People Power


Review of Opium's Long Shadow: From Asian Revolt to Global Drug Control, by Steffen Rimner.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018  


“Unwieldly objects like the opium trade,” Steffen Rimner reminds us in his landmark study of narcotics and civil society, “are not easily removed, even if their foundations shake and objections all around begin to mount” (15). Yet move they do.

For instance, three centuries after John Hawkins’ second-hand carrack, Jesus of Lübeck, ferried its first cargo of enslaved Africans to Hispaniola, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed the “peculiar institution” which had enslaved millions in the service of an empire of cotton. Fifteen months after the Soviet Union was assigned its first country code web domain (.su), Mikhael Gorbachev dissolved the Communist Party’s Central Committee not with a bang but a whimper, bringing a murderous, seven-decade Bolshevik experiment to a bathetic close. The sun, too, finally set upon the British Empire when Prince Charles stood under the Union Jack, which fluttered in the gusts of a mechanical wind machine, and handed Hong Kong to Chinese Premiere Jiang Zemin. The enduring force of American juridical racism, the excess of Russia’s kleptocracy, Britain’s slow-motion suicide in the service of autarky, and China’s authoritarian rage in Hong Kong should suggest that the tectonic trajectories of these unwieldy objects, prised from their moorings, may never fully subside.

Rimner, who teaches international history at Utrecht, has produced a remarkable book which is only partially about the collapse of state-sanctioned opium trade in the opening decades of the twentieth century. (A disclosure: Steffen and I suffered our way through the same graduate program at Harvard, though the prevailing unsociability reigning at that campus meant that we crossed paths with lamentable infrequency.)

Its central conceit is elegant: motivated by concerns which frequently though by no means invariably overlapped, citizens of states and subjects of empires across the late nineteenth-century world banded together to transform an internationally accepted right—the sale of narcotic poppy gum—into an odious practice located beyond the legitimate purview of the state. This single agenda, Rimner argues, produced “personal alliances, coalitions of interest, and communities of partnership in terms other than those of national, ethnic, or social belonging” (283). In these alliances, he suggests, lie the origins of many of the modern contemporary world’s most prominent structures: international law, the global “war on drugs,” transnational civil society, the role of an autonomous and powerful China, the rise of a post-imperial world, and the complex imbrication of markets with the moral order. Nominally, Rimner tells us a great deal about the poppy trade, but this book’s more lasting provocation is the one it offers about citizen action and moral authority in the global order.

A brief recap is in order. Opium, the secreted and collected latex of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, was first discovered and cultivated somewhere in the Fertile Crescent some five millennia ago. Hul Gil, the “joy plant,” spread quickly to Greece, Persia, and Egypt, where the curative properties of its sap set the gold standard for painkilling until the last decades of the twentieth century (arguably, opium’s synthetic analogs have not yet eclipsed it). By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, opium was known globally as both a pharmaceutical and a recreational narcotic; its most celebrated crops grew along the Nile, in the central Indian plains of the Malwa region, and the near the Aegean town of Afyonkarahisar whose name had been sutured to the crop itself. Few old world entrepôts or crossroads did not know of opium: its hazy high dulled senses in the southwest of Switzerland, in Córdoba, and in Tang dynasty harbors, ferried occasionally on Arab dhows.

It’s here that Opium’s Long Shadow pulls open the curtains. Rimner locates us in the opium markets of early colonial Asia, giving us our first sight of the crop as it moves, packaged with tobacco, from Mughal India to Java, the East Indies, Taiwan, and Qing-era Fujian Province. He chronicles the entry of the British East India Company into the trade, and its slow penetration into resistant markets like Siam and Burma, assisted by enterprising Parsi merchants operating from Bombay. Before long, we see Indian-grown opium storming the ramparts of Qing China, its fortifications weakened by internecine arguments over the drug and its desirability. China’s losing role to Britain in the two Opium Wars and the subsequent Peace of Tianjin are a backdrop for a discussion of the rise of public opinion as a new theater for grievances, directed for the first time against the British, accused of bringing a foreign society to moral and economic ruin. 

This first salvo in the popular war against the opium trade was located squarely within bilateral frames, limited to debates over the proper relationship between Britain and China, mediated through the question of a potent narcotic. But moving towards the 1890s, Rimner directs our attention to a “different kind of cooperation against the opium trade, characterized by locally intimate coalitions forged between globally oriented pressure groups” (84). He traces a converging group of women’s activists and anti-opium crusaders in India and the United States, whose efforts helped advanced new paradigms about and rhetoric of reform, and constructed a new, transnational infrastructure to advance the cause of prohibition.

Britain would not abandon its opium revenues without a fight. Rimner chronicles the antediluvian work of Britain’s Royal Opium Commission, whose near-categorial denials of “the social existence of an opium problem” flew in the face of the work of new alliances, represented by groups like the Pekin Anti-Opium Society and the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade (153). Yet reformers—American ones in particular—were give a fillip by their “discovery” of an alternate model of opium control, “crowned with social and political success” (160). Imperial Japan, afraid of the specter of its own opium word, had implemented a system of strict control in its colonial possessions, and the Philippine Opium Commission of 1903-1905, convened by Theodore Roosevelt but manned by an international team of experts, provided an alternate and restrictive template more suited to the mounting global tide of anti-opium sentiment.

Rimner shows how conflicting Qing and British sentiment, coupled with declining opium revenue from India, were reconciled in the first decade of the twentieth century, leading to a new agreement for international control 1907 and the birth of true international drug control efforts in the form of the International Opium Commission, held in Shanghai’s Palace Hotel. This new global conciliation formed the scaffolding for a new approach to licit drug production in the cauldron of the First World War, and a new “ethical consensus” which conditioned the “interdependence of national control programs” in the postwar moment (266). By the interwar years, Rimner offers by means of conclusion, the “movements against drugs and the politics of control had raised their own stakes, nearly inevitably, by recourse to public opinion as its driving force. Just as public opinion had justified this ideological, social, and political change of course—reversing existing ideological positions on consumption and supply, standard and deviant behavior, and legitimate and illegitimate policies—so public opinion remained a pillar once a global regime had emerged” (282).

Opium’s Long Shadow is peopled by activists and reformers worthy of any Russian Dramatis personae. Among these are Prince Gong (Yixin), the young Qing chief secretary who skillfully marshalled the notion of Chinese popular opinion to raise objections against Britain’s opium trade as detrimental to the goal of perpetual peace. Rimner introduces us to the journalist-and-physician team of Elizabeth Wheeler Andrew and Kate C. Bushnell, whose work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union led to a global tour—from the United States, to Africa, to Asia—to consolidate an international network of anti-opium advocates. We meet the “energetic widow,” Pandita Ramabai and her associate Soonderbai Powar, two western Indian reformers whose work with Hindu widows in Bombay eventually dovetailed with the efforts of British anti-opium campaigners in a compelling example of transimperial solidarity (85).

Rimner foregrounds the work of Hoshi Hajime, a Columbia University graduate who built a Japanese chemical empire in the form of the Hoshi Pharmaceutical Company, building stores of Peruvian cinchona (for quinine) and Persian opium against the backdrop of imperialism and the First World War. Historians who must write about committee work risk translating doorstopper reports into stultifying recaps of positions and counter-positions. Rimner, by contrast, artfully unpacks the inner workings of reformist groups and international commissions, breathing coherent Weltgeist into the minute workings of institutions as diverse as the Qing empire’s Zongli Yamen (Office for the Management of Foreign Countries) and India’s Sharada Saran, consecreated to the refuge and education of Hindu widows and girls. 

This peopling is no small feat; nor is Rimner’s mastery of sources in Chinese, German, and Japanese. Rimner plunders archives like an Egyptologist on an expiring visa, excavating with egalitarian gusto pharaonic treasures large and small; no tomb or tunnel remains unplundered. This, and a Timese style owing much to Henry Luce (no stranger to Asian empires himself), may perhaps discourage casual readers. Steeped in the thick historiographies of international relations and law, Qing China, and British and Japanese imperialism, Rimner does not suffer novitiates gladly. This book fluently interweaves literature which has rarely before been treated in concert, and is a rich treat for scholars of late empire and international institutions. A opium catechumen might seek out other initial primers—Martin Booth’s Opium: A History (Macmillan, 1998), and Lucy Inglis’ Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium (Pegasus, 2019) would do the trick nicely.

In many ways, Opium’s Long Shadow is a century-late response to David Owen’s British Opium Policy in China and India (Yale, 1934): where Owen, nearly a hundred years ago, first sketched out the triangular trade linking these three powers, Rimner conjures up something closer to a polygon criss-crossed by overlapping diagonals, each a vector of rhetoric and mobilization fueling the eventual overthrow of the world’s imperial order. This major intervention sits squarely within a long tradition of big opium books, including Carl Trocki’s Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade, 1750-1950 (Routledge, 1999), Kathryn Meyer and Terry Parssinen’s Webs of Smoke: Smugglers, Warlords, Spies, and the History of the International Drug Trade (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), William McAllister’s Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century: An International History (Routledge, 2004), and Hans Derks’ History of the Opium Problem: The Assault on the East, ca. 1600-1950 (Brill, 2012). Yet it eschews many of these book’s focus on formal instruments of state governance in favor of sinewy networks operating at the substratum.

Anyone who tackles Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972), the canonical and frequently-reissued account of American complicity in the twentieth-century global drug trade, must read Rimner’s book alongside it. If, in the contemporary world, drug dealing lies beyond the legitimate purview of the state (if not beyond that of the global pharmaceutical industry), it is for the machinations which Rimner has excavated here in the headiest moments of Asian empire. 

Yet here’s the rub. Opium’s Long Shadow makes a whiggish case for the unbridled and transformative power of social movements, civil society, and transnational action. Unwieldy objects, he reminds us, do move—or at least did a century and change ago. In this account, just beneath the crust of immense state power, activists and reformers chart out alternate models of moral economy and political action. Animated by diverse concerns—those of health and human population, of economics and justice, and occasionally of eschatology and salvation—these campaigners find enough common cause to winch open the levers of the state and the international order, sending its trajectories volte-face.

How strange, then, to read this book at a moment of steadily rising authoritarian populism, when the echo chamber of social media—its global reach not so new, Rimner implicitly reminds us—has accompanied democracy’s erosion in nearly every corner of the world. The twenty-first century’s wretched second decade has shown us that transnational social action remains possible: how else do we conceive of the rise of Daesh?

But Rimner’s book comes a quarter-century after the collapse of Apartheid, which itself came just five years after the invention of the World Wide Web (which Tim Berners-Lee drummed up as tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square). The promise of transnational social action in the name of human health and welfare, greater economic equality and well-being, and deepened democratic participation has seen little benefit from the interconnectedness of the modern age, where titans of industry and emboldened conservatives have laid out the nice silverware for the nightmare dinner party of Trump, Modi, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Johnson, Orbán, Duterte, and Morrison. What made the world of creaky empires which Rimner conjures up so richly different from this world of similarly fading ones?

I finished Opium’s Long Shadow in the same week that somewhere between four and seven million young people took the streets for a massive global climate strike. Barred by age from participating myself, I cheered myself by scrolling through slideshows of walk-outs in Kabul, Sydney, La Paz, New Delhi, Rome, and the Hague. (Chagrined that not a single one of my own students skipped class, I wondered, too, if this was a movement which would pass Americans by.) As Greta Thunberg excoriated world leaders for stealing her childhood through empty words, I thought, too, of Pandita Ramabai and Soonderbai Powar—two women who also pressed their shoulders against the machinery of rapacious empire, and wound up reversing its course. Steffan Rimner’s Opium’s Long Shadow offers much food for thought about narcotics and empire—but just as much impetus to ponder the future of global collective action, keenly aware that every once in a while, it’s worked.


Posted on 4 December 2019

BENJAMIN SIEGEL is assistant professor of history at Boston University. His most recent book, published in 2018, is Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India (Cambridge).