How Britain's opium trade impoverished Indians

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Jan 2019
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Looks as if the supposedly "evil and anti-Indian" BBC is critical of the British Empire? Hmmmmmmmm...

How Britain's opium trade impoverished Indians

In Amitav Ghosh's acclaimed novel, Sea of Poppies, a village woman from an opium-producing region in India has a vivid encounter with a poppy seed.

"She looked at the seed as if she has never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life; it was this miniscule orb - at once beautiful and all - devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful."

At the time when the novel is set, poppy was harvested by some 1.3 million peasant households in northern India. The cash crop occupied between a quarter and half of a peasant's holding. By the end of the 19th Century poppy farming had an impact on the lives of some 10 million people in what is now the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A few thousand workers - in two opium factories located on the Ganges river - dried and mixed the milky fluid from the seed, made it into cakes and packed the opium balls in wooden chests.

The trade was run by the East India Company, the powerful multinational corporation established for trading with a royal charter that granted it a monopoly over business with Asia. This state-run trade was achieved largely through two wars, which forced China to open its doors to British Indian opium.

Image copyrightHULTON ARCHIVEImage captionScenes from an opium factory in northern India
Historian William Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy, a new book on the East India Company, says it "ferried opium to China, fighting the opium wars in order to seize an offshore base at Hong Kong and safeguard its profitable monopoly in narcotics".

Some historians have argued that the opium business bolstered India's rural economy and kept the farmers happy. That was not the case, as new research by Rolf Bauer, a professor of economic and social history at the University of Vienna, has found.

For years Dr Bauer trawled through archival documents looking at the costs of producing opium and paying money to farmers.

He also examined an exhaustive history of the trade - the 1895 Report of the Royal Commission of Opium, which ran into seven volumes and 2,500 pages.

It contained 28,000 questions and hundreds of witness reports on the use and consumption of opium in India, and studied how the colonial government regulated its production and consumption.

The result of the research is published in Dr Bauer's new study of the trade, The Peasant Production of Opium in Nineteenth-Century India. His conclusion: the opium business was hugely exploitative and ended up impoverishing Indian peasants. "Poppy was cultivated against a substantial loss. These peasants would have been much better without it," Dr Bauer told me.

This is how the East Indian Company ran the trade. Some 2,500 clerks working in 100 offices of a powerful colonial institution called the Opium Agency monitored poppy farmers, enforced contracts and quality with police-like authority. Indians workers were given commissions on every seer - a traditional unit of mass and volume used in large parts of Asia - of opium delivered on their beat.

Image captionAn opium examining room in a factory in northern India
In the thriving, state-run global trade, exports increased from 4,000 chests per year at the beginning of the 19th Century to more than 60,000 chests by the 1880s. Opium, says Dr Bauer, was for the large part of the 19th Century, the second-most important source of revenue for the colonial state. It was only outmatched by land taxes. (India remains the world's biggest producer of legal opium for the global pharmaceutical market.)

"The government's opium industry was one of the largest enterprises on the subcontinent, producing a few thousand tons of the drug every year - a similar output to Afghanistan's notorious opium industry today, which supplies the global market for heroin," Dr Bauer says.

More importantly, the crop, he adds, had a "lasting negative impact on the lives of millions".

Interest-free advance payments were offered to poppy farmers who could not access easy credit. By itself, this was not a bad thing for those producing for the global market.

What made it bad for them, according to Dr Bauer, was what they paid for rent, manure, irrigation and hired workers was higher than the income from the sale of raw opium.

In other words, the price peasants received for their opium did not even cover the cost of growing it. And they were soon trapped in a "web of contractual obligations from which it was difficult to escape".

Image copyrightRISCHGITZImage captionOpium trade was achieved largely through two wars with China
Stiff production targets fixed by the Opium Agency also meant farmers - the typical poppy cultivator was a small peasant - could not decide whether or not to produce opium. They were "forced to submit part of their land and labour to the colonial government's export strategy".

Local landowners forced their landless tenants to grow poppy; and peasants were also kidnapped, arrested and threatened with destruction of crops, criminal prosecution and jail if they refused to grow the crop. "It was a highly coercive system," Dr Bauer says.

By 1915 the opium trade with China, the biggest market, had ended. However, the British Indian monopoly on opium continued until India won independence in 1947. What confounds Dr Bauer is "how a few thousand opium clerks controlled millions of peasants, forcing them to produce a crop that actually harms them".

It's a good question.
 
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Chlodio

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Aug 2016
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Some parts of this story resemble, at least on the surface, sharecropping in the American South after the Civil War. If opium production rose from 4,000 chests per year to 60,000 I suspect the price of opium fell as production increased. That's what happened with cotton sharecroppers. People got into sharecropping when prices were high and sharecropping appeared profitable. As prices fell, sharecroppers found themselves in debt and subject to their creditors' whims.

Another thing that happened in America was that that the laws changed against sharecropper interests. During Reconstruction, by law, the crop belonged to the sharecropper. The sharecropper decided how to spend his profits, which creditors to pay off and how. After Reconstruction the law gave the crop to the landowner who looked after his own interests first and kept the sharecropper in perpetual debt.
 
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AlpinLuke

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Oct 2011
27,063
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Just an innocent question ... since I'm a good friend of an Indian guy who works for BBC India, I'd like to understand the reason of such a definition:

supposedly "evil and anti-Indian" BBC

My personal experience is that BBC India is balanced and free [sure not lined up].

So ... is this a diffused prejudice about BBC in India? Is it a personal persuasion of yours? Or what?
 
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Shaheen

Ad Honorem
May 2011
2,565
Sweden
Just an innocent question ... since I'm a good friend of an Indian guy who works for BBC India, I'd like to understand the reason of such a definition:

supposedly "evil and anti-Indian" BBC

My personal experience is that BBC India is balanced and free [sure not lined up].

So ... is this a diffused prejudice about BBC in India? Is it a personal persuasion of yours? Or what?
It is common practise amongst Indian nationalists today to suggest BBC and many other western media outlets have an agenda against India, constantly seeking to spread misinformation about the country. It is part of some kind of wider conspiracy apparently to downplay Indias progress. To be honest this is not limited to India but introspection in the wider region is in general much lacking.
 
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Naomasa298

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Apr 2010
35,259
T'Republic of Yorkshire
Just an innocent question ... since I'm a good friend of an Indian guy who works for BBC India, I'd like to understand the reason of such a definition:

supposedly "evil and anti-Indian" BBC

My personal experience is that BBC India is balanced and free [sure not lined up].

So ... is this a diffused prejudice about BBC in India? Is it a personal persuasion of yours? Or what?
Because the BBC reports stories negative to India, and that makes it "anti-Indian", like any news outlet that doesn't fawn all over India.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,063
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Because the BBC reports stories negative to India, and that makes it "anti-Indian", like any news outlet that doesn't fawn all over India.[/QUOTE

Once my friend told me that this is a reason why he wants to keep on working for BBC ...
 
Jan 2019
212
Valencia
Just an innocent question ... since I'm a good friend of an Indian guy who works for BBC India, I'd like to understand the reason of such a definition:

supposedly "evil and anti-Indian" BBC

My personal experience is that BBC India is balanced and free [sure not lined up].

So ... is this a diffused prejudice about BBC in India? Is it a personal persuasion of yours? Or what?
Many Indians believe the BBC to be an India-hating organisation who dream of restoring the British Empire. The reality is that the BBC in the U.K. leans somewhat left and makes an effort to recruit British people from Black and South Asian backgrounds within their organisation. Most employees nowadays are University-educated cosmopolitan young people. Furthermore, most if not all the BBC's content on India is written by BBC India who are entirely led by Indians themselves.

This raises the question of whether Indian nationalists actually know how the BBC work or are instead just overly sensitive to anyone who dares not to constantly heap praise on India.
 

Aupmanyav

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
5,756
New Delhi, India
My personal experience is that BBC India is balanced and free [sure not lined up].
Our experience of all foreign media is completely different. I do not get my news from BBC, Guardian, NYT or Washington Post. Absolutely zero creditability. We have excellent coverage by Indian media, some for the government, some against it. One can make one's own assessment. Western media is geared to Western and Christian interests. We can understand what is anti-India and what is not. Credit us at least with that much intelligence.

Dewal, it all depends on what type of people you select. If BBC selects elitist/left-leaning journalists, then it will have that kind of effect in the news. It is like JNU students. Because the JNU and other Universities have elitist/left-leaning (fake peudo-socialists) teachers selected during the previous regime, they select that kind of students. That too needs a correction. And what is this crap about 'student politics'? Why should there be 'student politics'? Do students come to colleges and universities for education or politics? If any one wants to indulge in politics, it should be outside the campus. They have reduced education to road-side tamashas
 
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Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,488
Dispargum
Does this thread also have to become a South Asian problem thread? The OP emphasized that this thread is based on a BBC story that was sympathetic to India. Do we even have to argue about that? Moderators are watching this thread.

I made a post earlier in this thread before it threatened to become political. Now I have to drop out of this conversation just so I can watch the rest of you.
 

Ancientgeezer

Ad Honorem
Nov 2011
8,895
The Dustbin, formerly, Garden of England
Our experience of all foreign media is completely different. I do not get my news from BBC, Guardian, NYT or Washington Post. Absolutely zero creditability. We have excellent coverage by Indian media, some for the government, some against it. One can make one's own assessment. Western media is geared to Western and Christian interests. We can understand what is anti-India and what is not. Credit us at least with that much intelligence.

Dewal, it all depends on what type of people you select. If BBC selects elitist/left-leaning journalists, then it will have that kind of effect in the news. It is like JNU students. Because the JNU and other Universities have elitist/left-leaning (fake peudo-socialists) teachers selected during the previous regime, they select that kind of students. That too needs a correction. And what is this crap about 'student politics'? Why should there be 'student politics'? Do students come to colleges and universities for education or politics? If any one wants to indulge in politics, it should be outside the campus. They have reduced education to road-side tamashas
A review of "The Noble Liar", by Robin Aitken that details what any viewer knows, that the BBC is obscenely biased towards the leftish "progressive" views of its management. So much so that, once famous for promoting regional British culture, accents and history--it is now accused of being trapped in a bubble of groupthink of more affluent Londoners and during the current Brexit debate it has never been more obvious. Anyone who thinks that they hate India should watch the domestic broadcasts and see how they hate Britain (LInks below.)

"Robin Aitken, who himself spent twenty-five years working for the BBC as a reporter and executive, argues that the Corporation needs to be reminded that what is ‘fake’ rather depends on where one is standing. From where his feet are planted, the BBC’s own coverage of events often looks decidedly peculiar, peppered with distortions, omissions and amplifications tailored to its own liberal agenda. "

The Noble Liar | Biteback Publishing

Kindle sample
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Noble-Liar-Distorts-Promote-Liberal/dp/1785903497
 
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