Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Opium 'Resolution'

On first reading Sir J. Pease's resolution about opium, it appears to be a resolution condemning the opium traffic as immoral in itself, and as one of which the extinction was recommended to the Government of India; but this natural impression was, it appears, erroneous. The effect of a resolution of the House of Commons is dependent upon rules as artificial as those of a decision of the High Court. In this case there was no resolution that the Speaker should leave the chair, and, therefore, substantially there was no resolution at all.

Whatever may have been the nature of the resolution, those who voted for it no doubt meant that the cultivation of the poppy should be discouraged, and if possible stopped, and the revenue from it given up. This resolution, and the debate upon it, appears to set one weakness of the national character in the strongest possible light. The motion was carried by 190 to 160, and if effect were to be given to it, it would strike what, if not a fatal, would at least be an unspeakably serious blow at the whole future of the British Government in India. It is recommended to reduce by 20 per cent, the income of the whole empire, without even a suggestion as to the manner in which the deficit is to be filled up, or a hint that the money already received was improperly spent. No one who dealt with the question at all took the pains to make a single observation upon these essential points. One member indeed proposed an amendment that the House should say it would take steps to reimburse the deficiency to the Indian Empire caused by the suppression of the opium revenue, and something was said as to the issue of a commission to inquire into the subject. These were the only traces which the debate showed of the most common precautions for any sort of security in carrying out what may with perfect justice be called a revolutionary proceeding.

Scandalous as such a mode of proceeding may be in dealing with the most essential interests of a great empire, which is in no way represented by Parliament, and which has no means of making its own wishes known upon the subject, no attempt will be immediately made to carry out the plan.

Bankruptcy, on the one hand, and the attempt to raise £5,500,000 by new taxation in India, which would go a long way to cause bankruptcy, will not be incurred.

The choice lies between letting things go on as they are, and paying the Indian Government about £5,500,000 a year to do away with the poppy. It is singular to trace out the strange results into which the proposal of laying such a tribute on British taxpayers would lead. The condition is one on which it would be hard indeed to get the English to continue to hold India. It is indeed difficult to see what else is to be got by doing away with the opium traffic; the attacks made upon it are based upon the ground that it injures the morals of the Chinese, and those of the natives of India and other parts of the world who practise opium smoking. To this there are two answers: (1) that the injury done is enormously exaggerated; (2) that it is done by the native populations which are affected by the use of opium, and that what they suffer by their own fault must be redressed by their own abstinence.

It is extravagant to suggest that an enormous expense should be incurred by English taxpayers for rescuing the Chinese from the consequences of their own self-indulgence. Nearly the only subject connected with the use of opium on which all persons are agreed is that it is a question of degree. Enormous masses of people of all countries use opium. It is stated that in the United States there are nearly a million opium smokers. When it is used in excess it produces dreadful results, but in moderation it is highly beneficial, and it is a gratuitously dismal view to think and speak as if in common cases it is abused for the purpose of drunkenness. [The following extracts were read by Sir H. E. Grant Duff in Parliament on the 10th of May, 1870, when the subject was last discussed. 'Tis true,' says he, 'I saw a man smoking, expecting in a moment or two to see him in his third heaven of bliss; but no! after he had taken a few whiffs he quietly resigned the pipe to one of his friends, and walked away to his business. Since then I have often seen the drug used, and I can assert that in the great majority of cases it has not been immoderately indulged in.' Mr. Balfour says that opium is like any other narcotic or stimulant, is as amenable to abuse, and, as being more seductive than other stimulants, perhaps rather more so, but this is certainly the utmost that can be imputed to it. Thousands consume it without any pernicious results, as thousands do wine or spirits without any evil consequences. The Assistant Opium Inspector at Benares says: 'With respect to the abuse of the drug in the mass of the people, I must affirm that no injurious results are risible.' (102, 506-507.)] Such an opinion is as ill-founded as the same opinion would be respecting spirits. It was well remarked in the course of the late debate that, in some ways, the drunkenness which arises from opium is far less injurious than the drunkenness which arises from spirits. A man drunk with opium is not violent or brutal. He dozes away his time ignobly, and no doubt may ultimately sink into a sort of idiocy, but he is, as a rule, inoffensive. This proceeding is essentially a self-regarding vice, and as such is distinguished fundamentally from the innumerable causes which are more or less connected with the majority of crimes in England. It was well said by Sir Richard Temple that Coleridge was fortunate in taking opium instead of spirits. If he had suffered from delirium tremens he might probably have had occasion to make a much worse confession than he ever made as an opium eater. This has, at all events, one highly important practical consequence. It is that if it is decided to treat intemperance in the use of opium as a vice, it will be found much easier to deal with it by way of prevention than to deal in the same way with intemperance in the use of intoxicating liquors.

There can be no difficulty in preventing, or at least in regulating and restricting, the sale of opium, nor would it be a matter of extraordinary difficulty or danger to turn out opium smokers, to take into custody people under the influence of opium, or to resort to other police measures for the purpose which might be easily devised and effectually carried out in India, but which it would be practically impossible to enforce in this country. Surely these are the natural and obvious measures for preventing scandals in the use of opium. It is not impossible that the enormous influence of Caste might be made use of in favour of temperance, but whatever means may be available ought to be tried to the utmost before a resolution is taken the carrying out of which would involve the monstrous consequences which would be involved in the destruction of the poppy and the prohibition of its cultivation.

One objection to any such proposal goes very deep indeed, and extends to all attempts to make temperance compulsory by destroying opportunities for its violation. It is that it is never wise to make war upon the strong and lasting feelings of mankind. Mankind have passions and inclinations which wise people must take as they find them. We must take it for granted that people will, whether their legislators like it or not, drink and smoke, and it is as a general rule unwise for rulers not to take it for granted. It is nearly as necessary to take for granted the habit of smoking opium as the habit of smoking tobacco. Many people dislike tobacco, and many people regard it as unhealthy, but no reasonable person supposes that it would be wise to legislate without reference to the existing state of public feeling on the subject.

It must never be forgotten that the demand that opium should not be smoked can be fully complied with only by prohibiting the cultivation of the poppy. It is of course impossible to carry out in detail all that is implied in destroying a crop, and especially a particularly rich and profitable one, without a good deal of incidental destruction. The immediate result will be the reduction of the Indian revenue by between five and six millions of pounds sterling, but what is to be got by way of compensation? The principal thing will be that less opium will be exported from India to China, and this is spoken of in terms of the highest and most indignant philanthropy. It is compared to the twenty millions paid for the abolition of slavery in the West Indian Islands, and is said to be a case in which England is to make an immense and interesting sacrifice for the abolition of a great moral wrong, and by way of expiation for that wrong in past times.

For glory to be got by attacking the memory of my ancestors or by setting right their supposed wrongs, I have no taste at all. Nothing leads to greater posthumous injustice, and in no case is this more true than in the present one. It is too late now to discuss the question of the so-called Opium War of 1842, but whatever may have been the morality of that transaction it is now a matter of history. It is enough to say that commerce in other things than opium was introduced in consequence, and that the object of insisting on a certain amount of commerce with China was clearly right. Now, at all events, the Chinese are at liberty to lay whatever duties on opium they think fit. Any complaint by the Chinese of the proceedings of the British Government about opium would be exposed to the unanswerable argument, why do you permit it? And the reply that it was forced upon their predecessors forty years ago would be obviously as irrelevant as it would be held to be now even if it were true in fact.

The notion that the English people will pay a 4d. income tax for the destruction of opium in India is one of the most foolish dreams ever indulged in. It is said that it will probably do so because our fathers paid twenty millions for the abolition of West Indian slavery: a weaker comparison can hardly be imagined. The very fact that West Indian slavery existed at all was a direct consequence of British legislation, and the terrible consequences which it involved were inflicted upon the slaves by British subjects. This was naturally used to bring home to English people the horror of slavery in the deepest colours, and the effect was specially deep. Indeed it may be doubted whether the demand made on the British conscience was not to some degree exaggerated, and whether the ‘man and brother' cry was not raised more loudly than it should have been. But whatever may be said on this subject, what sort of comparison can be rationally drawn between the case of black slaves dealt with as brutes and denied the first essential gifts of human beings, and persons whose faults, be they what they may, are the results of their own intemperance?

I have said what sort of chance there would be of looking to the generosity of the nation at large to pay a 4d. income tax for such an object as the one proposed, and it is so plain that it is unnecessary to insist upon it; but the other part of the question is just as important. How can any man who knows India believe that there is the least chance of raising what is required from India? The five and a half millions to be wasted here in the name of English philanthropy must be raised out of Indian taxation, and what is to be taxed if opium is to go free, which affords a natural source of revenue, and one to which the people of India is thoroughly well accustomed? All sorts of expedients have been suggested: there was some years ago a scheme for a tax upon marriage festivities, and for some other things of the same kinds of which a tax on tobacco was the only one of any importance; but none was ever tried or seriously considered, nor has anyone been willing since the Mutiny to run such a risk as inventing a new subject of taxation. A poll-tax and an additional salt-tax are the only things that could be tried, and no Government would run the risk of raising either: the attempt would be equivalent to raising a new mutiny. There is not the least reason to suppose that a mass of countries which never have been taxed at all would submit to be taxed heavily by a foreign parliament for a purpose of which they would not in the least approve.

It seems hardly possible to suggest anything that can heighten the absurdity of destroying the cultivation of the opium in India for the purpose of preventing some millions of Chinese from smoking it, and that for no other reason than that the English think it bad for them, the Chinese themselves insisting on the habit. The notion that English tastes are to be supreme, not only over their own proceedings, but over those of utter strangers with whom they have nothing at all in common, is one of those things which nobody would affirm in general terms, but which people continually act upon when they get a chance. A large share of English opinions, on religion in particular, is deeply infected with this vice. How much is done by Missionary Societies of all degrees upon the principle that their own particular views are the only ones which can possibly find favour with God!

If in some miraculous manner the financial difficulties of the question were evaded or overcome, a new series of difficulties would arise. No one has yet been so mad as to propose that we should insist on a general crusade against opium, whether grown in India, in China, or in Persia; but nothing else except a war of practically unlimited extent, and successful to an impossible degree, would persuade the Chinese from smoking Chinese opium.

Even as regards the smoking of Indian opium, it should be remembered that Indian opium is the most valuable kind of the drug. It is as champagne is to vin ordinaire, so that the only effect of stopping the growth of it upon China would be to prevent the Chinese from using the best kind. This would be indifferent to everyone except themselves and, to a certain small extent, to the opium growers in China itself. It would have no practical effect upon opium smoking—upon China in general. The homegrown article would be enough for Chinese smokers. Thus to endeavour to promote sobriety in the use of opium by prohibiting the cultivation of poppies in India is like an attempt to promote peace in Europe by prohibiting certain firms by name from constructing particular kinds of cartridges.

Not long ago a foreign politician who had travelled in India and was giving an account of his impressions to a well-known public man who had held high office there, summed up his views thus: ‘There is only one enemy in India whom you need ever fear, Yourselves.' The fact is that between Englishmen in India and Englishmen in England the greatest of all gulfs is fixed, all their fundamental assumptions are different, all their temptations are different. Each is continually learning the lesson ' Adora quod incendisti, et incende quod adorasti.' The Englishman at home is bred up in the most self-contented and peaceable society in the world; he is surrounded by every sort of conventional standard prescribing what he is to do, what he is to believe and think and like and dislike, what are to be his standards of morals and religion, but in India this state of things is gradually reversed. The Englishman finds by degrees that he is in a numerically small minority, and that he has to make out for himself what is the Indian estimate of English ways of thinking. He is in a country where the use of greased cartridges may cause a mutiny, though every school may, with perfect impunity, teach every scholar that Caste is hateful and the religious opinions of Hindoos and Mussulmans beneath contempt; that the most solemn oath to spare life is worthless unless it is made over Ganges water with salt in it, and that then it is inviolable even at the last extremity; and that whatever you do with Indians you must not tax them in any way to which they are not accustomed, nor for objects in which they feel no interest.

The Nineteenth Century, June 1891.

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