ABSTRACT

The Sino-British global drug traffic was a development of what John E. Wills Jr. has called “the interactive emergence” of European domination of “the modern world system” in maritime Asia. This interaction, as shaped by regional “patterns of production, trade, and governance,” subsequently “emerged in highly contingent and specific ways from … mutual adaptations” between European and Asian actors. The invention of opium paste is one such contingent emergence because it was the largely fortuitous result of a semi-conscious collaborative transnational enterprise between Chinese smokers of Qing China and its Southeast Asian diaspora, the poppy cultivators of British India and the free-trading smugglers of Great Britain and their monopolist opponents. The outcome of this collaboration proved very difficult for any state to fully control, at least in part because opium constituted an unprecedented concentration of the essence of state power itself, in an all too easily reproducible and exploitable form. The emergence of what is arguably the world’s first modern drug problem challenged state centralization through its potential for converting mass drug consumption into the economic basis for regionalized sovereignty. Through the process of mutual adaptation, the physical drug dependency of individuals could abet regional economic, and ultimately political, autonomy.