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Kallie Szczepanski

Britain's Wars for Drugs

By January 22, 2013

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Britain attacks Chuenpeh, China, on the Pearl River.  First Opium War, 1839.

In the early nineteenth century, Britain was developing into the greatest power on Earth. The "sun never set" on its empire, as the old boast went. However, back home, the British people were developing a serious drug dependency. They were becoming addicted... to tea.

That doesn't sound so bad, of course - just a light caffeine buzz, right? However, Britain didn't produce anything that China, source of the tea, wanted to buy. In order to pay for all that tea, the British East India Company had to give China cold, hard cash.

Desperate British officials hit upon another product, however, that could bridge the trade gap. They started smuggling Indian opium into China, and encouraging Chinese men to become addicts. When the Qing government objected, Britain waged the two Opium Wars to defend its "right" to push drugs. Not exactly a shining moment, even in the generally murky history of European imperialism.

Painting of British attack on Cheunpeh via Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

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