Stanley mentioned over at the Neanderhall that he’d never considered the role of opium in East Asian history, and it occurred to me that this probably isn’t common wisdom.
The human brain is a powerful thing. We each have a massive supercomputer running inside our heads, on an carbon credit-conscious budget of 30W, natch. When you remember that there are 7 billion of us running around with these things, you realize this can add up to some massive effects on the human environment.
Now take some small fraction of that mass of people, say 400 million, and introduce affordable opium in mass quantities. This is a powerful psychotropic drug with extraordinary effects on individual behavior, so we understand that extraordinary effects on a lot of individuals adds up to extraordinary effects on populations.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the demand for Chinese goods (particularly silk, porcelain, and tea) in the European market created a trade imbalance because the market for Western goods in China was virtually non-existent; China was largely self-sufficient and Europeans were not allowed access to China’s interior. European silver flowed into China when the Canton System, instituted in the mid-17th century, confined the sea trade to Canton and to the Chinese merchants of Thirteen Hongs. The British East India Company (E.I.C.) had a matching monopoly of British trade. E.I.C. began to auction opium grown on its plantations in India to independent foreign traders in exchange for silver. The opium was then transported to the China coast and sold to Chinese middlemen who retailed the drug inside China. This reverse flow of silver and the increasing numbers of opium addicts alarmed Chinese officials.
In 1839, the Daoguang emperor, rejecting proposals to legalize and tax opium, appointed Lin Zexu to solve the problem by abolishing the trade. Lin confiscated around 20,000 chests of opium (approximately 1210 tons or 2.66 million pounds) without offering compensation, blockaded trade, and confined foreign merchants to their quarters. The British government, although not officially denying China’s right to control imports of the drug, objected to this arbitrary seizure and used its naval and gunnery power to inflict quick and decisive defeat.
You can probably understand why it wouldn’t be so great to have a large proportion of an agricultural population doing heroin when they’re supposed to be scratching out a subsistence living.
Heroin (diacetylmorphine) is derived from the morphine alkaloid found in opium and is roughly 2-3 times more potent.
Heroin is metabolized to morphine and other metabolites which bind to opioid receptors in the brain. The short-term effects of heroin abuse appear soon after a single dose and disappear in a few hours. After an injection of heroin, the user reports feeling a surge of euphoria (the “rush”) accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, a dry mouth, and heavy extremities. Following this initial euphoria, the user experiences an alternately wakeful and drowsy state. Mental functioning becomes clouded due to the depression of the central nervous system. Other effects that heroin may have on users include respiratory depression, constricted (“pinpoint”) pupils and nausea. Effects of heroin overdose may also include slow and shallow breathing, hypotension, muscle spasms, convulsions, coma, and possible death.
Well, this kind of begs the question. What other drugs have had massive effects on historical trends? Every ethnicity seems to have its Achilles heel: opium for the Chinese, firewater for the red Indians, cocaine for the melonheads, caffeine for neanderthals (maybe amphetamines too).
Speaking of which, I think caffeine caused the Enlightenment:
I had a veritable mania for finishing whatever I began, which often got me into difficulties. On one occasion I started to read the works of Voltaire when I learned, to my dismay, that there were close on one hundred large volumes in small print which that monster had written while drinking seventy-two cups of black coffee per diem. It had to be done, but when I laid aside the last book I was very glad, and said, ‘Never more!’”
The spread of Enlightenment philosophy amongst European folks roughly corresponds to the spread of coffee.
From the Middle East, coffee spread to Italy. The thriving trade between Venice and North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East brought many goods, including coffee, to the Venetian port. From Venice, it was introduced to the rest of Europe. Coffee became more widely accepted after it was deemed a Christian beverage by Pope Clement VIII in 1600, despite appeals to ban the “Muslim drink.” The first European coffee house opened in Rome in 1645.
The Dutch East India Company was the first to import coffee on a large scale. The Dutch later grew the crop in Java and Ceylon. The first exports of Indonesian coffee from Java to the Netherlands occurred in 1711.
Through the efforts of the British East India Company, coffee became popular in England as well. Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House, established in 1654, is still in existence today. Coffee was introduced in France in 1657, and in Austria and Poland after the 1683 Battle of Vienna, when coffee was captured from supplies of the defeated Turks.
When coffee reached North America during the Colonial period, it was initially not as successful as it had been in Europe as alcoholic beverages remained more popular. During the Revolutionary War, the demand for coffee increased so much that dealers had to hoard their scarce supplies and raise prices dramatically; this was also due to the reduced availability of tea from British merchants, and a general resolution among many Americans to avoid drinking tea following the 1773 Boston Tea Party.
So there you have it, neoreactionaries. You want to beat the Cathedral, you have to outlaw coffee.
Can’t do it, can ya? :-P
I’m tentatively led by this line of reasoning to believe that proliferation of booze is responsible for civilization. Usually we think the arrow of causality goes the other way, but check it out. Maybe higher alcohol concentrations make higher population densities tenable.