Opium Dreams

Before heroin, there was opium, which is almost as old as civilization itself.

As early as 1600BC, the Egyptians were using opium to calm crying infants. Over 2000 years later, the Victorians invented Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, an opiate-laden elixir which ensured that children remained seen but not heard.

Ancient civilizations were well aware of opium's habit-forming qualities but it took a long time for Western medicine to learn from the ancestors.

The Chinese suffered the most. When Portuguese traders sold pipes and tobacco from South America alongside opium from the Middle East, 18th century Chinese society got into opium-smoking in a big way, in plague-sized proportions.

the opium wars

The main benefactor of this wholesale addiction was Britain. Its East India Company were the main traders with China and paid for tea and silks with opium, harvested from the fall of the Mogul Empire in India. The Chinese authorities, naturally enough, opposed the blighting of their society with a highly addictive drug.

But the British were having none of it. They went to war with China twice to force them to trade the opium, and bagged Hong Kong as a nice colonial outpost in the process.

creative stimulant

In the meantime, most of Britain has become addicted to Laudanum - a mix of opium, alcohol, and distilled water.

Used initially as a medicine for colic and a cure for dysentery, its mind-altering properties soon caught the interest of writers and poets.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem Kubla Khan was inspired by an opium-induced vision. Mary Shelley's idea for Frankenstein came from a waking opium dream. Wilkie Collins dictated the first detective novel, The MoonStone, "largely under the effects of opium".

Thomas De Quincey even wrote a book called Confessions of an English Opium Eater - the Trainspotting of its day.

royal euthanasia

Opium was also used for euthanizing the terminally ill. King George V, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II was helped on his way with a mixture of cocaine and opium. This helped ensure his death was announced in the more 'acceptable' morning papers rather than the evening press.