A Boiling Soup of Opium


On History


Unknown Chinese artist, Commissioner Lin and the Destruction of the Opium in 1839

Happy Opium Suppression Movement Day! This is, according to such reputable resources as Wikipedia and, a Taiwanese holiday dedicated to stamping out cigarette smoking—but it all began on June 3, 1839, when more than one thousand tons of illegal opium were systemically destroyed at Humen, in China’s Guangdong province.

By that time, an estimated four to twelve million Chinese citizens were opium addicts; though the opium trade had been banned in China since 1800, smugglers continued to import massive quantities, largely to the gain of the British and the East India Company. The Daoguang Emperor, understandably fed up with these circumstances, adopted a kind of zero-tolerance policy, enforced by a Special Imperial Commissioner named Lin Zexu.

In March of 1839, tensions between the British and the Chinese came to a head, and Commissioner Lin aimed to seize the Brits’ entire supply of opium; when said Brits offered only a small bit of their contraband, Lin threatened to behead one of them. Long story short, his force paid off, and he came into tons and tons of opium. On June 3, he began to destroy it all, a task that absorbed the better part of three weeks. An 1888 account explained his process, which was ingenious, if labor-intensive:

At an elevated spot on the shore a space was barricaded in; here a pit was dug, and filled with opium mixed with brine: into this, again, lime was thrown, forming a scalding furnace, which made a kind of boiling soup of the opium. In the evening the mixture was let out by sluices, and allowed to flow out to sea with the ebb tide.

Elijah Coleman Bridgman, an American missionary, offered a more extended explanation:

In the first place, a trench was filled two feet deep, more or less, with fresh water, from the brow of the hill. The first trench was in this state, having just been filled with fresh water. Over the second, in which the people were at work, forms, with planks on them, were arranged a few feet apart. The opium in baskets was delivered into the hands of coolies, who going on the planks carried it every part of the trench. The balls were then taken out one by one, and thrown down on the planks, stamped on with the heel till broken in pieces, and then kicked into the water. At the same time, other coolies were employed in the trenches, with hoes and broad spatulas, busily engaging in beating and turning up the opium from the bottom of the vat. Other coolies were employed in bringing salt and lime, and spreading them profusely over the whole surface of the trench. The third was about half filled, standing like a distiller’s vat, not in a state of active fermentation, but of slow decomposition, and was nearly ready to be drawn off. This was to be done through a narrow sluice, opened between the trench and the creek. This sluice was two feet wide, and somewhat deeper than the floor of the trench. It was furnished with a screen, made fine like a sieve, so as to prevent any large masses of the drug from finding their way into creek. Loo told us that the destruction of the opium, which commenced on the 3d, would be completed by the 23d.

At one point, someone was caught trying to abscond with some of the opium. He was beheaded then and there. Not long afterward, the First Opium War began in earnest.