time were no longer productive citizens because of the ill-effects of opium addiction. Thus, there was not only competition within Chinese society but there was also competition from abroad. This has incredibly increased the sense of desperation from smugglers, peddlers, and users.

A Matter of Opinion

Cunynghame made a brutal assessment of the opium trade and he said that smugglers and black market profiteers would go to great lengths in order to participate in the lucrative business of buying, selling, and delivery of opium.

Aside from poverty, quick profit, and desperation another major reason why many join the ranks of smugglers can be seen in the ambivalence when it comes to the characterization of the opium smugglers and black market profiteers. The government condemned them as enemies of the state and lawbreakers deserving of extreme punishment. But there are others who see them as businessmen.

The ambivalence was the result of how people interpret the meaning and significance of opium. For those who consider it as a miracle cure, there is no justification why the government should prevent others from using it. It is a matter of freedom and personal choice to be able to use a specific drug that is effective against a particular medical condition. But the Chinese government was quick to point out that overall; opium is a destroyer of society.

The smugglers were encouraged no end by the presence of British businessmen who find nothing wrong with the sale of opium. A smuggler can easily justify their actions considering that other powerful entities are enriching themselves from the sale of what was supposed to be illegal products.

It must have created confusion at first when the government suddenly ruled that opium could no longer be made freely available in China. The confusion was due at first to the fact that no such ruling was ever made in China. For the longest time people use it as a form of herbal medicine.

Furthermore, the smugglers and black market profiteers must have found it difficult to reconcile the fact that the Chinese government sent their attack dogs to capture and punish them but the British with the backing of their government were expected to make a profit from the sale of opium. It did not take long for many of them to realize that opium’s status as an illegal or legal substance is a matter of opinion.

Final Argument

There were many ways to shut down the opium trade in 19th century China. The government saw the negative impact of opium use to the general population and used its power to crush the growing industry in the importation and use of opium in China.

Severe measures were passed and captured smugglers were severely punished to act an example for those who are attempting to bring in more opium to the country. But instead of instilling fear, the opium trade flourished. There are no other explanations other than profitability, poverty, and perception.


The opium trade flourished in 19th century China because it was highly profitable. It was an easy way to earn significant amounts of money provided the smugglers and peddlers were not caught. There was a huge demand for it coming from two types of customers.

The first one uses it for medicinal purpose and the second were the high number of opium addicts. The second major reason why the opium trade thrived in spite of the illegal status of the drug is linked to poverty. The lack of reliable sources of income and the lack of opportunities to make good money pushed many to join a gang of smugglers or become a part of a supply chain.

This is why even if the Chinese government made it clear how smugglers should be punished for breaking the law, many were still willing to try. The final reason why the opium trade was such a major success in 19th century China is the realization that the legality of the business is subject to personal opinion. The Chinese smugglers saw how the British government profited from the trade of opium it was therefore unfair for them not to take a slice of the market.


Cunynghame, Arthur. The Opium War: Being Recollections of Service in China. PA: G.B. Ziebber & Co., 1845.

Gelber, Harry. “China as ‘victim”? The opium war that wasn’t.” Center for European Studies, no.136 (2010):3.

Rosss, Michael. “What do we know about natural resources and Civil War?”Journal Of Peace Research 41, no.3 (2004): 345.


  1. Arthur Cunynghame, The Opium War: Being Recollections of Service in China (PA: G.B. Ziebber & Co., 1845), 206-207.
  2. Harry Gelber. “China as ‘victim”? The opium war that wasn’t.” Center for European Studies no.136 (2010):3.
  3. Michael Ross, “What do we know about natural resources and Civil War?”Journal of Peace Research 41, no.3 (2004): 345.
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