Can you imagine one country forcing another into a trade of illegal drugs? Using its military might, Great Britain did exactly that and indeed it went to war, twice, to make it happen. These were the infamous Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60 in which Britain forced China into ‘treaties’ which undermined its sovereignty - imperialism in its naked form.

In the last quarter of the 18th century the East India Company created an elaborate network of illegal trade of opium to China, supplying about 900 tons annually (1,400 tons by 1839). It virtually monopolised the production of opium in India and trafficked it to China at a hefty profit. This abundant supply stimulated the demand and fed the expanding habit of illicit drug use as never before - it is estimated that 27% of Chinese men smoked opium by the 1900s.

China’s resistance and attempts to reinforce a ban on trafficking lead to increasing hostilities and war. The illegal trade of opium imposed on China established a solid foundation for a global criminal drug trade which afflicted many nations and communities around the world throughout the 20th century to the present. Authorities, health professionals and social reformers are still struggling to resolve this problem – how to stop deaths, pain, suffering and enormous financial burdens.

Opium Wars hastened the decline of the Qing Dynasty, its ability to govern effectively and eventually plunged China into a series of convulsive rebellions and the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Political instability and social disorder accelerated the immigration of Chinese to Southeast Asia and beyond. Together with Chinese migrants opium smoking reached different corners of the world, including the United States, Europe and Australia.

Opium Scales E25807
Opium scales or steelyard balance used by Chinese residents in Sydney in the early 20th century. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

Complex preparation and smoking processes have developed into a subculture which included sophisticated and beautifully crafted pipes and accessories as well as furniture and decorations. In the lowest level of the social stratum, equipment was rudimentary and smoking dens pure squalor. In the middle and upper strata opium subculture flourish, most refined ivory pipes, brass lamps, scrapers and other tools were made.

Serious efforts to eradicate opium smoking in the ‘west’ and in Asia were made in the early decades of the 20th century. Opium smoking was legal in New South Wales in Australia until 1906. These efforts gradually suppressed opium smoking to a clandestine activity on the margins. It was replaced by use of heroin and morphine - synthesised from opium - and other hard-drugs which spread rapidly, especially through the western countries where growin affluence attracted drug syndicates. In an attempt to end opium smoking, a vast quantity of pipes and accessories were destroyed, usually incinerated on mass.

As it often happened, a baby was ditched out with the bath water. The countless exquisite artefacts of craft and human ingenuity were destroyed. A small fraction of these fascinating accessories of human vices and simplified quest for happiness were saved in some museum collections. So, it is a great credit to Mr A.B Welsh who had good sense to donate to the Australian Museum some pipes and ‘opium scales’ confiscated from Chinese users by the Metropolitan Police in the Waterloo suburb of Sydney in the 1910s.

Prepared by Libai Li and Stan Florek