In a dimly-lit wooden opium den, one of hundreds in the unkempt Chinese neighbourhood of Tanjong Pagar, clouds of sweet-smelling smoke drift through the air as gaunt men, bones visible through their skin, lie supine inhaling from pipes. Their eyes, lifeless and distant, are those of men drifting into a world of unabashed pleasure.
While today this scene sounds more orientalist trope than historical account, in early 19th century Singapore – then a growing colonial port city far flung from the modern metropolis we know today – this was a common scene as opium rose to become one of the most lucrative sources of imperial revenue across the continent.
As Britain conquered the vast poppy-growing region of India in the 18th century, they would begin smuggling opium to the Far East via the East India Company, leading to a rapid increase in opium use and addiction in China. From there, the opium trade spread to colonies in Southeast Asia – from Burma to the Straits Settlements – and became a lucrative trade for colonial powers, as they would import opium, issue licenses, and collect taxes.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the revenue of the Straits Settlements – an area encompassing Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Dinding ruled by the British Empire between 1826 and 1946 – was sustained in no small measure by the opium trade. According to some estimates, between 1898 and 1904, opium was a key source of income for the colonial coffers and accounted for 43.3% to 59.1% of the British Straits Settlements Colony revenue.
But as the negative social impact of opium usage – from addiction to crime – generated hostility towards the trade by the end of the 19th century, an anti-opium movement would grow across the region, pushing for the trade’s prohibition.
Nowhere was this more true than the Straits Settlements. Initially led by a small band of individuals and their media campaigns, the anti-opium movement in the Straits Settlements would wield outsized international influence in ending the opium trade, even as it seemed an unbreakable and essential element of the British imperial rule.
Steffen Rimner, historian and author of the book Opium’s Long Shadow: From Asian Revolt to Global Drug Control on the history of the anti-opium movement, emphasised the role of anti-opium movements in the Straits Settlements in contributing to the international drug control measures present today.
“It is well-known that the Straits Settlements were at the crossroads of the opium trade in South Asia and East Asia,” he told the Globe. “Less known is the role of the Straits Settlements as a place where media campaigns against opium originated and where protests from abroad intersected.”
Around 1850, it was estimated there were over 15,000 opium smokers in the Straits Settlements, with this figure disproportionately made up of impoverished Chinese coolies – indentured labourers engaged in unskilled and hard labour. With opium addiction impacting the Chinese so disproportionately in the Straits Settlements, the region’s anti-opium movement was also led by the Straits Chinese (Peranakan) community.
The harm of opium usage was felt across society, with habitual opium smoking leading to serious health consequences: between 1907 and 1908, one in ten of hospital admissions in Singapore were opium smokers. Addiction was also cited as the source of social problems such as family conflict and crime. Surgeon Dr Robert Little, in his 1850 piece On the Habitual Use of Opium in Singapore, described the drug’s use as “a most expensive habit, the gratification of which plunges the poorest classes into the direst poverty with all its consequences”.
By the late 19th century, the Straits Settlements had become a campaign hub for abolitionists, with growing calls for the British government to issue anti-opium laws. Read to parliament on April 9, 1891, a petition of 11,000 signatures rallied against “the terrible evils of opium-smoking among so many of the thousands of Chinese who crowd to these part of the British possessions to make a livelihood for themselves”.
“When you visualise it, it looks as if the enemies of opium in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century very much encircled the Straits Settlements,” said Rimner.
A key figure of the anti-opium movement in Singapore was Lim Boon Keng, a respected Peranakan physician that helped to promote social and educational reforms in Singapore and the founder of the Singapore Anti-Opium Society. He pushed for reforms on opium consumption and was outspoken about the ills of opium use.
Lim, along with fellow prominent Peranakan Song Ong Siang, founded The Straits Chinese Magazine – the first English-language periodical owned, edited and published by Malayans – in 1897 and used the medium to express his concerns about the social ills of opium.
Having received both a Chinese and Western education, Lim was well-positioned to write about opium from an “in-between” perspective to voice local concerns to the colonial administration, bridging between the East and the West.
Although the magazine was based in Singapore, it appealed to Peranakan communities throughout Southeast Asia, as well as other colonised communities. It reached readers across the world in “quiet homes in England and America” and could be found in the collections of the École française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of Asian Studies) and Library of Congress in the United States.
In the second volume of The Straits Chinese Magazine in 1898, Lim published an article titled The Attitude of the State Towards the Opium Habit where he offered an impassioned admonition of opium use in the Straits Settlements:
“The Government of every civilized country recognizes its duty to repress all sources of vice and crime. […] we wish to call the attention of the Straits Government to its position in regard to the baneful habit of opium smoking, to the revenue which it derives from this luxury and to the duties which it morally owes to the poor and helpless victims of the opium habit.”
Lim emphasised the lack of a cure for opium addiction, placing the addicted coolies in a helpless situation:
“From the helpless coolies’ point of view, it is most cruel tyranny that a man in a free country should be able to get any amount of opium for the gratification of a vice but could not get a remedy for the cure of the habit without being run in by the police and, in all probability, sent to gaol [jail] for non-payment of fines.”
Lim, in collaboration with other Straits Chinese physicians, therefore worked to analyse the impact of opium consumption and an effective treatment for addicted users.
In 1906, an opium refuge was opened to help addicted patients seek medical help and undergo isolation treatment to stop addiction, a two-week compulsory stay with food and other necessities provided free of charge but patients would have to pay a fine if they left early. Initially founded in Singapore, the opium refuge model later spread to Penang in among the first rehabilitation-focused models for opium addiction.
Beyond the Straits Settlements, other colonised communities faced similar struggles with opium, with the Peranakan movement part of a wider anti-opium movement that spread across Asia.
“From anti-opium protesters in British India and Burma, Qing dynasty officials, staunch prohibitionists in Japan, and American public health activists in the Philippines to the occasional bishop in French Indochina, many were trying to come to grips with the ‘opium problem’ and searching for solutions,” said Rimner.
Seeing the effects of the opium in neighbouring China, Japan prohibited opium imports within its borders, and those of then-colony Taiwan, in 1895. The success of this measure showed that quelling the opium trade was possible and further propelled the Straits Settlement’s anti-opium movement. Japan’s prohibition was heralded in local media, such as The Straits Times in 1905, and lauded by Lim as a “notable exception”.
This international cooperation proved crucial in the anti-opium movement gaining traction.
“To ‘propel’ the anti-opium movement, one had to find allies abroad,” said Rimner. “It was a start to have local partners, but you needed regional and global partners to discuss the consumption, distribution and especially supply of narcotic drugs – and to do so with the enhanced credibility that is part of international cooperation.”
Even though not a great power, the Straits Settlements left traces of influence in archives around the world … Neglected forces showed that power did not always flow from the barrel of the gun
The contribution from the Straits Settlements abolitionists, in the form of medical expertise and the championing of the Japanese domestic opium ban, was a great boon to the wider international anti-opium movement.
“Both strains of influence propelled change in international public opinion and change in world politics. The belief in medical facts solidified international public opinion on opium. The model of Japan suggested to observers at the time that control can work,” said Rimner.
As the anti-opium movement spread internationally, the perception of opium shifted from being a problem concerning the mainly Chinese addicts to the responsibility of the government that was supporting the opium trade.
“The powerful were at greater reputational risk because everyone watched them, ready to point fingers,” explained Rimner. “Responding to [the global anti-opium movement], the British government monitored widely and read voraciously, gauging shifts in the local, regional, imperial and global climate of opinion and weighing at what cost they could publicly partner with anti- or pro-opium pressure groups.”
With growing criticism in the Straits Settlements, the British government issued the Royal Commission on Opium in the late 19th century to investigate the anti-opium movement. However, the Royal Commission’s report on opium in the Straits Settlements did not fully reflect domestic sentiment, with evidence and opinions from anti-opium advocates largely absent.
“Defenders of the opium trade in the British government tried to ridicule anti-opium protesters but miscalculated in 1895 with the Royal Commission, a massive response not only to Straits Settlements concerns, but to a growing Chinese, Indian and British domestic anti-opium front,” said Rimner.
While the Royal Commission, in trying to defend a key source of revenue for the British colonial government, attempted to downplay opium’s negative social impact, the anti-opium movement continued to grow, culminating in the 1912 International Opium Convention. Led by the US, in collaboration with twelve other countries, it put in place international drug control measures and banned opium trading beyond medicinal and scientific needs. The Convention’s framework went into force globally with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
While it would be the great powers that ultimately pushed through international opium controls, abolitionists in the Straits Settlements – not least Lim, his quarterly magazine and the wider Peranakan community – wielded outsized influence in the opium debate and became one of the “little players punching above their weight”, according to Rimner.
“Even though not a great power, the Straits Settlements left traces of influence in archives around the world,” said Rimner. “Neglected forces showed that power did not always flow from the barrel of the gun, it could also flow from the megaphone of the media.”
Steffen Rimner is the author of Opium’s Long Shadow: From Asian Revolt to Global Drug Control. He serves as Ad Astra Fellow and Assistant Professor in the History of International Affairs at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland.