"While wine disturbs the mental faculties, opium (if taken properly) imposes the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony on them... The man who is drunk or has drunken tendencies favors the merely human, and often brutal, part of his nature; while the opium eater feels that the most divine part of his nature. Moral effects are in a state of limpid serenity and the great light of the majestic understanding expands across all things."
This was written by the English author Thomas de Quincey in his work Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821). He was just one of many artists who used the effects of the poppy to enjoy a state of peace, deep calm, and pleasant dreaming.
Opium is a very old drug; fossils of poppy seeds dating back to the Stone Age have been found in Europe. Theophrastus was the first to study the soothing powers of this flower in his botany text Enquiry into Plants. In his research, the juice extracted from the head of the poppy was used in medical and pharmacological fields as an analgesic and relaxant through oral and rectal ointments.
Another person who made an important study of opium's properties was the botany historian Dioscorides, who wrote the following, “it totally removes pain, mitigates coughing, restrains stomach flows and applies to those who cannot sleep.” It was at that point in history that opium was known as a natural tranquilizer.
Centuries later, the Arabs made opium an important part of their culture. They would smoke it in public places, for it was unrestricted, and it was also administered to the elderly as a stimulant.
Opium became significantly important for medicine, and suddenly it was widely studied, as shown by the Welsh physician John Jones in his work How to Reveal the Mysteries of Opium (1700). Jones did not hold back in describing all the benefits of the poppy: “Opium often takes away pain through distraction and relaxation brought on by pleasure and an incompatibility with pain… it prevents and removes sorrow, fear, anguish, bad temperament and restlessness.” He claimed it had made “millions” of consumers “more serene, and at the same time fit for the administration of their businesses.”
In 1806, one of the main components of opium was isolated and became the main cause for all its marvelous properties: morphine. But it was until the invention of the syringe in 1856 that it started to be applied as a tranquilizer, sedative, and relaxant. In 1940, in Germany it’s application was extended to women in labor as an anesthetic and already showed the very potent effects of pain reduction. However, it was discovered that it could be very addictive, so its use was suspended. Codeine and heroine, both highly addictive, are also other important drugs developed from the extraction of the poppy.
The conflict occurred from 1839 to 1842, and from 1856 to 1860 when England, one of the three countries controlling the opium trade, began to introduce poppy in China, which was cultivated in India. The trade deal was settled to compensate for England’s expenses toward importing tea from China.
But it did not go as the British had expected. The Chinese government prohibited and canceled the arrival of opium and ordered the imperial commissioner, Lin Zexu, to cancel the trade deal with England. Irritated by the decision that had broad implications for their economic interests, the British crown sent a naval war fleet to Chinese territory.
The defeat at the hands of the British was quick and obliged the Chinese government to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which put the latter at a clear disadvantage. There would be free trade between the nations (including the sale of opium) through the main ports and the island of Hong Kong would become part of the British empire for the next 150 years.
This action also led countries such as Russia, France, and the United States to force China to sign trade pacts with full benefits for them, mimicking that which was known as “unequal treaties.”
Opium can be as destructive as it is a path to higher states of consciousness. In modern times, the influence of drugs derived from the poppy is undeniable. One's experience with this drug surely implies serious responsibility, for it can lead to unthinkable situations.
You can also read about artists that have taken inspiration from their tragic experiences with drugs and pain.
Translated by Joseph Reiter