British Raj in India: How Colonial Rulers Used Opium Farming to Further Exploits

Manuel's book explains how the British obsession with the global drug, wrought misery & exploitation on the farmers.

3 min read
Hindi Female

Thomas Manuel's book Opium Inc: How a Global Drug Trade Funded the British Empire untangles the less explored side of history and explains how British colonialism was once a Narco-state that turned the farming lands of India into opium-producing machines. Thomas Manuel is an Indian journalist and an award-winning playwright who frequently writes for The Wire, The Hindu, and The Nib

Thomas Manuel uncovered the story of a global drug trade operated and rationalised by the British Raj in India to expand its revenue. Opium became the British's third highest source of income after land and salt.

The obsession of Britain to cultivate milk of the poppy was triggered by their economic ambitions, which wrought misery and exploitation on the farmers of India.

In the book's first part, the author traces the history of opium in ancient civilisations and its eventual introduction to China by British merchants. Britain had overcome one of its immediate problems: the trade deficit while wreaking havoc in the lives of poor farmers and millions of Chinese. Moreover, in exchange for opium, the British Empire obtained tea and silver from China.


The Manufacturing Process

Drug trade appeared to be the economic force of imperialism for the British Raj which supplied a massive addiction crisis, leading to the Opium Wars and perpetuating inequality. The author has identified and captured the historical repercussions of the drug trade.

Manuel notes its manufacturing process:

"These factories employed a small army of children to crawl over ceiling-high scaffolding and painstakingly maintain the precious drug till it was ready to be shipped."

Additionally, Britain's quest for business and money resulted in the massive exploitation of peasants and systematically transformed the forming economies of Bengal and Bihar into opium-producing machines. The writer explains peasants' agony: "The lives of these peasants were miserable."


Manuel highlighted the Indian side in the global drug trade; most previous academic work focused on China-Britain.

Tracing the History of the Global Opium Trade

The author also traces the history of the global opium trade from Portuguese to Dutch and its usage during Mughal rule. The one apparent reason behind the success of the Indian East Company, compared with the Dutch East India Company (which eventually collapsed), was its revenue from the opium trade.

India was one of the largest producers of opium during the 19th century, and the British Raj played a significant role in its cultivation to generate revenue and sustain their imperial dominance.

The British had been successful in maintaining their state monopoly over opium production. It provided the impetus for British colonialism to fund their military campaigns and colonial ventures in India.

Thomas Manuel skillfully breaks down all the players involved in this global drug trade from local supporting elites and British merchants to Chinese officials.

The author argues that the negative impacts of the worldwide drug trade were not limited to the indigenous Indian population but felt by the global community.

The triangle of this trade, which includes its various players and dynamics, has been marginalised in academia and has received relatively little exploration. The author delves into the social, economic, and political consequences of the opium trade; these aspects have been overlooked in many previous academic studies.  

Opium Inc: How a Global Drug Trade Funded the British Empire is an important and must-read book for those who wish to learn about the complex history of the opium trade, the working of the British Raj, and its impacts on the farmers of India. The author's unique perspective about the repercussions of the opium trade makes this book academically enriching and a valuable contribution to the existing literature on the topic. 

(The writer is an MPhil Scholar at the Department of Political Science Government College University, Lahore, Pakistan.)

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Topics:   China   British   Opium 

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