chapter  2
18 Pages

Opium, the East India Company and the ‘native’ states


It is generally recognized that opium was vital for sustaining the British Empire throughout the nineteenth century. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, and most of the nineteenth, Indian opium was indispensable for promoting British imperial interests in Asia. Throughout this period Britain was the ‘world’s largest organized supplier of narcotics’. 1 India was the main supplier of opium to East and Southeast Asia, particularly China. Opium served three purposes: it was a major source of revenue for the colonial state in India; it paid for Chinese goods, principally tea, imported into Britain; and the commercial and fi nancial operations connected with it provided avenues for remitting colonial plunder to the metropolis. The average annual opium revenue of the British Indian government for the 50 years from 1789-90 to 1838-9 was 6 per cent of total revenues; the average for the next half-century from 1839-40 to 1888-9 works out to 15 per cent. 2 This should be regarded only as a fraction of the wealth that opium generated for British imperialism.