1. The Import Trade


sources of opium imported into Britain

use in English society in the nineteenth century was completely
unrestricted until 1868, when the first Pharmacy Act became law. The
first chapters of this book will attempt to describe how such a
situation of free availability and sale operated at all  levels of
society over this seventy-year period, not simply in the
profession, who might, from a contemporary point of view, be thought
the most likely legitimate users of the drug, but also among the
generality of consumers, whether of the middle, lower or upper class.
Opium was sold and used freely and largely unselfconsciously throughout
this time, and it was imported, too, through normal channels of
commerce as one more item of trade, to be dealt with as objectively as
any other variety of goods to be shipped and passed through the hands
of a broker. The other, very minor, source was British-grown opium,
dealt with in Chapter 2.
Here too the concern was with profit and quality, not with controls or the dangers of the drug.
might have been expected that the opium bought and sold in this way in
England would come from the Far East. After all, Britain was involved
in the Indian opium trade with China, to the extent of fighting two
`opium wars‘ with that country in 1834-42 and 1856-8. But these Far
Eastern connections had little effect
on English opium use until
the last quarter of the century, well after the opium wars were over.
The opium sold and used in England for most of the century came not
from India or China, but from Turkey. In the eighteenth century, the
anonymous Short History of Drug’s and Other Commodities had stated that
opium came `chiefly … from Turkey, where they prepare
it much better than what comes from India, which is much softer
and fouler than the Turkey…‘.‘ This was still the case in the
nineteenth century. For over forty years, between 1827 and 1869,
between 80 and 90 per cent of opium imported into the country was
Turkish. Even at the end of the century, Turkish opium still  had
over 70 per cent of the market (Table 1, p. 273).
Indian opium could
occasionally be found on the English market. In 1829, Dr Webster
exhibited a `specimen of pure opium‘  before the Westminster
Medical Society, sent to him from Calcutta. Webster expressed the
forthright hope that `if it could be obtained from one colony, we
should have it thence rather … than that we should go to the rascally
Turks‘.2 Small quantities of Indian opium were occasionally
imported, and the disruption of normal channels of trade during
the two `opium wars‘ also brought more of the drug onto the London
market. Indian opium also had an increasing share of the market from
the late 1880s.3 But Persian opium gained the most notable increase. It
formed over 10 per cent of the total in the 1890s. Previously the
Persian drug had been sent to Constantinople, where it was made up into
an imitation of the Turkish variety. The new Persian variety
(shipped from ports in the Persian Gulf) attracted much interest in
pharmaceutical circles.‘ But the major proportion of imported opium at
the end of the century still came from Asiatic or European Turkey.
opium was of either the Smyrna or the Constantinople variety, although
in practice there appears to have been little dif ference between
the two. Some opium simply found its way to Constantinople direct
instead of going through the market at Smyrna, which was the
central market for all the opium grown in Asia Minor. The actual
opium-growing areas in the nineteenth century were chiefly in Kara
Chissar and around Magnesia.5
Peasants, rather than large landowners, were the main cultivators.
labour-intensiveness of poppy cultivation and of opium collection – a
major drawback when experiments were made with British opium – made it
uneconomic for large-scale production.
Every peasant who could
tried to grow his own opium for sale on whatever land he owned or could
rent. The whole family was pressed into service, in particular at the
time of the opium harvest
Sowing of the opium poppy took place three
times in one season. One acre was sown in mid-November, a second in
December and the last in February or March. The plants were grown
partly from white, partly from blue, seeds, and in the temperate
Turkish conitions could reach a height of six or eight feet. Peasants
working in the poppy fields were quite invisible as they made their
incisions. The concentration together of so many opium poppies could
have unusual effects

The exhalations emitted by these
plantations especially in the morning and after sunset, are
described by the Turks as very dangerous, and they avoid them by
retiring towards evening to their huts, which they do not leave
until after the rising of the sun … As soon as the moisture of the
atmosphere … begins towards evening to be condensed, a strong
narcotic smell is developed. This, in those unaccustomed to it, gives
rise, in about a quarter of an hour, to headaches and nausea.6

by the traditional incision methods took place in July in the higher
areas, in May lower down the slopes. Every part of the poppy plant was
used. The plants were given to the cattle, the seed pressed to produce
oil used by the peasants in cooking as well as for lighting, and the
remaining cake partly given to cattle, partly used by the poorer
families who mixed it with their bread. Part of the seed was also
sold to merchants at Smyrna, who shipped it to Marseilles where it was
converted into oil used in the manufacture of soap. The peasant
cultivators were under heavy obligation even before the opium was
ready, for speculators and dealers had already purchased the crop.
Money was advanced at high rates of interest (18 to 25 per cent was
moderate) and although peasants were not obliged to give their opium to
their creditors if they could find buyers at a higher price, nor were
merchants compelled to take opium at the rate first fixed after
the harvest if no one would take it off their hands.
Packed in
grey calico bags which were then sealed and placed in oblong wicker
baskets, the opium came down to Smyrna by mule, although the vagaries
of opium speculation meant that it sometimes passed through the hands
of three or four different merchants before it reached the port. The
first baskets would
arrive there sometimes around the end of
May or the beginning of June. They were sold without examination. It
was only when they reached the buyer’s warehouse that they were opened
in front of the seller himself and a public examiner. The latter was a
skilled man. The judging of opium, where colour, appearance, weight
and scent all had to be taken into account, was a matter of many
years‘ experience. Seated on the ground wearing an apron and armed
a strong knife, he would examine the opium piece by piece as an
assistant emptied each basket in turn; each one took him about ten
minutes. Practice enabled him to tell by weight if the opium was pure.
Any suspect piece was cut open and immediately thrown aside if
adulterated. The strength and quality of the opiumwas measured on a
`carat‘ scale, twenty-four carats being pure opium. By custom,
everything over twenty was counted as pure and anything under was
thrown out. This examination usually took place several weeks after the
first batches of opium had arrived from the growing areas, partly
because the opium, if too fresh, tended to become over-heated. It lost
weight over the weeks as it dried out (damp opium always did poorly on
the market) and adulteration was not so easily detected when the drug
was fresh. Shipments from Smyrna began in August, and the opium was
packed in hermetically sealed zinc-lined wooden cases, each one large
enough to take the contents of a single basket.
In Persia, the whole
process was much the same, although on a smaller scale. Here Yezd,
Isfahan and some of the Khorassan districts were the main opium-growing
areas. Isfahan was the centre of the opium trade – a great market place
through which Persian opium passed on its way to Hong-Kong or London.
Much of the Persian drug went on to the Chinese market, but already in
the 1880s about a quarter of Isfahan opium was exported by London firms.
varieties of opium were immediately distinguishable by appearance,
although, as the example of Persian opium shows, it was not unknown for
opium from an inferior area to be disguised in the form of one from a
more highly prized district. Smyrna opium came in irregular flattened
masses of around two pounds in weight. It was blackish brown, waxy and
enveloped in leaves. Constantinople opium was generally found in small
lens-shaped cakes, covered with poppy leaves. It was redder, softer and
weaker in quality than the Smyrna type. Egyptian opium was marketed in
round, flattened cakes, also enveloped in leaves. It was redder and
harder than both the Turkish varieties. Persian opium came in the form
of agricultural sticks, each covered in smooth glossy paper and tied
with cotton. Indian opium (or at least that coming from Patna and
Benares) was made into balls the size of a double fist and weighing
about 3½lb. each. Again covered with a hard skin made of poppy petals,
it was packed in two-storey mangowood chests, each storey with twenty
compartments for twenty balls.‘
At the beginning of the nineteenth
century, the old trading routes by which opium had long been imported
into England, along with other drugs and spices, from Turkey and the
Middle East, still maintained a tenuous existence.“ By mid-century,
however, so far as opium was concerned, the last relics of the old
trading company routes had disappeared and a new pattern of importing
had been established. In the 1820s and 1 830s, some opium was still
imported by way of the Netherlands, Gibraltar, Malta, Germany, France
and, most important, Italy. These were relics of the old trading routes
through Europe, centred on Venice and Leghorn. It was along these that
the merchant companies had imported drugs and spices (currants in
particular in the case of Turkey) in return for the goods exported
there. By the 1850s, however, the bulk of the drug imported came direct
from Turkey itself.
The `Italian connection‘ had died away and
other European staging posts were of minute significance“ (see Table 1,
p. 273). The S.S. Crimean for instance, which went aground off Smyrna
in 1865, was carrying quite considerable quantities of opium direct.10
Later in the century, alternative routes did begin to open up.
quantities of the drug were arriving by way of France in the last
quarter of the century. Marseilles was becoming an important staging
post in the opium trade, a historic link with its later importance as a
drug `laboratory‘. By the 1890s between 4 and 10 per cent of imports
each year came that way; the Netherlands, too, was an important trading
In the early years of the century, opium was imported
through a variety of British ports. Liverpool, for instance, imported
120 1792, Dover 261 lb. in 1801.11 But the bulk of dealing in the
drug was increasingly centralized in the capital. In London, a small
group of importers initially controlled the supply of opium.
were the Turkey merchants, offshoots of the earlier Turkey, or Levant,
Company, the mercantilist organization originally given its charter by
Elizabeth I. This had controlled all trade to and from Turkey until the
eighteenth century; its demise in 1825 left the import of opium open to
free trade.12 The drug wholesaling houses were by the mid nineteenth
century importing many other drugs direct, but opium at this period
still remained the province of the Turkey merchants. Drug brokers,
active in the Mincing and Mark Lane areas of the city since the
seventeenth century,  were used by these merchants to conduct
detailed sale negotiations.13
Many drugs were sold on the open
market and auctions of  opium did take place at Garraway’s Coffee
House by the Royal  Exchange, the centre for London drug sales.14
But opium seems  to have been dealt with more often by private
arrangement than by public auction. Most often some form of arrangement
agreed between the large London wholesale houses – Allen
and Hanburys, the Apothecaries‘ Company and others – and the opium
brokers.15 A representative of the wholesaler would go down to the
docks to examine the opium in bond, and any suspect cases would be
immediately rejected. Drug broking was an expanding occupation in early
nineteenth-century London. There were only three brokers specializing
in drugs and spices in the 1830s, but around thirty by the 1850s.16
Apothecaries‘ Company, which had a superior status as a  body with
rights both to examine in medicine and to visit apothecaries‘ shops
(although the trading department of the Company was a separate
entity), expected to be approached by the brokers themselves. Every
Saturday a list was put up in the outer room of the Company’s counting
house giving notice of drugs needed the following week. Brokers
and merchants who wished to sell to the Company sent in samples by one
o’clock the following Tuesday. The Buying Committee, a group of
`medical gentlemen‘, assisted by specialist chemists from the Company
itself, then examined and tested the samples and selected the best of
them.“  Opium was just a commodity like so much tea.
records for calculating the cash and profit of the opium import
business – what money there was to be made – are no longer in
existence. But profits were clearly sufficient for unscrupulous dealers
to try to obtain a share. In the mid 1840s, one importer tried to sell
completely worthless opium, but his effort did not
meet with
much success. It was offered on the market, but met with no customers
-‚he made it so completely worthless,‘ a buyer  recalled, `that
its detection was not difficult.18
There was as much speculation in
opium in London as there was in Smyrna. Prices could vary considerably,
depending, too, on the quality of the opium purchased. Opium paid an
import duty in the first half of the century. This stood at four
shillings a pound between 1828 and 1836, and was reduced to one
shilling a pound in 1836. It stayed at this level until, as part
of the introduction of a free-trade policy, duty on the drug was
completely abolished in 1860. Few reliable figures are available
prior to the 1850s. Nevertheless, the gradual reduction of the opium
duty did lead, at least initially, to a considerable cheapening in the
wholesale price of opium. In 1819, when duty stood as high as nine
shillings a pound, Turkey opium could be had at around £1 a pound
– the addition of duty brought this up to around thirty shillings
a pound. In February 1819, it reached a price of twenty-seven shillings
and sixpence in bond, thirty-six shillings when duty had been paid.
Opium’s basic price had altered little by the 1850s, but the reduction
of duty to one shilling meant that it could be bought wholesale for
around twenty shillings a pound. This was the price Thomas Herring gave
for `common good opium‘. Opium from less favoured areas could be had at
a cheaper price. Egyptian opium, known to be of poor quality and
generally deficient in morphine, sold in 1858 for only six shillings
and eightpence a pound without duty. Times of scarcity and bad harvest
could lead to a steep increase in prices, and this may have been behind
the sudden rise which took place in the late 1860s when Persian opium
first came directly on to the London market. Turkish opium rose to over
twenty-five shillings in 1868 and higher in the succeeding year.
Even Egyptian opium was around seventeen shillings and the newly
arrived Persian drug sold at about £1 a pound.19  Considered in
these quantities, opium was an expensive drug. Twenty shillings was an
agricultural labourer’s weekly wage. But it was no more expensive than
other drugs on the market, and, of course, was sold and made up in
ounces rather than pounds.
The question of the quantity of opium
imported and consumed inside England became a matter of public
discussion in the first half of the century. Import statistics are,
indeed, an index of what was happening to consumption levels in the
country. This point is discussed in Chapter 3. But the mechanics of
opium importation, the fact that opium was just another commodity on
the market, were in themselves an indication of the normality of the
trade in the first six decades of the century.


‚W.B.E.‘, A Short History of Druggs and Other Commodities, the Produce
and Manufactory of the East Indies (London, eighteenth century, exact
date uncertain), p. 47.
2. `Meeting of the Westminster Medical Society‘, London Medical Gazette, 3 (1828-9), PP. 712-13.
Parliamentary Papers (P.P.), for example 1887, LXXX: Accounts and
Papers. Imports and Exports of Opium, show the increase in quantities
of opium from the `East Indies‘ (Bombay and Scinde). In 1886, over
12,000 lb. were imported into England. (See Table I, p. 272.)
4. J.
Ince, `Prescriptions for examination‘, Pharmaceutical journal, n.s.
x1(1869-70), pp. 684-5. Many other pharmacists were also enthusiastic
about the new variety, as, for example, in `Persian opium‘,
Pharmaceutical Journal, 3rd ser. 3 (1872-3), p. 31, and F. A. Fluckiger
and D. Hanbury, Pharmacographia. A History of the Principal Drugs of
Vegetable Origin, Met with in Great Britain and British India (London,
Macmillan, 1879), P. 49
5. The description of opium growing and the
opium market in Asia Minor owes much to the descriptions given in, for
example, Landerer, `On the preparation of Smyrna opium‘, Pharmaceutical
journal, so (1850-51), PP. 474-5; S. H. Maltass, `On the production of
opium in Asia Minor‘, Pharmaceutical Journal, r4 (1854-5), PP. 395-400;
E. R Heftier, `Notes on the culture of and commerce in opium in Asia
Minor‘, Pharmaceutical Journal, n.s. to (1868-9), pp. 434-7; P. L.
Simmonds, `Supplies of opium and scammony from Turkey‘, Pharmaceutical
journal, 3rd ser. 2 (1871-2), PP. 986-7
6. Landerer, op. cit., pp. 474-5
Descriptions of the appearance of the various varieties of opium are
given in Landerer, op. cit., pp. 474-5; J. Murray, A System of Materia
Medica and Pharmacy (Edinburgh, Adam Black, 6th edn 1832), p. 82; and
`Opium‘, Household Words, r6 (1857), pp. 104, 181.
8. Although there
are no reliable import figures for the earlier centuries, there is
evidence that opium was available in England in the late sixteenth
century. R. S. France, op. cit., p. 5o, shows that Zacharie Linton, the
apothecary in question, had half an ounce of opium among his drugs in
9. The decline of European staging posts can be traced in the
published import/export data. 1857 was the last year in which any
notable amounts of opium came other than direct from Turkey; see P.P.
1857-8, L IV: Accounts and Papers. Imports and Exports of Opium, p. 89.
Greater London Record Office, Records of Smith Kendon Ltd 1865,
statements about the S.S. Crimean, Ms B/SK/26. The listing of cases of
opium along with bales of madder and bags of gum indicated the
normality of the trade.
11. P.P. 18o8, XII: Accounts and Papers. Trade: Imports and Exports of
Opium, pp. 5o-51, 88-9.
I. S. Russell, The Later History of the Levant Company, 17531825
(unpublished University of Manchester Ph.D. thesis, 1935); A. C. Wood,
A History of the Levant Company (London, O.U.P., 1935).
Herring’s evidence on this point was given to P.P. 1854-5, VIII: First
Report from the Select Committee on the Adulteration of Food, Drink and
Drugs; see also G. E. Trease, Pharmacy in History (London, Bailliere,
Tindall, and Cox, 1964), p. 156.
14. J. H. Heap, `The commerce of drugs‘, Pharmaceutical journal, n.s. 16 (1903), P. 529
15. P.P. 1854-5, op. cit.
Robsons London Directory (London, William Robson, 12th edn 1832), p.
155; Post Office London Directory (London, Kelly, 1855).
17. P.P. 1854-5: Report from the Select Committee on Adulteration, op. cit.
Evidence given by Professor Thomas Redwood to the Select Committee on
Adulteration, P.P. 1854-5, op. cit., q. 1762-5. See also `The opium
robbery‘, Pharmaceutical journal, n.s. 4 (1862-3), pp. 327-8
Information on prices is taken from London Price Current, 1819-182o,
Pharmaceutical Society Ms. 12381; and for example P.P. 186o, LXIV:
Accounts and Papers. Imports and Exports of Opium.




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