In 1829, at a meeting of the Westminster Medical Society, a group of physicians wondered why the ‘East India Opium’ was being overlooked in favour of the opium from Turkey, particularly when the efficacy and purity of the former and the quantity of morphia that it yielded had been extremely positive from the results of its analysis by medical institutions and practitioners. Opium from Smyrna (present day Izmir, Western Turkey) and Constantinople (present day Istanbul), dominated the world market for raw opium then, and there was much concern among a section of intellectuals on the need to end Britain’s dependency on Turkish opium.
As European medical botanists and scientists set about conducting various experiments on the East India Opium, in India the manufacture and disposal of opium alkaloids had been engaging the attention of both the Board of Revenue and the Government. Ever since the decline of the opium trade with China, the shortage of supplies of cinchona and the growing demand of alkaloids in the United Kingdom had been much discussed by British officials. Faced with the imminent extinction of the opium trade with China, the British government was also frantically looking for possibilities to expand the government opium monopoly over excise opium and exploring the manufacture of medicinal preparations of opium. The loss of trade with China had made the issue of alkaloids a ‘question of great practical importance.’ Although it appeared that the British Government seemed to accept the prospective loss with admirable calm, and the opium system in India was adapting to the changing conditions, the opium establishment in Ghazipur was gradually being prepped up for the manufacture of high-grade medicinal opium.
In response to an increase in demand for alkaloids from London, the Government sought information from the opium agent at Benarasand launched an investigation into the preparation of morphia hydrochlorate and narcotine, and the technological innovations to improve its quality. For what immensely concerned the British Government was the quality of the product. It was essential that India should turn out opium of high morphine content.
The British Government in India mobilized and organised the elaborate scientific and technical infrastructure in its efforts to improve the quality of medicinal opium and the English botanists and institutions, provided the critical expertise. The scientific arm of England’s contemporary ‘colonial machine’ that included the Imperial Institute, the Agricultural Research Institute and the Research Laboratory at Kasuali (Himachal Pradesh), was pressed into service to provide useful outcomes. These organisations and the individuals associated with them undertook coordinated effort to support and extend imperial exertions at producing superior quality medicinal opium in India.
It was the outbreak of the war with Turkey that accentuated the need for increasing the morphine content in the Indian opium. The supply of medical opium to UK had been impacted by Turkey and Bulgaria entering the First World War against Britain. This came at a time when the demand for medicinal opium of Britain and its allies had increased dramatically. Indian opium had been distinguished by its low morphine content, which had been stated to be about 8%; and mainly for this reason, it was not employed for medical purposes in pre-war days. The problem, therefore, of raising the morphine content of Indian opium, which had been put forward at intervals, since the early 1890s, became acute. Experiments were being conducted at the Imperial Institute to identify ways and means of augmenting the morphine content of the Indian opium. These experiments focused on seeds, the age of the capsule at the time of lancing, time of lancing the opium pod, method of lancing, number of lancings (in comparison with the method adopted in countries where the morphine content in the opium was high), the effect of climate, and how each of these variables impacted the morphine content. The investigations were revealing. Thus, the ‘scientists of empire’ shaped the future of Indian opium from excise to medicinal opium. This was in part shaped by the loss of revenue accruing from declining trade with China and the disruptions in supply of medicinal opium to England on account of the World Wars. The First and the Second World Wars led to increases in the demand for opium and expert scientific knowledge paved the way for the rise and development of ‘special medical opium’ from India.
Until the year 1930, the Ghazipur opium factory continued to supply large quantities of ‘special medical opium’[i] to the United Kingdom. Between 1935-39, the production of morphine and its salts were 1100 lbs (498 kgs approx.) and that of codeine and its salts was 200 lbs (90 kgs) per annum. In 1930, Indian medical opium began facing stiff competition from the Turkish and the Albanian opium. With dwindling demands, the production and export of ‘special medical opium’ ceased only to be revived with the increase in demand during the Second World War. The production of morphine was nearly doubled at Ghazipur. In February 1940, British merchants, Messrs Goschens and Cuncliffe, who were the principal agents for the supply of opium and its alkaloids in the United Kingdom, approached the Indian Government for 800 cases of special medical opium due to shortage of supplies of opium from the Balkans owing to the heavy purchases of Yugoslav opium by the United States and of Iranian opium by the Japanese. The British Government decided against the proposition to revive the production of alkaloids, as it was no longer a profitable commercial proposition. The Ghazipur opium factory was having difficulty in meeting the trade demands of pharmaceutical manufacturers who needed the raw opium to produce for morphine and codeine preparations. In 1941, the alkaloid manufacturing section was expanded but after the war there was a sudden dip in demand and the plant could not run at optimal capacity.
The Ghazipur factory was no longer important to Britain’s imperial interests. The halcyon days of the opium trade were long over and the alkaloid manufacturing section at Ghazipur was in many ways a reminiscence of how opium had changed the world. With the transfer of power in 1947, it was now for the Government of India (GoI) to decide the course of opium and alkaloid manufacturing at Ghazipur.
[i] The ‘special medical opium’, in great demand in the United Kingdom, was opium, possessing a high morphine strength raised to a consistence of about 87.50° and sold on the basis of the morphine content. The high morphine content was not an inherent property of the ordinary Indian opium and the special medical opium, was claimed to have been prepared by the ‘secret process’ of fortification, which was known only to the factory officers. In order to increase the proportion of certain constituents in the opium, good raw opium was mixed with a substance obtained by clarification from inferior or ‘waste opium.’ D. Dis. File No. 107. E.O./40, CBR (Excise and Opium), NAI.
Feature image: Jens Vogel.
Kawal Deep Kour is a Prevention Specialist, currently heading the South Asian Drugs and Addictions Research Council, India. She completed her doctorate from Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, India and her thesis, History of Intoxication: Opium in Assam, 1800-1959 was published by Routledge in 2019. As of March 2023, Kawal joined Points as a Contributing Editor, sharing her knowledge and expertise in South Asian drug histories and culture.