It was a commodity without rival, and highly profitable: easy to produce, transport and refine and in great demand. It was also hugely addictive and, as Inglis reminds us, many of us will end our lives dependent on it.
The ancient Egyptians used opium to lull their infants to sleep. The Greeks used it for suicide and gynaecology. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was probably history’s first highbrow opium addict. Marco Polo returned from his travels with tales of men doped on opium and sent on suicide missions.
More recently, though, it was Paracelsus, a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, who invented laudanum, a tincture of opium and alcohol, and started Europe’s craving for this miraculous pain-relieving drug.
But it was the British — mainly through the East India Company — who made opium a truly global commodity in the 19th century and were soon shipping thousands of chests of it to China from Hong Kong in exchange for tea. Trade was so lucrative that the opium lobby was able to persuade the British government to twice wage war in the east to protect their business interests.
Within a matter of decades, an estimated 25% of the Chinese were addicts. Many of those who were shipped off to the US as labourers took the drug with them and opium dens were as much a part of the gold rush in the American West as the brothels and saloons.
By now, opium’s active ingredient, morphine, had long since been discovered and, with the invention of hypodermic syringes, pain relief was almost instantaneous. Heroin was first synthesised from morphine in 1897. Prohibition followed in the early 1900s and, perhaps inevitably, the criminals moved in. A century later, they’re still there. Afghanistan, astonishingly, produces 90% of the world’s heroin, and the dark web is the modern version of the old Silk Road.
Opium, of course, is also the foundation of a mammoth legal pharmaceutical industry, and has saved millions of lives, just as it has ruined millions of others. Its latest metamorphosis is the OxyContin scourge in America. “An active trade,” Inglis writes, “in opioid that will sedate elephants indicates a deeper malaise in the US psyche.”
As her publisher puts it, “[The Milk of Paradise] is a tale of addiction, trade, crime, sex, war, literature, medicine and, above all, money. And, as this ambitious, wide-ranging and compelling account vividly shows, the history of opium is our history and it speaks to us of who we are.”
ROCK & ROLL
More drugs, this time in a gritty rock memoir detailing a cult American band’s fall from grace and its subsequent determination not to get up: The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities by Wayne Kramer (Faber).
Even by the letting-it-all-hang-out ethos of the late 1960s, Detroit’s MC5 — raw, brash proto-punk rockers who would later be cited as a major influence by The Clash and the Sex Pistols, among others — were a pretty uncompromising bunch whose histrionic revolutionary rhetoric was unpalatable to hippie audiences grooving on peace and love.