The Dark History of The Opium Business

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Author: Peter Watts


Instruments of addiction are not supposed to be as exquisite as an opium pipe. Beautifully weighted and impeccably crafted, a 19th-century example from China, whether hewn from rough bamboo or shaped from elegant porcelain and finished with silver, is as sleek and deadly as an antique rifle.

Even today, as one collector discovered, opium pipes can lead to hazardous temptation – and so great was the danger embodied by these beautiful objects that the Chinese destroyed thousands, making the collection shown in London this week as rare as it is eye-catching.

This exhibition, the first of its kind in Britain, is being held by Mayfair bookseller Maggs Bros in Berkeley Square, a few doors down from the house in which General Robert Clive died in 1774. Nobody knows quite how Clive of India met his end, but opium was probably involved.

A manic depressive, Clive took the drug for a bowel disorder and may have overdosed. Others say that he shot himself or slit his throat, under pressure from various scandals and while in an opium reverie.

The implication of opium in Clive’s death is appropriate, as it was the general’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in Bengal in 1757 that allowed the East India Company to take over and start growing opium poppies on an industrial scale. Clive’s administrative reforms needed to be paid for, and opium was a useful drug – it’s a painkiller and causes constipation, both of which were of immense value before aspirin, and when dysentery and cholera were rife. It’s also addictive.

“Wherever opium is grown it is eaten, and the more it is grown, the more it is eaten,” noted one East India Company manager in 1840. By then, Britain had been selling opium to China for 60 years, partly to balance the books for the vast amount of Chinese tea the British consumed. The result was an epidemic, as opium took a hold at every level of Chinese society.

China was not the only nation to embrace opium, of course. The British downed the stuff by the bucketload. But the opium enjoyed by Thomas De Quincey and a large percentage of the working population came from Turkey and was served as laudanum, dissolved in sherry. The Chinese, uniquely, preferred to smoke their opium and had done so even before the British began their pernicious trade.

Tobacco had arrived in China in the 1600s and a smoking culture took hold. Tobacco was often mixed with opium – known as yang yao, foreign drug, and valued as a medicine and an aphrodisiac. Eventually, opium was smoked on its own, and this increased as huge amounts arrived from India – from 4,244 chests in 1820 to 40,200 in 1839.

As the Chinese spent more of their silver on the drug, the state imposed various bans, but these were circumvented by smugglers and eventually war. With Britain’s victory in the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, opium assumed its role as a cornerstone of Chinese social life alongside tobacco and tea, to be enjoyed with friends, with a rich material culture and its own customs, tools and traditions.

The collection of material displayed at Maggs belonged to Julio Mario Santo Domingo Braga, who built an immense drug library before his death in 2009. The son of a Colombian businessman, Santo Domingo was a Geneva-based financier who developed a fascination with “altered states” – sex, drugs, rock music and the occult – and set about building a library to explore the topic from every angle, including anything from Baudelaire to Keith Richards. He purchased thousands of rare books, posters, paintings and letters, the bulk of which are now on long-term loan at Harvard.

He also purchased two complete collections of antique Chinese opium paraphernalia – those belonging to Dutch art dealer Ferry Bertholet and the mysterious Wolf K, about whom we only know that he lived and worked in the Far East for 30 years. The Wolf sale was brokered by Maggs, which is now looking to sell the combined collection of around 3,000 objects as a ready-made museum exploring the full complexity of the Chinese relationship with opium.

“There’s nothing like this outside of an institution,” says Carl Williams of Maggs. “The ephemera is extraordinary – photographs, posters, stamps, licences: stuff that was picked up in Chinese markets over 20 years.” k

There are also hundreds of pipes, some of which Bertholet acquired before selling to Santo Domingo. “I was collecting Chinese erotic art and I read that in most brothels there was also opium smoking,” explains Bertholet, now 61. “I thought it would be nice to have an opium pipe.

I was lucky enough to buy a fantastic one in Germany and, holding this pipe, I was flabbergasted by its beauty and balance. So I thought, well, maybe I need a second pipe. Then someone said if I had two pipes, I needed a lamp, a tray and other articles. I got more and more interested in the topic and it poisoned me.”

Opium pipes are a stunning example of Chinese craftsmanship, but they also offer insight into Chinese culture. The typical pipe is between 40cm and 65cm long and has a metal fitting called the saddle, two-thirds of the way along to which the bowl is connected. The pipe was usually made of bamboo, but could be covered in tortoiseshell or enamel. Some pipes were made of ebony, others ivory, bone, silver, iron, buffalo or rhinoceros horn, porcelain or jade.

Pipes could have jade or ivory endpieces and were often elaborately decorated. The saddle might be decorated with dormice, lilies, bats or dragons, and the detachable bowl, made of stone or porcelain, in which opium was evaporated, was shaped to resemble crabs, shells or poppy heads. Then came other paraphernalia – lamps, trays, needles, scrapers, pill boxes and pipe stands, even pipes that could be broken into parts for travelling.

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