Opium and the Orient: An Intoxicant Made by Indian Labour

Chandrica BaruaChandrica Barua

Research Editor

Chandrica (she/her) holds a master’s in Medieval Literatures and Cultures from the University of Edinburgh, UK and a bachelor’s in English from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, researching posthumanism, critical race theory and archives of global coloniality. Chandrica edits research and scripts for MAP Academy’s Online Courses, and writes for Tangents. She is currently based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In 1618, emperor Jahangir wrote of the death of one of his courtiers, Inayat Khan, in his memoirs, the Jahangirnama

He was one of my closest servants and subjects. In addition to eating opium he also drank wine when he had the chance. Inayat Khan developed a ravenous appetite, and although the doctor insisted that he not eat more than once a day, he couldn’t restrain himself and raged like a madman. Finally he developed cachexia and dropsy and grew terribly thin and weak. Skin stretched over bone. Even his bones had begun to disintegrate. Good God! How can a human being remain alive in this shape? It was so strange I ordered the artists to draw his likeness.

Commissioned by Jahangir to record the strange and rapidly deteriorating appearance of Khan, and as a warning against excessive alcohol consumption and opium addiction, the 1618 painting ‘The Dying Inayat Khan’ depicts an emaciated visage, a far cry from the robust, portly young man of the past. 

In opposition to the fatalistic depiction of opium in Jahangir’s court, a 1750 painting presents rather a merry and tranquil version of opium usage. We see a gathering of royals, ascetics, mystics and clerics engaging in conversations while consuming cannabis or opium and being served fruit and bread by attendants — no emaciated or unseemly presence in sight. Thus, opium did not solely invite condemnations in Mughal India, and seems to have been widely used and perhaps even sought after for its capacity to alter mental states.

While poppy seeds were in use as far back as the 15th century in India and China, possibly introduced by Arab traders, it was in the 19th century that opium and the ‘Orient’ became inextricably linked in the popular imagination. Abundant mentions of opium in early modern travel narratives of the ‘Orient’ fed Europe’s fascination for it. Obtained from the seed pods of the poppy flower, opium was widely used as a medical panacea and a recreational drug — even influencing the literary and cultural landscape during the Romantic period from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. For instance, in 1797, it was in an opium-induced delirium that the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed his famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” translating his intoxicated dreams into three stanzas enumerating the many fantastical qualities of Xanadu, the capital of Kublai Khan’s empire, also perhaps symbolic of the Orient. 

Even though opium was not a new phenomenon of European making, by the mid-19th century, it had become one of the most profitable imperial commodities. The British had begun profiting massively from illegally importing opium into China, where millions had become addicted to it. Photographs from the time of addicted Chinese people in opium dens echo the listless, wasted appearance of Inayat Khan from centuries ago. It has been argued by scholars of colonial and imperial history that the strategy behind keeping the populations drugged was not only motivated by economic gains but also enabled the British empire to make them pliant and controllable, in a way weaponising opium. When the Chinese government attempted to prohibit drug trafficking, it led to the two Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) which the European forces won, enabling their control over the opium trade and leading to the eventual downfall of the Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history, which had been a major power at the time.

Within these imperial opium conflicts, India occupies a key catalyst position. Indian agriculture and labour were integral to Britain’s access to and production of opium, as seen in Company paintings, as well as other prints from this period. They depict the Gulzarbagh opium factory in Patna, Bihar in India, and the various steps of making, packaging and shipping opium. From obtaining crude opium to it being moulded and mixed, weighed, packaged, labelled and listed and tested for purity, we see how opium was systematically processed by Indian labourers, before being transported to the ready market in China. 

The British held a monopoly over opium cultivation in India and developed cheaper, more efficient production methods that relied on the exploitation of Indian labourers, which enabled the export of massive quantities of the drug.

The history of the imperial opium trade reveals to us how the colonisers leveraged indigenous labour to enable their economic conquest of other regions in South Asia. However, it is important to note that opium and the Orient have shared a longer, more colourful history before its incorporation into colonial trade.


Ellen Smart, “The Death of Inayat Khan by the Mughal Artist Balchand,” Artibus Asiae, 1999. 

Sharon Ruston, “Representations of drugs in 19th-century literature,” The British Library, 2014.

Soutik Biswas, “How Britain’s opium trade impoverished Indians,” BBC, 2019.

Rolf Bauer, The Peasant Production of Opium in Nineteenth-Century India, Brill, 2019.

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