Opium has a long history of use, spread across many countries.
Long before China supplied the West with opium, Turkey was providing coffee, tulips, and opium, which is said to have been used for recreational purposes from the 14th century onwards in Muslim societies.
Opium eaters were said to gain ecstasy, bliss and voluptuousness, and soldiers to gain courage. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, travelers, diplomats, historians, and religious scholars reported that Anatolian opium was eaten in Constantinople and throughout the Ottoman Empire
as much as it was exported to Europe.
In China, opium smoking increased after a Ming emperor banned tobacco smoking. By contrast, the Qing dynasty encouraged tobacco smokers to mix in increasing amounts of opium.
Tobacco mixed with opium was called madak, or madat, and in the 17th century became popular throughout China and its seafaring trade partners eg Taiwan, Java, and the Philippines.
In 1729, a ban on madak increased the popularity of smoking pure opium through complicated procedures such as melting opium at the right temperature over the flame of an oil lamp and feeding it via a clay bowl and a bamboo pipe.
Paste-scooping, where a globule of opium was scooped up with a needle-like skewer for smoking, was done by servant girls who were also available as prostitutes if needed. People used opium for the ‘art of sex’ e.g. to “arrest seminal emission”.
Opium smoking began in China as a privilege of the elite and remained a great luxury into the early 19th century, but rich peasants also started using opium and even a small village without a rice store would have a shop where opium was sold.
In the 19th-century, China’s famine, political upheaval, and opportunities for gaining wealth in other countries saw Chinese emigrants moving to San Francisco, London, and New York where they started Chinese traditions of smoking in opium dens.
Opium dens kept a supply of opium paraphernalia, such as the specialized pipes and lamps needed for smoking the drug.
Patrons reclined to hold long opium pipes over oil lamps that heated the drug until it vaporized, allowing the smoker to inhale the vapors.
There are many old photographs of opium smokers in the United States, Canada and France, yet none of opium smokers in London.
The London press, along with popular British authors of the day, portrayed London’s Limehouse district as an opium-drenched pit of danger and mystery.
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) is the autobiographical account of Thomas De Quincey‘s laudanum (opium and alcohol ) addiction and its effect on his life.
In fact, London’s Chinese population never exceeded the low hundreds, in large contrast to the tens of thousands of Chinese who settled in North American Chinatowns.
Confessions was DeQuincy’s first major published work and won him overnight fame.
He wrote, ‘I question whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had.’
First published anonymously in September and October 1821 in the London Magazine, the Confessions was released in book form in 1822, and again in 1856, in an edition revised by De Quincey.
During the 18th century and well into the 19th century, opium, as Tincture of Laudanum, was used as a remedy for nervous disorders and, because of its sedative and tranquilizing properties, added to many patent medicines.
It stopped irritation, helped patients sleep, stopped excessive secretions, and relieved pain, so it is no wonder users labeled opium ‘God’s Own Medicine’. US president William Henry Harrison was treated with opium in 1841, and in the American Civil War, the Union Army used 2.8 million ounces of opium tincture and powder and about 500,000 opium pills.
Literary references to opium smoking in London –