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The New York Times March 29, 1896, p. 28
IN THE LAND OF OPIUM
THE IMMENSE AREAS GIVEN TO THE GROWTH OF THE POPPY.
The Drug's History Traced from the Plant to the Pipe--The Scenes in the Indian Fields--Processes Through Which the Opium Goes--The Monopoly of Finishing for Smoking in the Hands of Chinese--View of a Lucknow Smoking Den.
Few people have any idea of the vast areas given over wholly to the cultivation of opium. The consumption and the manufacture of this drug, far from being on the decline, are on the increase to an almost incredible extent. The greed for gold is far more predominant in the human make-up than is the philanthropic spirit which seeks to elevate mankind, though its purse may suffer in so doing. England, this great moral nation, "ever ready to take the sword, &c., for the oppressed and for the elevation of mankind in general," reaps more benefit from the cultivation of opium than all other nations put together.
In the district of Bengal alone there are nearly 1,000,000 acres devoted exclusively to the cultivation of the poppy. Its cultivation is legalized and in every way encouraged by the British Government, which has an absolute monopoly of this industry in India. The two principal districts are presided over by and under the direct control of English officials residing at Patna and Ghazipur. The Bahar agency embraces an opium field of about 500,000 acres, and that of Benares is a close second with 478,500 devoted to the cultivation of this much-talked-of drug.
There is a fierce dispute going on just now as to the relative merits or demerits of opium. Many eminent men in the scientific world openly declare that opium is a blessing. The Government experts in the country where it grows go so far as to say that opium is a blessing instead of being a curse to the natives. However, the vast majority of mankind will long be of the undivided opinion that opium is the most all-crushing curse that afflicts man. The enthusiasts, or, rather, extremists, of the International Anti-Opium Society picture the condition of India under the ban of opium in the most dreadful manner possible. According to one of these men, all of the 600,000,000 of human beings in Asia are exposed to the evils of the opium trade as legalized by the British Government. In order to derive a revenue from it the Indian Government issues licenses for the sale and consumption of this poisonous drug in vile places in all large cities, like Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Lucknow, and Maulmain, and in all towns and villages of India and Burmah. These licenses are not issued for the purpose of limiting the sale of something that cannot be prohibited, but they are issued with the requirement that the holder of the license must sell a stipulated quantity or pay a forfeit!
The more sold the more revenue the English Crown will receive. As the opium is bought from the Government agents, of course it is known how much the holder of the license sells. A member of the Parliament who was most bitterly opposed to this traffic has been traveling through India gathering facts and seeing for himself what the condition of the natives is under an unrestricted use of opium.
One of the opium dens at Lucknow is graphically described. There is no secrecy about selling or purchasing the drug: it is handled as would be sugar, flour, or the other necessities of life. Entering with the customers, you will find yourself in a spacious but very dirty courtyard, around which are ranged fifteen or twenty small rooms. This is the establishment of the Government collector--the opium farmer. The stench is sickening, and the swarm of flies intolerable. Enter one of the small rooms. It has no windows and is very dark, but in the centre is a small charcoal fire, the glow of which lights up the faces of nine or ten human beings--men and women--lying on the floor like pigs in a sty. A young girl fans the fire, lights the opium pipe, and holds it to the mouth of the last comer till his head falls heavily on the body of the inert man or woman who happens to lie near him. In no groggery, in no lunatic or idiot asylum, will one see such utter, helpless depravity as appears in the countenances of those in the preliminary stages of opium drunkenness. Here one may see some handsome young married women, nineteen or twenty years of age, sprawling over the senseless bodies of men. Here is a much younger girl sitting among a group of newly arrived customers singing lewd songs as they hand around the pipes. At night these dens are all crowded to excess, and it is estimated that there are some 14,000 people in Lucknow abject slaves of this hideous vice.
There are those, however, who have radically different opinions on the opium question. The use of the drug in America or Europe under vastly different climatic conditions has nothing in common with the use of it in its native land. The Bishop of Calcutta, on being asked for an opinion on this subject, said among other things that, "while admitting that there are evils arising from the use of opium, we are of the opinion that they are not sufficiently great to justify us in restricting the liberty which all men should be permitted to express in such matters. Medical testimony [illeg.] to show that opium used in moderation is in this country harmless and under certain conditions of life distinctly beneficial."
One distinguished native, a high official of the Indian Museum, was rather sarcastic when asked his opinion on this subject. He said that the opium habit was much preferable to the alcoholism of America and Europe, and recommended the introduction of the drug as a substitute for alcohol.
It is worth a long journey to visit the poppy fields when the season begins. In February, as a rule, the plant is in full flower and has attained a height of three or four feet. Each stem has from two to five capsules of the size of a duck's egg. This is the time for the all- important operation of gathering the juice. Before the capsules are pierced the fallen petals of the flowers are carefully gathered and sorted, according to condition, in three grades, They are heated over a slow fire and formed into thin cakes, to be used for the covering of the drug when collected. This done, the piercing of the pods begins. This requires great skill, as the yield greatly depends on the exactness of this operation. The opium farmer and his assistants to about armed with a small lancet-like affair, which is provided with three or four short, sharp prongs. With this a half dozen perpendicular cuts are made in each capsule or seed pod. The juice begins to flow at once, but quickly congeals. The day after all the thickened juice is carefully gathered, being scraped off with a small iron trowel expressly made for this purpose.
The mass thus gathered is put into an earthen vessel and kept carefully stirred for a month or more, great care being taken to have it well aired, but not exposed to the sun. This finished, the opium examiner comes along with this assistant, an expert tester. These two pass upon the grade produced, and when this is done the whole is put into a large box. Now it is worked very much in the same fashion as baker's dough, to give it the required consistency. After this operation is finished, the opium is put up into balls for exportation. This is a very interesting sight. The natives wade about in the large vats containing the pastelike drug and hand out the stuff to hundreds of ballmakers sitting around the room. Every man has a spherical brass cup, lined with the petals mentioned, before him. Into this is pressed the regulation quantity of opium. From this brass cup, when properly pressed, the opium ball is transferred to another man who gives it a coating of clay. This gives the drug, when ready for shipment, the appearance of a fair-sized cannon ball. When well prepared in this manner, opium will keep its properties for fifteen years or more.
In this condition it is as yet raw opium and unfit for smoking. For some unexplained reason the final preparation of the drug to make it marketable for smoking is almost a monopoly in the hands of the Chinese. These people pay an enormous bonus for this privilege, but their profits are in proportion. The Chinese seem to be the most successful in giving this subtle drug the finishing touches. There are large establishments devoted to the preparation of the crude opium. Outside of these factories there are pyramids of opium balls which at first glance remind one far more of an artillery park than of an opium factory. The balls are broken, and after being removed are remoistened with a little water and allowed to stand abut fourteen hours. They are then put into pans, two and a half balls with ten pints of water. After this has boiled for about ten hours it is reduced to a thin paste of uniform consistency. This is then transferred to a larger vessel and allowed to stand for fifteen hours. Then it is put through a great deal of filtering and various other processes and finally put over a brisk fire. At a certain period it is quickly taken away from the fire and vigorously stirred until cold, the cooling being accelerated by coolies with large fans. When quite cold it is taken to a special room and kept there for some months before it is considered in prime condition for smoking. Prepared this way, the opium is of the consistency of a very thick syrup. It is put up in small boxes or jars of graduated weights to suit the customers. All such boxes have the name of the maker stamped on each package. In this condition the drug is exceedingly valuable, and all the employees are searched for hidden opium before they leave the factory.
[NOTE: The article from which this file was excerpted may include additional text and accompanying illustrations.]
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