Bengal Opium: a study in continuity

The drug has long been regarded in India as a blessing rather than a curse, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Indian government production of this ‘gift to the world’ continues today.

A busy stacking room in the opium factory at Patna, India.
A busy stacking room in the opium factory at Patna, India. Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The cultivation of Papaver somniferum and its processing into opium has long been ubiquitous throughout Asia, from the shores of the Mediterranean in antiquity to northern China’s Shaanxi Province in the early 1940s where it provided 40% of the nascent communist state’s revenue. But the most extraordinary chapter in opium production belongs to the nineteenth century when the Opium Agencies of the Bengal Administration became the world’s single largest state-run commercial enterprise, and one that has proved to be remarkably enduring.

By the time the Crown assumed direct control of British India in the 1850s the second largest source of government revenue, outmatched only by land taxes, was opium. Some of this revenue derived from taxes levied on Malwa opium, the collective name given to the produce of several western Princely States, but the greater part came from so-called Bengal opium: a state monopoly which at its zenith, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, was licensing over a million and a half cultivators on the fertile eastern plains of the Ganges, processing, certifying and packing their harvest in two vast factories at Ghazipur for the ‘Benares’ crop and Patna for the Bihar one, and shipping some 104,000 40-kilo chests to Calcutta for auction and onward export, primarily (94,000 chests) to China.

Malwa and Turkish opium may at times have been cheaper but, for certified consistency of quality, Bengal opium represented the gold standard, and was in greatest demand. Rudyard Kipling, who visited in 1888, described Ghazipur as ‘an opium mint … to replenish the coffers of the Indian Government.’ Moreover, as a largely export trade, opium represented a politically advantageous source of revenue, stirring none of the domestic resentments associated with land taxes or salt production.

The production of opium within what became the  Bengal Presidency had a long history. A supposed Mughal monopoly on production existed until the mid-eighteenth century when it was taken over by a group of Patna merchants who, in turn, were ruined by the unrest of the late 1750s. In 1773, the governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, assumed, on behalf of the East India Company (EIC), the monopoly of all Bengal opium, farming out production to private contractors. This system was soon abused. Opium was adulterated and cultivators coerced, and in 1797 the authorities decided to abandon the contract system in favour of what was, for its time, the highly unusual approach of taking production directly into the hands of the state.

The operations in Benares and Bihar that constituted ‘Bengal’ opium were each run by an Opium Agent, an Indian civil servant reporting to the Revenue Department in Calcutta. It was a plum job: ‘a very coveted appointment, with an extensive charge and a high salary’ in the words of J.H. ‘Harry’ Rivett-Carnac, who held the post in the Benares agency for some 20 years from 1876 until the eve of the publication of the 1895 Royal Commission on Opium, to which he contributed a lengthy summary of the workings of the system.

To take a snapshot, in 1879, Rivett-Carnac and his Bihar counterpart in Patna, A. Mangles, were responsible for the administration of sixteen districts in Benares and eleven in Bihar, each controlled by a Sub-Deputy Agent. They would issue licences to local cultivators who could then claim advances from their Opium Agency on the production of a designated size of crop. Failure to meet production targets would result in the clawing back of advances. This, above all, was a means of securing the monopoly and ensuring that opium was not siphoned off to the black market. In 1879-80 Benares had 631,226 cultivators working 274,082 acres and Bihar had 713,192 cultivators working 288,178 acres.

Extracting opium involved first scoring poppy pods and then scraping off the resin that seeped through to the pod’s surface. Once harvested, opium was brought to the so-called sudder (head) factories at Ghazipur and Patna, which fell under the direct supervision of Rivett-Carnac’s and Mangles’ immediate subordinates, their Principal Assistants. These were considerable organisations. In 1893 the town of Patna, which had a total population of 40,000, employed 4,000 people in its opium factory at busy times. The processes at the factories were well described by Walter Sherwill, a surveyor in the Bengal Army, who illustrated them in his 1851 publication, The Mode of Preparing the Indian Opium. Opium was first brought to the Examining Hall where it was tested for purity. From there, it was taken to the Mixing Room, and mixed to ensure consistency, then to the Balling Room where it was formed into approximately kilo-sized cakes (a skilled job), then to the Drying Room, to dry for a number of weeks, and finally to the Stacking Room, where cakes were stored prior to being packed 40 to a chest ready for transport to Calcutta.

The American historian, John F. Richards, in his authoritative examination of Bengal opium production suggested ‘the true advantages of poppy cultivation were … security and mitigation of risk in exchange for a four month to five-month commitment to demanding arduous work. … Perhaps the strongest argument for the attractiveness of this … can be found in the numbers of growers who, year after year, decided to seek licences and commit land and water to poppy.’ Richards concluded that ‘the end result of the state opium monopoly was thus extraordinarily long-term stable support for precisely that type of intensive high-yielding garden cultivation not generally considered a strong point in India’s agricultural practices.’

Poppy cultivation, as Richards says, was hard work. The crop was more susceptible than others to the vagaries of weather and insect attack. Indeed, some historians have asserted that cultivators made a consistent financial loss. What such claims generally fail to take into account is that, certainly on better land, opium was often a second crop. Opium Agents detected a degree of cross-subsidy, opium, according to Mangles, being cultivated ‘more for the sake of our advances than for the profits derived from the crop.’  This aside, why would cultivators have persisted in growing it year after year if it were loss making? There is no evidence of systemic coercion and remarkably little of localised pressure on cultivators —one of the reasons for adopting this unusual form of governance in the first place was specifically to suppress coercion. The Bengal Regulation establishing the Agencies stated that in part it was ‘for preventing the agents or their officers from compelling any person to cultivate the poppy’ and that ‘It is left to the option of every person to enter into engagements for the cultivation of the poppy on account of Government, at such prices as may be settled for the produce, or to decline the cultivation of it altogether.’ Historically, the EIC had neither the inclination nor the need to make empty promises.

However, the real test is not whether cultivators could move to other crops, but whether they did, and the pattern of cultivation in later decades indicates a considerable degree of free will. Poor opium prices in the late 1850s, for example, produced a move away from the crop to indigo, cotton and sugarcane, while in 1879 Mangles expressed concern that ‘sugar manufacturers both European and native have adopted our system of making advances, and, competing with one another, are making them at very high rates. ’ It was a worry reinforced by his superiors:

The Board have more than once represented to Government their objections to the system of seeking to recover the Government advances when the poppy crop has failed owing to causes beyond the cultivators’ control. Such a practice must conduce to render the poppy cultivation unpopular: the more so when poppy comes into competition with sugarcane and other crops which are grown under a system of advances that are not recoverable if the crop fails.

This hardly sounds like the description of a captive labour force.

Elsewhere in the same 1879 report it was noted that the opening of a new branch railway line had enabled transport of opium directly from Ghazipur to Howrah, but the coming of the railway was a double-edged sword. It also encouraged the cultivation of bulkier but less precarious cash crops in areas with good rail connections. In the district of Ghazipur itself, the area under poppy cultivation virtually halved between 1879 and 1900.

There was another, more existential, threat to the industry. In 1893, the British anti-opium lobby, influenced in particular by European missionaries in China, persuaded the government to establish a Royal Commission, which was to report in 1895. The lobbyists ultimately failed to end opium production in India, but it was a pyrrhic victory for the opium producers. By the turn of the century, the British government had grown more susceptible to renewed Chinese pressure. There were two factors at play here.

First, the primary impetus behind the rapid development of opium production in India had been an alarming trade deficit with China, brought about by the British demand for China tea. Opium exports to China balanced the books nicely. In 1879 over 70% of tea sold in London continued to come from China, but China’s market share was increasingly challenged by Indian production. By 1900, the Chinese share of the British market had collapsed to 10%, with Indian and Ceylon teas constituting the bulk of the remainder. The tea deficit had evaporated.

Second, and more important, were the longer-term consequences of the mid-century Anglo-Chinese Treaties, opening up China to free trade and forcing the legalisation of opium in the Chinese Empire. This had the immediate effect of a boom in Indian opium export. But such laissez faire measures cut both ways. Soon enough the British were hoist with their own petard. By the turn of the century, Sichuan alone was producing more opium than the whole of India.

The British government was now prepared to contemplate a gradual running down of the China export trade if matched by a domestic clampdown by the Chinese authorities. By 1911, the process was virtually complete and the Bihar Agency ceased operations. The now sole remaining (Benares) Opium Agent, H.M.R Hopkins, noted wistfully that ‘at the end of the year [1911] the entire [Bihar] Agency which had been in existence since 1797 was closed. The cultivation of poppy in Bihar which dates back to the seventeenth century, if not before, was also abandoned.’

But talk of the demise of opium production in the East Gangetic Plain was premature. A decade after the closure of the Bihar agency, almost half a million cultivators on 141,344 acres were providing the Ghazipur factory with a harvest sufficient to produce over 840 tonnes of processed opium a year.

Output did decline in the years that followed, but the annual reports of the Opium Agent, preserved among the India Office records in the British Library, show the system continued much as before. The Benares Agent remained responsible not only for overseeing the granting of licences to cultivators, the provision of advances against the value of the crop, and its receipt and processing at the Ghazipur factory, but also for the enforcement of the Opium Acts of 1857 and 1878, particularly in respect to the government monopoly on opium production. ‘Opium smugglers will always offer to cultivators many times the price which is offered by Government’, the Agent candidly stated in 1932.

The further processing of opium into alkaloids including morphine, codeine and narcotine was mentioned in notes on the Bihar Agency written by its Principal Assistant, Dr R. Lyell, in 1857, and was undertaken on a regular basis at Ghazipur, with the products sold in Britain, by the early 1880s. It continued at Ghazipur, even as overall production fell, throughout the 1920s and 1930s. ‘From the point of view of departmental profit, the opium alkaloids have now become the most important out-put of the Factory,’ reported the Agent, JAStJ Farnon,  in 1937

The coming of war in 1939 drastically reversed the general decline. Land under cultivation reached some 29,000 acres in 1944 while the number of cultivators and output each rose eightfold between 1941 and 1945. Plans for a new alkaloid factory were drawn up in 1941, construction commenced in April 1943, and work was complete by 1944.

The operation of the system was virtually unchanged by the coming of Independence. A UN report of 1956 described all the elements of the former system. The only major change was the incorporation, by the 1950 Opium Act, of the Malwa areas into the government monopoly, at a stroke greatly expanding the area covered. The government of independent India thus chose to impose the British, rather than native Indian, system.

This remains the case to this day. The Ghazipur factory, still in its 1855 premises, built by the East India Company, and managed by the Government Opium and Alkaloid Factories, continues to process opium harvested by annually-licensed cultivators in receipt of government advances on a government monopoly basis. In the 2020s this may be changing through tentative experiments in privatising areas of alkaloid production and the introduction of automated harvesting technologies but, for the moment, if Harry Rivett-Carnac were to revisit his old stamping ground he would recognise a system essentially unchanged from his time, right down to the names of such Benares Agency sub-divisions as Faizabad and Lucknow, Ghazipur, Bareilly and Rai Bareilly.

This continuity is probably influenced by a more positive view of opium in India than has come to prevail in other societies. The Royal Commission of 1895 concluded there was, ‘a marked preponderance on the side of the view that the common use of opium in India is a moderate use, leading to no ill-effects. This is the view generally expressed by natives of the country holding responsible positions in life, and by the medical witnesses, and it is confirmed by the statements of individual consumers.’

So the demonisation of the drug by puritanical mandarins and European missionaries had less impact in India than elsewhere. Attitudes in China mattered to Indians only insofar as they affected an important export trade, while European missionaries had always been regarded in India as a very suspect species. The view of the anti-opium lobby expressed by an official of the Financial Department in Calcutta in 1910 as ‘a somewhat prejudiced clergy and an entirely unreasonable body of women’ seems to have been shared in India by British and Indians alike. Even Indian nationalists who disapproved of the way the industry was run — profiteering through its monopoly position in the east and punitive taxation in the west — felt the European obsession with opium was a distraction. What India needed, stated the MP and president of the Indian National Congress, Dadabhai Naoroji, wasn’t a Royal Commission on opium but rather one on the entire governance of the country. Meanwhile, European attitudes towards opium constituted blatant cultural imperialism. European ‘vices may remain, but whatever little vice we have must go’ complained T. N. Mukharji, a witness before the Royal Commission, who recalled that four years earlier he had written a paper recommending ‘the English people to take opium instead of alcohol … Cannot we induce the people of England to eat opium instead of annually spending more than two hundred crores of rupees in the consumption of alcoholic liquors? Opium is amazingly cheap, duty included; it prolongs life after a certain age … its substitution in place of alcohol … will bring back happiness to thousands of families in Great Britain and Ireland where there is no happiness now … it is time … to spring up with the object of extending the consumption of the Indian opium in England, Europe, and America.’

Whatever qualms may have existed about the recreational use of opium, there were — and remain — few Indian doubts as to its therapeutic benefits. Opium, in the words of today’s Government of India Opium and Alkaloid Factories, is ‘a miracle of nature and India’s gift to the world.’

The author wishes to thank Margaret Makepeace, Lead Curator, EIC Records, British Library for leads to material in the India Office Records on opium production.


Nic Allen