Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Pestilence and the Poppy

Yes.... we’re a little late. It's axiomatic of our lifestyles and the odd night or two spent imbibing the meanest quality turpentine in what is unusually clement weather. The controversy has once again raged in the tabloids and media excoriating some in the public arena including Channel Four's Jon Snow. It goes something like this: people like Mr Snow should bow to the peer-pressure and the ideology of the right-wing rags, don their red floral emblems in the most public manner on our screens in order to remember the dead of the First World War.

Raging bull... shit

We won't dwell too long on the arguments for the red or indeed those for the white poppy. We won't delve into the history/rationale for the adoption of the poppy as a symbol in the first place as writers such as Mark Steel, Robert Fisk and others have pretty much covered this base. We won't raise the issue as to why we never seem to remember the war dead of South East Asia, the millions killed in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, as well as the war dead of Africa and the Middle East: Angola, Algeria, Congo, Kenya and countries such as recently invaded Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine.

We shan't linger on those who argue that Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday have been hijacked by the pro-war lobby in order to justify the two most recent invasions and occupations of foreign countries by British troops (something we were taught only the nasty Nazis did during the war). We'll ignore for now the despicable way 'our boys', the so called 'heroes' have to rely on such a simple mechanism as charity to reintegrate the physically and mentally war-crippled back into society. We'll also avoid for the time being the way in which this kind of unquestioning support for foreign imperialistic endeavours is always usually the sub text which states 'we're all in this together' as part of the wider project of building some sort of 'national interest' which will no doubt serve the British ruling class well as they slip the neoliberal juggernaut into its final top gear and dismantle what's left of the publicly provided welfare and health systems and all recognisable forms of social provision. 

The cauldron of heresy

Instead, we've come up with an alternative and we'd like to throw into the cauldron of heresy. It goes something exactly like this: that we should eject good old Papaver rhoeas (the traditional red poppy) from its premier position on the combined lapels of the British masses and replace it with a variety that is equally well known around the globe - Papaver somniferum more commonly known as the Opium Poppy.

Try wearing this fucker with
pride on any Remembrance
We can almost hear the national accord resonating across breakfast tables as hirsute Mail-reading opinionists scream forth “Why you hypocritical pre-Christian berserker...!” And anyone who read last week’s sorrowful serving from our campfire pot might at first glance agree with this general sentiment as they wipe what’s left of their unannounced and reconstituted early morning tea and toast from their impeccably waxed handlebars. Yes we’re arguing for the good old Opium Poppy and we won’t be deterred. We will of course endeavour to explain why. It’s got something to do with trade and of course war... oh yes, and it’s also got something to do with the growth and consolidation of the British Empire and British capitalism. We hope it will give some food for thought.

The British state - drug pusher extraordinaire

At the root of our justification of the above is a short historical analysis of drug addiction of the opium based variety. We're not discussing such addiction at a private or individual level, but its use at the macro level.

John Newsinger in his fascinating expose of the bloody history of the British Empire puts it rather succinctly: ‘The British Empire was the largest drug pusher the world has ever seen.’(1) Putting the forced enslavement of millions of black Africans to one side for the moment, it appears that far from being a civilising force for good as some revisionist historians would have us believe, the good old British Empire was also founded in large part on using military force as well as illicitly state-sponsoring smuggling operations in its initial stages, to 'encourage' millions of Chinese people to become... well... heroin addicts! At the centre of this operation was the East India Company which was granted a monopoly in its production and trade by the British government in 1775. Newsinger shows how:

[i]n the 1760s some 1,000 chests of opium (each weighing 140 lbs) were smuggled into China, and this figure gradually increased to around 4,000 chests in 1800... Expansion only really began after 1820 so that by 1824 over 12,000 chests were being smuggled into China, rising to 19,000 in 1830, to 30,000 in 1835 and to 40,000 chests (an incredible 2,500 tons of opium) in 1838.(2)

In Gibb-ian terms are we talking jive or simply talking shite?

“Sir, although reasonably eloquent, you are little more than a tripe-speaking adjunct to the periphery. What the devil does this have to do with war and the fallen?” can almost be discerned among the general hubbub emanating within the plate glassed environs of the bald and apparently untouchable. Given the involvement of the East India Company, we thought it was worth doing a little digging. It appears that the East India Company still exists today. On its website it states:

‘Since its creation in 1600 by The Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I, the influence of The East India Company has been well documented. Without The Company our world would not be as it is today. It changed the world’s tastes, its thinking, and its people. It created new communities, trading places, cities and shaped countries and commercial routes. Singapore and Hong Kong were established by The Company and India was shaped and influenced by it. At one point The Company had the largest merchant navy in the world and conducted and controlled 50% of world trade. With statistics like that it’s easy to forget that at its heart, were real people.

Our heritage is in the spirit of those pioneers. The East India Company’s employees did not set out to change the world. They were people who set sail to establish trade routes, to discover and bring back new goods, and in doing so broke down the barriers of the world. They were explorers, traders, innovators. They took risks, they broke new ground and they sometimes got it wrong...’

The Honourable East India Company - changers of taste

Well it certainly changed the tastes of many Chinese. And we've never heard of drug pushers referred to as 'pioneers' before. Maybe today's pushers of narcotics could re-invent themselves by whacking on a Playtex body-shaper, dropping the word 'pusher' and replacing it for the more business friendly and taxable word 'trader'. It appears that the history of the East India Company has had a similar makeover:

The East India Company made the first successful sea venture to China in 1699, and Hong Kong’s trade with British merchants developed rapidly soon after. The Company was interested in Hong Kong’s safe harbour located on the trade routes of the Far East, thus establishing a trade enterprise between Western businessmen and China. Chinese commodities, namely porcelains, landscaped-furnishings and tea were popular among the European aristocrats. As trade grew the British Government became concerned to reduce its huge purchases in silver from China and replaced the silver with opium. The trade of opium for Chinese products grew rapidly. The Chinese emperor banned the drug trade in 1799 but to no avail. Smuggling came about as neither foreign traders nor Guangdong merchants were inclined to forgo the profitable business, and this led to the Opium Wars. Throughout the next few years, the British enjoyed a fruition of success from opium. When they lost monopoly of the trade, other foreign traders stepped into the illegal opium business for a share of wealth.(3)

A postmodernist take on pipe smoking?

All in a day's work

Give those chaps at the contemporaneous East India Company their due, it is at least a dabble into a form of history albeit of the 'cod' variety. It does mention the Opium Wars. It also mentions the trade in opium but it manages this in a rather sanitised sort of way. So let's just re-adjust the historical record slightly and establish here that not only did the Honourable East India Company trade opium, the Company mass produced it in India. It was a fortunate consequence of the Company's conquest of Bengal (the East India Company had its own large private army of around 200,000 men and a large private navy) that it 'took control of a well-established opium industry involving peasant producers, merchants, and long-distance traders.' 

These activities were reflected in this region with the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-58 and finally from 1859-60 where the British and their French allies finally occupied Beijing) which consolidated Britain's stranglehold on the trade in opium in China.

Opium - the super commodity of its day

The consequences of the initial illegal trade in opium and the later wars to establish its 'legitimacy', ensured that opium would become the most profitable commodity of this period. This resulted in huge levels of addiction with the inevitable social breakdown. For Britain and the East India Company the 300 million inhabitants of China were viewed as 300 million potential 'customers' for their highly desirable commodity. The statistics are quite staggering. By 1830, the illegal trade in opium had created around 3 million Chinese addicts with some estimates stating that the levels of addiction among the Chinese was as high as 12 million, fed principally by illegal importation by the Honourable East India Company. Britain and the East India Company can bask in their shared glory knowing that by the early 20th century approximately twenty seven per cent of the Chinese population were regular opium users.

'On the company lies the responsibility of fostering the trade in every way possible, the revenue from this source alone, in Bengal and Bombay amounting probably to some five millions sterling a year … at present the British government holds the position of a producer and dealer in opium; a postion not only anomalous, but highly derogatory to the dignity of, and which can hardly be maintained with honour to, the crown'. (4)

There were more direct human costs with the imposition of the will of the British state on the Chinese state and its people? Militarily there was a huge technological imbalance. It ensured massacre after bloody massacre. For example, in October 1841 around 2,000 Chinese were slaughtered in the taking of Jinhai by the British. Mass rape and pillage were also commonplace in order to ensure the appropriate conditions for trade.

Opium and war
Natural bed-chaps: war and opium

We've seen how three wars were fought by the British to establish and monopolise the trade of opium to China and to create a 'free market' for the East India Company's products. Conversely, and rather ironically, today the language of 'war' is used by the US and UK governments to conduct their largely futile 'war on drugs'.(5) And at a military level we are told, wars are needed to stop the production and export of cocaine from countries such as Colombia. How does one fight such a war? By funding right-wing paramilitary death squads of course. Investing billions in countering the trade in untaxed cocaine really has nothing whatsoever to do with maintaining a foothold in its 'backyard'. Nor does it reflect a worry among the US ruling class that the poor and disenfranchised have brought to power the likes of the often leftish Hugo Chavez in neighbouring Venezuela.

Oddly enough, the biggest producer of opium today is Afghanistan. Given the invasion by NATO forces led by the US and UK, common sense might suggest that the trade would be declining. We were told after all that one of the reasons for the invasion was to stop opium production in Afghanistan. Even more ironically it appears that under the brutal pre-invasion Taliban regime, production had decreased markedly. What can we extrapolate from this? The actions of the US and its NATO allies have led directly to the huge increase in opium production and its concomitant - the growing problem of heroin addiction in that region and throughout the West.(6) A cynical type might even say that the evidence shows that the British troops stationed in the Helmand Province who we are told are there to help in the efforts at reconstruction, have done little more than help reconstruct the pre Taliban opium trade.(7) Long gone are the promises that the invasion would help reduce the production of opium.

The history sanitisers

Rarely does the British state recognise its culpability in the heinous crimes perpetrated in the name of trade or the protection of the right to trade. More so when the victims of these crimes are hidden from view, half a world and a century and a half away. There are quite a few high profile historians who are perfectly happy to assist them in this endeavour. Despite the teeth gnashing of the 'glory-in-death' pundits or the analysis-free liberals who believe that those who were slaughtered on the fields of Flander died 'in the service of Queen and country', there is no glory, nor indeed is there any victory in marching across the life-hungry corpulence of no-man's land towards certain death in order to establish the primacy of British capitalism over its German competitor. There's no glory in slaughtering hundreds of thousands simply to establish a framework for 'free trade' in the Middle East and the right of Britain to 'do business' in Iraq or Afghanistan when the true human costs remain conveniently hidden from our view.

Outside of the rarified atmosphere of the jingos' glorious Valhallah of blood and blue, for many, seeking to impose what is for all intents a rather British foible on the world, is a little like the 'red in tooth and claw' British imperialists imposing their blood-soaked 'Butcher's Apron' on their former colonies.

So next year we'd like to propose the wholesale adoption of Papaver somniferum to be worn on our collective lapel-age to both internationalise an event, but more importantly as a symbol to remember those who were the innocent victims of the greed of a tiny but powerful group, and who saw nothing but profit in the misery of the untold addicted Chinese millions.

Notes and Resources

(1) Newsinger J, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks, London, 2010, Pg 44
(2) Greenberg M, British Trade and the Opening of China 1800-1842, Cambridge, 1951, quoted in Newsinger J, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks, London, 2010, Pg 49
(3) Website of the East India Company sourced at http://www.theeastindiacompany.com/
(4)Lockhart W, William Lockhart: The medical missionary in China : a narrative of twenty years’ experience London : Hurst and Blackett, 1861, pp 401-402
(5) For an excellent analysis on the role drug use plays in Western societies see A Farrell 'Addicted to Profit: Capitalism and Drugs at http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj77/farrell.htm
(6) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime sourced at http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/drug-trafficking/index.html
(7) The Independent, 28th August 2007 sourced at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/record-opium-crop-helps-the-taliban-fund-its-resistance-463283.html

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