Opiate Imperialism: The U.S. Drug Industry, Past and Present

Sohel Sarkar

This summer, United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the U.S. will spearhead a coalition of nations taking up the fight against synthetic drugs—the powerful opioid fentanyl chief among them. Blinken was keen to point to “transnational criminal enterprises” as the culprit for fentanyl’s proliferation. Though the effort is international in nature, Blinken’s crusade will go forth with the notable absence of China, which pointedly declined to participate. U.S. lawmakers have consistently blamed China for the influx of fentanyl into the country. Over the past few months, the U.S. imposed several sanctions on China-based entities for their alleged role in fentanyl trafficking.

Fentanyl is indeed a new and fatal catalyst of the opioid overdose epidemic. Of the over 107,000 U.S. overdose deaths in 2022 alone, two-thirds involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Though China banned the production and sale of fentanyl and related substances in 2019, U.S. authorities have repeatedly claimed that China still serves as a major producer of precursor chemicals; these are smuggled into Mexico, where cartels use them to produce fentanyl for the U.S. market. For its part, China blames user demand, Latin American drug cartels, and U.S. pharma companies for fentanyl’s proliferation.

These modern-day claims and counterclaims about the global circulation of an opioid drug are markedly reminiscent of conflict over historical drug-running operations dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Such clashes involved the same players, America and China, and led to similar consequences: namely, high addiction rates among large numbers of people. And yet it’s intriguing to note that the roles were once reversed. In centuries past, not only Britain (as is well-known) but also private traders in a newly independent America smuggled enormous quantities of opium into China, inflicting addiction and death upon millions.

Essayist and novelist Amitav Ghosh takes this historical opium trade, and its role in shaping the contemporary world, as the subject of his latest non-fiction book, Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories. To be sure, Americans did not initiate this trade—they followed in the sizeable footsteps of imperial Britain. Yet, as Ghosh points out in the book—in another resounding historical echo—the enormous wealth that the U.S. opium trade generated for America’s private traders would seed the fortunes of the country’s most prominent families, industries, and institutions.

At its core, Smoke and Ashes is the story of how colonial Europe (mainly the British and the Dutch), alongside the U.S., developed what was, for the time, the world’s largest international drug racket, smuggling huge quantities of opium from colonized India into China and parts of Southeast Asia. The book’s central thesis is that this trade—which brought enormous economic prosperity to its imperial orchestrators, funding colonial expansion and fueling industrial revolutions—came at the cost of the addiction and impoverishment of generations of colonized Asians. But its broader overlapping historical framework is that opium imperialism partly laid the foundations for the extractive capitalism that defines our world.

To lay out its sprawling and ambitious narrative, Smoke and Ashes draws from a wealth of often unusual sources and archives, including colonial memoirs, travelogues, analysis of Company paintings and Chinese artwork, Ghosh’s own family history, and the study of gardening styles, textiles, and even furniture making. The book effectively brings a culturally diverse set of thinkers past and present into conversation with one another.

Smoke and Ashes is born out of the research that produced the Ibis trilogy, Ghosh’s fictional recreation of the China opium trade, culminating in the First Opium War. Comprising Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire, the trilogy uses a fictional lens to examine the grim human effects of forced opium cultivation and production on colonial India, the rising tensions between Chinese authorities and foreign opium smugglers in the wake of widespread addiction, and China’s attempts to block the flow of opium, resulting in a full-blown conflict that forever transformed the region and reverberated across the rest of the world.

Ghosh has now pursued the topic further by turning to non-fiction and assaying the historical record. Vastly outstripping the scope of his previous books, Smoke and Ashes comprehensively maps the origins and evolution of this illegal trade, the diverse actors who profited from it, the Enlightenment ideas that were deployed to rationalize it, and the wars fought to ensure its continuation. Simultaneously, Ghosh charts the parallels between the opium-suffused globalized world order of the 1800s and the fossil fuel-powered world of the present day. In Ghosh’s careful reading, 19th-century opium imperialism, the 21st-century American opioid crisis, the voracious profit seeking of the fossil fuel industry, and the climate crisis are all evidence of how the converging axes of colonial conquest and capitalist extraction continue to shape our world.

Ghosh’s story opens on the Portuguese; in the 1500s, they were the first Europeans in the Indian Ocean to offer opium as a gift to local rulers, aiming to facilitating trade flows with their own country. They were followed by the Dutch, who used the drug as a currency to acquire a monopoly over commodities such as nutmeg, mace, cloves, and pepper. By the mid-17th century, the Dutch had become the sole suppliers of opium in the Indonesian archipelago, ferrying it from eastern India, where farmers were already growing opium poppy, albeit in small quantities. But it would be the arrival of the British in India almost a century later that would dramatically expand the scale of the trade.

As the British East India Company colonized large parts of eastern India beginning in 1757, it forced farmers to devote increasingly large swaths of arable land, which could otherwise be used to produce food, to opium poppy cultivation. Thereafter, poor and underpaid native workers in the Company’s factories processed the sap of opium poppy into highly addictive smoking opium, which was sold to British private traders who then smuggled it into China.

Before long, the British acquired a monopoly over opium in eastern India and set up an elaborate administrative machinery to control everything from the cultivation of poppies to auctioning-off of the drug. The British thus perfected “the model of the colonial narco state” pioneered by the Dutch. By the second half of the 19th century, half a million acres of poppy fields were being cultivated by 5 to 7 million people in eastern India. In the most intensive poppy-growing areas, “well over half the population lived in households that cultivated poppies in the winter growing season,” Ghosh writes.

At first, opium funded Britain’s highly profitable trade in Chinese tea. As increasingly large amounts of gold bullion were earmarked for tea importation, the drug emerged as an alternative currency: British traders smuggled opium from India into China and used the proceeds to buy tea, which was then shipped to Britain.  Soon, opium would become one of the principal sources of revenue for the British government and its colonial administration in India. That wealth, of course, came at the cost of the addiction of millions of Chinese people and the impoverishment and oppression of millions of Indian peasants.

By the time American traders arrived in China, following the 1783 War of Independence, imperial opium trafficking was a well-oiled machine. For a while, the Americans sourced opium from Turkey—but soon, they would enter the lucrative opium market in India; by 1818, U.S. traders were “smuggling as much as a third of all opium consumed in China,” Ghosh points out. While on the whole, Britain was more entrenched in the China opium trade than America, the funds had a more visible impact in the newer country, with its small but burgeoning economy, the author explains.

Accordingly, while the first half of Smoke and Ashes explores the triangular traffic between Britain, India, and China, the second half is dedicated to mapping America’s role in this trade, tracing the pathways of the huge opium fortunes amassed by private traders. In later chapters, Ghosh links the legacy wealth of America’s most prominent families—Astor, Forbes, Russell, Delano, Heard, Perkins, Peabody, and Coolidge, to name a few—to the opium trade and shows how its profits were channeled into emerging U.S. industries like railroads and banking.

This broader inquiry unfolds through some interesting character sketches. We learn, for example, about John Murray Forbes, who arrived in China at the age of 17 and made a fortune in opium, which he would later invest in American railroads. Another key player in the China opium trade was the Delano family, descended from colonist Phillip de Lanoy, who “participated in the massacre of the Pequot people and acquired large tracts of land in New England” in the 1600s. Having entered the trade through shipbuilding and seafaring, Warren Delano and his brother Edward made enough profits to acquire majority stakes in Russell & Co., a trading company that specialized in tea, silk, and, above all, opium. Warren Delano’s grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would later become the 32nd U.S. President.

Ghosh demonstrates how these families, all belonging to the privileged ranks of white settler societies, were linked by kinship structures that enabled them to find a foothold in the opium trade—and to multiply their gains. John Forbes, for instance, was following in the footsteps of his uncle and another infamous opium smuggler, John Perkins Cushing. Joseph Coolidge, who later married Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter, entered the opium trade on the recommendation of writer Washington Irving (of Rip Van Winkle fame), whose son William was doing a clerkship with Russell & Co. at the time. The trading company’s founder Samuel Russell, who started his life as “a ‘half-orphaned’ white boy with only an ‘ordinary schooling,’” was given a leg up by his uncles in Providence, who did business in China. And the opium families of Boston, who called themselves the Boston Concern, were able to merge their firms to create the single biggest opium-trading network in China.

Over time, opium money percolated into philanthropic organizations, universities, libraries, hospitals, churches, and museums. John Cleeve Green, Warren Delano’s predecessor in Russell & Co., was a benefactor of Princeton University. Wesleyan University’s Russell House was built for Samuel Russell. And Abbot Low, who made a sizable fortune in opium after spending only six years in China, funded the Low Library at Columbia University. One of his sons later served as president of the university—and the mayor of New York.

Largely due to the broad scope of Smoke and Ashes, the treatment of these stories can feel a bit rushed. But taken together, they emphasize how instrumental opium profits were to these families, the industries they helped set up, and the institutions they patronized. Unlike the well-documented circulation of wealth derived from slavery, the footprints of the opium trade may not be common knowledge, but neither are they entirely unknown, Ghosh points out.

Compared with Britain, where opium money became “invisible through ubiquity,” its legacy is more evident in the U.S. There are museums dedicated to the China trade, like the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the trade left imprints in the form of the many American towns named Canton, a mispronounced echo of Canton (also known as Guangzhou), the city at the heart of the China opium trade. Besides, as Ghosh would find out during his U.S. book tours to promote the Ibis books, some of his audience members were well aware of facts relevant to the trilogy’s setting—and were forthcoming with information about their own families’ ties to opium.

In addition to establishing the genealogy of American opium traffickers, the book’s other key contribution is its tracing of the continuities between 18th- and 19th-century opium trafficking and the present-day American opioid epidemic. Ghosh draws heavily from recent works on the crisis, including Patrick Keefe’s Empire of Pain, Sam Quinones’s Dreamland, and Chris McGreal’s American Overdose, but also deftly brings the present in conversation with the past. In this, he pays particular attention to the justifications used by Euro-American traders to keep smuggling opium into China and the arguments offered by Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family to keep selling Oxycontin, even as large parts of the U.S. were ravaged by the drug.

A central plank in the justifications offered by the opium traffickers, for instance, was that they were merely supplying a product for which there was already an existing demand in China. In reality, Ghosh argues, the market for opium was essentially created when British and American traders flooded the country with ever greater quantities of the drug. That’s not all that different from the way that the Sackler family-owned Purdue Pharma invented an opioid-based painkiller and, “through clever marketing, created a demand for it,” he points out.

Similarly, both 19th-century opium traders and Purdue Pharma heavily pushed the narrative that addiction is a moral failing, for which users themselves are to blame. While Purdue demonized “addicts and abusers who were temperamentally inclined to addiction,” Euro-American smugglers deployed hegemonic ideas of race and gender to shift the responsibility of addiction on the Chinese themselves. The justificatory argument, as Ghosh relates it, was that the “effeminate” nature of “Asiatics” in general, and the Chinese in particular, made them “more inclined to indulge in opium, which induced passivity.”

Race (and class) also allowed the perpetrators of both crises to get away with their horrific crimes. Though 19th-century American opium traders went to great lengths to keep their business a secret, even when the source of their fortune was known, they were “protected by the prevalent belief that upper crust white men from some of the nation’s oldest Protestant families, who had become titans of industry and pillars of their communities, simply could not have done anything blameworthy.” A similar racialized thinking and the generally insulating nature of privilege allowed the white, upper-class, and “respectable” executives of Purdue to face few legal consequences for their role in the addiction of hundreds of thousands of people; none of the top managers went to jail, and the Sackler family retained most of its fortune.

Then there are the social and cultural similarities that Ghosh observes between the devastation that was wrought by these two crises, so far removed in time and space. Both were enabled by corrupt and compromised individuals and institutions, and both created deep fissures within families as a result of widespread addiction, he explains. Whether it was the opium villages in 19th-century China or small Appalachian communities in the contemporary U.S., the regions worst affected by the opioid crisis were those that “were extremely poor already but… were then ‘ravaged and devastated.’”

Ghosh’s scrutiny of the historical trade through a contemporary lens proves highly illuminating. In almost every way, the nearly 30-year U.S. opioid epidemic has produced the same debilitating effects once inflicted on the people of China by the colonial opium trade. There is one remarkable point of departure, though: the earlier crisis continued for more than one and a half centuries. He argues that the current crisis is neither unprecedented nor is it an aberration, an outlier. Rather, its extractive logics, utterly shorn of ethical constraint, replicate the oppressions of a much older criminal enterprise.

The European conquest of the Americas and the genocidal violence that it unleashed on Indigenous peoples was a precursor to the violence of the opium trade. Such colonial encounters continued, to elite Europeans, to substantiate their overriding supremacist and extractivist logics: that everything on the planet, plants, minerals, and people alike, was theirs for the taking. It is little surprise, Ghosh suggests, that they would later see the Chinese people as a resource to plunder, a market where they could enrich themselves, in the course of which the suffering and death of countless people was effectively an externality.

Ghosh extends his critique by asserting that the antecedent genocidal violence in the Americas would shape post-Enlightenment ideologies, which would also be employed to justify and maintain the opium trade. Smoke and Ashes is relentlessly critical of, among other ideas, the doctrine of free trade used by imperial Britain and America to prop up the opium trade. The ideology of burgeoning industrial capitalism heralded free trade as tantamount to divine law. So too was trade freed from moral guardrails, sanctioning a voracious profit-seeking that continues to this day. The notion that the functioning of markets was a natural mechanism independent of human intervention also allowed drug traffickers of the time to cling to the conceit that they were powerless to regulate the flow of opium into China, even as they remained well aware of its ruinous effects.

Far from being a manifestation of “free” trade, the traffic in opium was a monopolistic and one-sided mode of exploitation kept in place through military might, argues Ghosh. When China tried to clamp down on the trade in 1839, the British government, fearing the costly loss of opium revenue, waged the First and Second Opium Wars, resulting in China’s humiliating defeat and many unequal treaties. The country was forced to pay reparations to foreign opium smugglers, open its borders to trade with the rest of the world, cede the island of Hong Kong to the British, and legalize opium.

For more than a century before the Opium Wars, the drug had been banned consistently by the Chinese state. Now, forced to overturn that policy and looking for means of ridding themselves of the foreign traffickers, China began to develop its own opium industry:

“In the first decades of the 20th century, it was the single largest producer of opium in the world, accounting for seven-eighths of global supply. Although most of this opium was consumed domestically, China was now also the largest exporter of not just opium but also heroin, large quantities of which began to wash up on the shores of colonial Southeast Asia, and even Europe and United States,” Ghosh writes. It’s a remarkable historical parallel to note: the present-day trafficking of fentanyl and related substances from China into the U.S. can be seen as the Euro-American opium trade in China coming full circle.

The Opium Wars, though disruptive to the overall trade, did present opportunities and open up markets for some U.S. traders. With British merchants temporarily out of business during the war years, American opium peddlers were the only ones who could supply Chinese tea to Europe and America, where demand for it remained unabated, allowing them to reap huge profits. Like the transatlantic slave trade, the China opium trade represented a newly gained foothold of racial capitalism as Europe and America profited from the forced labor and impoverishment of millions of Indian peasants and the addiction of generations of Chinese people. Smoke and Ashes argues that these foundational patterns would prove formative in the making of contemporary globalized capitalism.

The China opium trade would set a precedent not only for Purdue and Big Pharma, but also for other extractive industries such as mining and fossil fuels. The argument of present-day energy companies—that the continued use of fossil fuels can lift millions out of poverty—closely mimics the claims of 19th-century opium smugglers that continuing the China trade was the only way to save Indian peasants from ruin. In reality, it was the opium trade that impoverished Indian farmers in the first place, and the world’s poor today bear a disproportionate impact of the climate disruptions caused by unfettered fossil fuel extraction.

Ghosh also traces the origins of modern-day energy and mining companies back to the opium trade. The energy giant Shell (earlier Royal Dutch), for instance, descended from the Royal Dutch Trading Company, which was founded by the Dutch royal family and held a monopoly over the colonial opium trade in the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch royal house also started BHP Billiton—today, one of the world’s largest mining concerns. BHP once owned a license to sell opium to its own exploited and abused miners, to suppress their pain and keep them working.

As Ghosh rightly points out, the global traffic in opium “created a system in which indifference to human suffering was not just accepted by the ruling elites but was justified and promoted by a set of theories… It is this that made it possible for the European empires to push opium on China and Southeast Asia and it is what makes it possible for the wealthy and powerful to be suicidally indifferent to the prospect of a global catastrophe,” he adds. While patterns of ideologically justified rapacious cruelty certainly did not begin with the opium trade, Ghosh’s perceptible outrage is not misplaced.

The manifold ways in which human history has been, and continues to be, shaped by non-human forces has been a recurrent theme in Ghosh’s prior body of work, including the Ibis trilogy, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), and, more recently, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021) and The Living Mountain (2022). In Smoke and Ashes, by following the trail of devastation left by the opium poppy over centuries, Ghosh once again emphasizes the agency of natural entities, which are interlinked in delicately balanced systems—systems that are becoming increasingly crucial to understand in a climate-insecure world.

In his essayistic book The Nutmeg’s Curse, the author paints the climate crisis as an instance of the Earth lashing out with something akin to agency. Ghosh observes how the opium poppy seems to exert a causal power over humanity that can scarcely be contained by suppression or legalization—and not only in the sense of its addiction potential. Despite all eradication efforts, the plant has continued to proliferate over centuries, with the world producing more opium now than at any point in history. In synthetic opioids like heroin and, more recently, fentanyl, opium has also mutated into even more potent and addictive versions. In all of this, Ghosh sees an “intelligence at work” that is controlling rather than being controlled by humans.

Smoke and Ashes joins the author’s past body of work as a call to recognize non-human entities as agential subjects in their own right. In a world wracked by climate strife, it urges a dismantling of colonial and capitalist logics that see nature as an inert “resource” that exists to be exploited by humans for profit. Instead, following Potawotami scholar Kimmerer, Ghosh advocates for a “species-level humility” that acknowledges “that there are beings and entities on this planet that have the power to amplify human intentions and intervene in relations between people.”

These are philosophical digressions, if interesting ones, and there are other, less poetically inclined materialist systems theories that variously posit the agential function of inert objects or non-human materials. But those are debates for another time. Ghosh’s book is successful on its own terms: as an exhumation of historical crimes that carried a grave toll. With Smoke and Ashes, he advances the necessary work of reorienting our understanding of the world in a way that has real explanatory power: by considering the ramifications of non-human entities, but especially by underscoring how the introjection of profit is the central driver of poisonous ideology and social cruelty. Smoke and Ashes makes for a vivid and startling evocation of stories long forgotten by many—and of stories, like the hundreds of thousands of American overdose deaths, that remain all too immediate and real.♦

Sohel Sarkar is a freelance journalist, editor, and feminist researcher-writer.

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