Britain's relations with China in the 19th century were based on rather morally dubious circumstances. The basic facts are laid out reasonably succinctly in the OPIUM article by E. M. Holmes.
Opium first came to China from Asia Minor in the 13th century, presumably under the growth of trans-continental trade fostered by the Mongols. Until the middle of the 18th century it was, however
imported in comparatively small quantity by the Chinese solely as a remedy for dysentry, diarrhoea, and fevers, and was usually brought from India by junks as a return cargo. In the year 1757 the monopoly of opium cultivation passed into the hands of the East India Company through the victory of Clive at Plassey. Up to 1773 the trade with China had been in the hands of the Portuguese, but the quantity annually exported to that country rarely exceeded 200 chests. In that year the East India Company took the trade under their charge, and in 1776 the annual export reached 1000 chests, and 4054 chests in 1790. Although the importation was forbidden by the Chinese emperor Keaking in 1796, and opium-smoking punished with severe penalties, which were ultimately increased to transportation and death, the trade continued and had increased during 1820-30 to 16,877 chests per annum. In 1839 a proclamation was issued threatening hostile measures if the English opium ships serving as depots were not sent away. The demand for removal not being complied with, 20,291 chests of opium (of 149 1/3 lb each), valued at £2,000,000, were destroyed by the Chinese commissioner Lin ; but still the British sought to smuggle cargoes on shore, and some outrages committed on both sides led to an open war, which was ended by the treaty of Nanking in 1842 (See CHINA, vol. v. p. 651). From that time to the present, in spite of he remonstrances of the Chinese Government, the exportation of opium from India to China has continued, having increased from 52,925 piculs (of 133 1/3 lb) in 1850 to 96,839 piculs in 1880.
The British Empire's role as international drug-dealers tends to be over-shadowed in the opprobrium-garnering stakes by the business of human bondage, yet when this article was published in 1884, the opium trade was still flourishing, and no Wilberforce was crusading for its abolition. Economic factors were in the process of ending this nice little earner for the East India Company, through the fact that the Chinese were now in the process of growing their own opium, so that a time was "confidently anticipated by the Chinese when Indian opium will be entirely supplanted by the native drug."
[As a curious coincidence of historical economics, the decline in the value of the British opium trade between India and China coincided with the British appetite for tea no longer being dependent on the Chinese leaf. For centuries, the British had looked for tea or sought ways of growing it in India, without success, until the happy discovery of the Assam plant by Mr David Scott, an employee of the Company in Calcutta, in 1820.]
The suggestion of the CHINA article, and presumably a widely held belief and justification of the trade, was that an inherent weakness of the Chinese gave a predilection for opium addiction.
Drunkenness is not a national vice, but, unfortunately, their abstinence does not extend to opium, a drug which seems to have a greater attraction for them than any other people on the earth. They take to it greedily, and when once the habit of smoking it becomes confirmed, the difficulty of relinquishing it is exceedingly great.
The Opium article (which is reproduced in full and well worth the read, at www.1902encyclopedia.com), in addition to much technical information relating to the cultivation and trade of the plant, also contains some interesting observations on its use as a recreational narcotic, including an enticingly detailed account of the manner in which it is smoked, provided by a Mr Theo. Sampson of Canton:
"The smoker, lying on his side, with his face towards the tray and his head resting on a high hard pillow (sometimes made of earthenware, but more frequently of bamboo covered with leather), takes the pipe in his hand ; with the other hand the takes a dipper and puts the sharp end of it into the opium, which is of a treacly consistency. Twisting it round and round he gets a large drop of the fluid to adhere tot he dipper; still twisting it round to prevent it falling he brings the drop over the flame of the lamp, and twirling it round and round the roasts it ; all this is done with acquired dexterity. The opium must not be burnt or made too dry, but roasted gently till it looks like burnt worsted ; every now and then he takes it away from the flame and rolls it (still on the en of the dipper) on the flat surface of the bow). When it is roasted and rolled to his satisfaction he gently heats the centre of the bowl, where there is a small orifice; then he quickly thrusts the end of the dipper into the orifice, twirls it round smartly, and withdraws it ; if this is properly done, the opium (now about the size of a gain of hempseed or a little larger) is left adhering to the bowl immediately over the orifice. It is now ready for smoking.
"The smoker assumed a comfortable attitude (lying down of course) at a proper distance from the lamp. He now puts the stem to his lips, and holds the bowl over the lamp. The heat causes the opium to frizzle, and the smoker takes three or four long inhalations, all the time using the dipper to bring every particle of the opium to the orifice as it burns away, but not taking his lips from the end of stem, or the opium pellet from the lamp till all is finished. Then he uses the flattened end of the dipper to scrape away any little residue there may be left around the orifice, and proceeds to prepare another pipe. The preparations occupy from five to ten minutes, and the actual smoking about thirty seconds. The smoke is swallowed, and is exhaled through both the mouth and the nose."
Holmes concludes with a balanced appraisal of the dangers of the drug, particularly as posed to moral imbeciles:
So far as can be gathered from the conflicting statements published on the subject, opium-smoking may be regarded much in the same light as the use of alcoholic stimulants. To the great majority of smokers who use it moderately it appears to act as a stimulant, and to enable them to undergo great fatigue and to go for a considerable time with little or no food. According to the reports given by authorities on the subject, when the smoker has plenty of active work it appears to be no more injurious than smoking tobacco. When carried to excess it becomes an inveterate habit ; but this happens chiefly individuals of weak-will power, who would just as easily become the victims of intoxicating drinks, and who are practically moral imbeciles, often addicted also the other forms of depravity. The effect in bad cases is to cause loss of appetite, a leaden pallor of the skin, and a degree of leanness so excessive as to make its victims appear like living skeletons. All inclination for exertion becomes gradually lost business is neglected, and certain ruin to the smoker follows. There can be no doubt that the use of the drug is opposed by all thinking Chinese who are not pecuniarily interested in the opium trade or cultivation, for several reasons, among which may be mentioned the drain of bullion from the country, the decrease of population, the liability to famine through the cultivation of opium where cereals should be grown, and the corruption of state officials.