blogger counters

Monday, January 01, 2018

The Victorians’ Opioid Epidemic

The Victorians had an opioid epidemic at home. They caused an opium epidemic in China. And, they spawned destructive mono-economies in India and Afghanistan, corruption in the ports, and vast networks of shipping, financing, and service companies all founded on the medicinal properties, but above all, the miraculously addictive properties of opium.

Victorians of the British Empire had their own opioid epidemic and opium trading of truly global extent, with repercussions that persist even into our own times.

The Victorians wrote about their own addictions, and there is surprisingly little glamorization. There is no “heroin chic” – instead, there is an awareness of the fleeting relief that opium (mainly laudanum, liquid containing 10% opium). The most famous (or infamous) is probably Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” supposedly written about an opium dream, which was written in 1797, but not published until 1816. Coleridge alludes to his addiction and suggests a dialectic between vice and virtue in his Biographia Literaria  (1817).

There is also Thomas DeQuincey’s autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). In one famous passage, “The Pains of Opium,” DeQuincey describes the horrors of withdrawals and the desperate need for more laudanum, a temporary relief, followed by self-loathing.

Some poets focused opium in the domestic sphere, and using opium poppies for medicinal uses for the family. In “To Opium,” Henrietta O’Neill’s “Ode to the Poppy,” Anna Seward’s “To the Poppy,” and Sara Coleridge’s “Poppies,” incorporate opium use into the domestic hearth, its medicinal effects aiding in their wifely and motherly duties" (Freeman, 2012, p. 1). Within Victorian women poets who used opium, there was a longing for romantic escape. "Even though the women opium poets seek escape, they are, nonetheless,  concerned with their duties to their children and their place within the  household, making the opium poems an amalgam of escapist and familial  impulses” (Freeman, 2012, p. 1).

Elizabeth Barrett Browning suffered from pain in her neck and spine, and started with laudanum, but ultimately became addicted to pure morphine. Due to her frail health, Browning was reclusive and stayed at home where she had an extensive library. Quite fortunate in that she had independently inherited money and property from her grandmother and her uncle, she was able to live in a comfortable home and devote herself to reading and writing in French and English. Her work did not directly relate to addiction to morphine, but the desire that is so tacit in Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), relates to the love that Browning felt for her husband, and also to a darker longing, even a craving, that is never permanently satisfied.

Wilkie Collins, of The Moonstone (1868) and The Woman in White (1860) wrote novels that were shot through with laudanum dreams, addictions, and hints. Collins was, like his friend, Charles Dickens, regularly used laudanum, supposedly to ease the pain of gout, but more probably as the addiction took hold, to ease the pain of withdrawals.

In Armadale (1866), the murderous anti-heroine, Lydia Gwilt, is a charming and deeply damaged femme fatale, who maintains a diary in which she opens up her heart and writes frankly of her passions, her rage, her obsessions, her calculating progress toward her ultimate goal (seducing and then killing for money, which is intermixed with self-loathing, jealousy, desire, and a weirdly pure love). The is one of the rawest, most honest voices in Victorian fiction, and it’s fascinating to read her diaries. What is more remarkable is that her voice was written by a man, Wilkie Collins. Perhaps the only other conniving femme fatales who approach Miss Gwilt’s melodramatic voice are the heroines (anti-heroines) of another sensation novel writer, Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

In Armadale, Lydia Gwilt mesmerizes with her self-awareness, and her intentionality when she reflects on how she impacts people upon first sight. Lydia is Machiavellian, but in her cold calculations are rage and despair; revenge and craving for love. The idea that she must regularly rebuild her own essence reminds one of Lacan’s notion of the looking glass self; a sense of identity built on what one sees reflected in another’s eyes). She uses her understanding for evil, of course, and very quickly learns how to skillfully apply makeup to appear much younger, and also how to preserve her angelic face and slim, youthful figure.  Her plan is to lure a man she has hated since childhood to his death. In the meantime, she wrestles with herself as she addresses her own doubts and misgivings, framed in her addiction to laudanum, which she uses to assuage pain – her psychic, soul-hurt pain. p. 272

Opium addiction did not confine itself to the literary world. Victorian England was awash with not just laudanum, but all kinds of remedies and drinks meant for all age groups (including fussy or colicky babies). There was a significant mortality rate, but there was little public alarm or outcry. England was much less regulated than today, and there were many vested interests in the opium trade.

Opium came to England primarily from Turkey, where it was considered the highest quality.  Other opium sources were Afghanistan and India, which supplied raw materials to Anglo-Indian companies, mainly trading companies, who wished to export it to the enormous market of eager potential consumers, China.

Many of heard of the Opium Wars fought by the British on Chinese soil. Few, however, recognize that these wars were fought in order to force China to participate in free trade and to allow imports. The main product that the British wanted to be able to export to China was opium from India and Afghanistan. The Chinese rulers of the Qing Dynasty were resolutely opposed to allowing opium to enter the country, and issues many statements explaining their belief in the pernicious effects of opium on the people (Fay, 1977, p. 21). They resisted, and thus the First Opium War was fought from 1839 – 1842.

The Stacking Room: Opume Factory at Patna, India
Storage of opium at a British East India Company warehouse, c. 1850  

Unfortunately, the Chinese ruling elite could not overcome local corruption, particularly on the level of port authorities and customs officials (Havia, 2003, p. 215). Opium flowed into China through ports such as Shanghai, with terrible results.  According to some estimates, some 90 percent of men under the age 40 in the coastal area were in some degree addicted to opium.  The profits soared for the Anglo-Indian companies exporting to China. Corrupt officials lined their pockets.

[In an Opium Den, Shanghai:  Wikimedia Commons image:]

A second Opium War was fought with England and France uniting against China in order to open trade, of which opium was a very important (although not the only) piece. It lasted from 1856 – 1860, and in the middle of it, opium trade was officially legalized. Opium imports and addiction skyrocketed. By 1880, China was importing more than 6,500 tons of opium a year. Addiction continued, and opium trade-related crime made Shanghai notorious (Macauley, 2009, p. 12). People were kidnapped and transported as slave labor to the American West (railroads), to the point that “Being Shanghaied” became common parlance.

The addiction and attendant corruption and crime were so prevalent that they led to the collapse of the entire Qing Dynasty. When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1914, it was easy for the Japanese to occupy China and the continue the opium trade, continuing to enrich the traders while maintaining a weakened, humiliated populace of addicts, criminal gangs, and corrupt officials.  In fact, the degradation was so complete that it became one of the rallying cries and points of unity of the Communist Party, which pointed to “foreign devils” who were allowed to destroy China’s heritage, culture, and people (Macauley, 2009, p. 12).

In the meantime, back in England, opioids such as laudanum, along with other medicines were regulated, and the unofficial use of the drugs was criminalized.  Laudanum was no longer easily accessible, and the opiates were taken out of products intended for daily use.  In the 20th century, opium addiction flared up again, but opioid use was in no way so commonplace as it was in the 19th century, and further, the 20th century variants (heroin, prescription pain medication, powerful synthetic concentrates of opioids) were more likely to incapacitate and kill, rather than allow respite from pain and at least a level of creative productivity. The opium dens which were made illegal in China reemerged in the post WWI Paris described Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.

French Opium Den

The Parisian opium dens became a place of self-abasement and degradation as in the case of Sophie, a woman traumatized after the loss of her husband and baby after being hit by a drunk driver who becomes an addict and prostitute in a Parisian opium den, and a symbol of post-WWI Lost Generation nihilistic self-destruction.

****ANNOUNCEMENT:  Texture Press will be issuing a Call for Submissions for an anthology of addiction, dealing with theory (theoretical foundations which include the commodification of addiction, consumer culture and addiction, short fiction, essays, poetry, black and white photography, sketches / cartoons). ***


Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. (1850) Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (1817)  Biographia Literaria.

Coleridge, Sara (1855). “Poppies” PoetryExplorer

Collins, Wilkie.  (1866) Armadale.

DeQuincey, Thomas. (1821) Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Fay, Peter Ward. (1977) Was the Opium War of 1840-42 a Just War?  Ch'ing-shih wen-t'i, Volume 3, Supplement 1, 1977, pp. 17-31

Freeman, Hannah Cowles (2012) "Opium Use and Romantic Women's Poetry" South Central Review, Volume 29, Number 1 & 2, Spring & Summer 2012, pp. 1-20

Havia, James Louis. (2003) "Opium, Empire, and Modern History" China Review International, Volume 10, Number 2, Fall 2003, pp. 307-326.

Macauley, Melissa. (2009) "Small Time Crooks: Opium, Migrants, and the War on Drugs in China, 1819–1860" Late Imperial China, Volume 30, Number 1, June 2009, pp. 1-47

O’Neill, Henrietta. (1785) “Ode to the Poppy” All Poetry

 Seward, Anna. (1799) “Sonnet: To the Poppy” Poetry Foundation.

Blog Archive