Opium Pipe And Scales

Though the drug has been used for millennia, the 13th century popularity of opium in China outmatched any period in history before. As late as 1850, the drug constituted 54% of China’s foreign import trade. The drug is effective, yet addictive.

The trade didn’t grow into a widespread social problem until British trading firms arrived in the East, trading opium from their colonies in India for Chinese silk, silver, and tea.

The folding scales featured here were used by opium traders to measure out drugs, gold, and other chemicals on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Scales used for opium were often known to be so well balanced that gold traders as far away as the American West would use them when panning for gold flakes.

China went to war twice in the 19th century, vying for autonomy in the opium trade. The first war began in 1839, as the British fought to maintain control of opium trafficking, eventually resulting in their control of Hong Kong. The influx of opium from the British is largely blamed for addiction problems in the following decades, as British ships exported over half a million pounds of opium into China.

The second war took place 14 years later. France joined Britain in dismantling systems the Chinese had put in place to limit outside trade, but again lost to European imperialist powers. An estimated 47,000 people perished in the Opium Wars and the drug epidemic only got worse for China.

By the 1900s, countless edicts against the substance had been issued against the smoking and sale of opium, but five million pounds of the drug still made its way into China during the 1930s alone.

When Robert Ripley first visited Canton, China, in 1923, he saw the effects 2,000 years of opium had on the most populous culture in the world. He observed opium dens everywhere, with people flagrantly carrying their pipes wherever they went.

It took Mao Zedong’s communist government in the 1950s to finally eradicate the opium blight in China. Taking a stern approach, dealers were executed, crops were replaced, and 10 million addicts were forced into compulsory treatment.