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A review of Milk of Paradise : A History of Opium

Kongbrailatpam Rajeshwar Sharma *



Had William Wordsworth, English romantic poet of the 19th century, been born in Manipur and seen the vast stretches of poppy flowers blooming on the slopes of its rolling hills near the border with Myanmar, he would have written a poem as beautiful as his Daffodils where he describes the daffodils in full bloom near the shores of Ullswater, a lake in Cumbria.

When the poppy flowers are in full bloom and “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance” as the daffodils do, the hills of Manipur seem to be covered with a carpet embroidered with white, yellow, purple, red, and pink flowers. These gorgeous flowers are not only a feast to one’s eyes, but they are also a source of inspiration to some aspiring poets as much as the daffodils were to William Wordsworth.

It is an irony that these colourful, beautiful flowers are grown for its white latex known to the Minoans as “Milk of Paradise”, which, in the words of Lucy Inglis, “will end our lives dependent upon it.”

Recently I went to Bengaluru or Bangalore the garden city of India. The city is also known as the “silicon valley of India”. Bangalore is not new to me as I used to go there on my way to Ooty where my son studied at a school. While I was browsing at a book shop in the city, I came across the book, Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium.

It is written by Lucy Inglis, a cultural historian, and published in 2018 by Macmillan. No sooner did I see on its cover the picture of a poppy head sandwiched between two poppy flowers then the temptation to read the book overwhelmed me. The poppy head, in between the two poppy flowers, is incised horizontally, from which the white latex oozes and drips.

In her attempt to trace the origin of opium poppy or Papaver somniferum, Lucy Inglis takes us to the prehistoric time when humans began living in villages where they domesticated wild animals and plants.

Among the domesticated plants, opium poppy was used “for narcotic or analgesic purposes” around 7500 years ago in Spain even though no one can say where it originated. In a mine near Barcelona, a man was found buried with “a poppy capsule stuck in his bad teeth, and his bones contained evidence of long-term opium consumption.”

It is believed among the historians that around 5700-5200 BC the La Marmottas who arrived in Europe from the Mediterranean by boats might have introduced “the second wave of Fertile Crescent crops, of olives, grapes, pomegranates and the opium poppy.”

As early as late Bronze Age around 1500 BC, opium poppy was diversely used in the western and eastern Mediterranean regions of Europe. The Minoans were the Bronze Age people that flourished in Crete and other Aegean islands. Although they were primarily fishing communities, the Minoans grew crops such as olives, vines and opium poppies.

The “scarified poppy heads” depicted on their jugs known as Lekythi tell us that opium poppy was one of the important crops of the Minoan people, and that they also knew how to harvest the white latex which they called “Milk of Paradise”.

How important opium poppy was to the Minoans is shown by the fact that they even worshipped Poppy Goddess which was discovered in 1937 in a temple in northern Crete. The statue of Poppy Goddess is about seventy-eight centimeters tall and her hair is decorated with three poppy capsules.

About 783 kilometers east of Crete lies the island of Cyprus where the ancient city of Kiteon flourished on its southern coast. The city is now called Larnaca. In the fourth century AD, the city of Kiteon was destroyed completely by a massive earthquake. A wealth of archeological evidence of its past was discovered in an excavation carried out in the city in 1929.

During the excavation, an opium pipe made of ivory was found along with other ivory objects in the temple of the goddess of Fertility which collapsed during a raid by the Aegean sea-pirates in 1190 BC. Besides the opium pipe, a cup-like bowl with an image of the Egyptian dwarf-god, Bes was found. He was associated with “renewal of life” which suggests that opium poppy was a highly valued precious commodity preferred by Gods and Goddesses.

In Greek mythology, opium poppy was associated with several Gods and Goddesses. According to a legend, poppies were discovered by Demeter, the Greek mother Goddess of agriculture. She was depicted holding a corn of wheat on one hand and poppy on the other. Poppy was so popular among the ancient Greeks that they even worshipped it in the names of Nyx, the Goddess of night and Hypnos, the God of sleep.

Homer, the Greek poet who wrote two great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, made references to poppy. In the Odyssey, Polydamna presented Helen a drug which was believed to be opium. She herself “cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug, to quiet all pain and strife, and to bring forgetfulness of every evil”.

It is quite interesting to read the chapter where Lucy Inglis explains how “British opium trade with China” came about. During the second half of the 17th century, consumption of tea increased steadily in Britain and Europe. So did the demand for tea. “Britons had become insatiable consumers of tea”, writes Lucy Inglis.

A century later, British East India Company imported from Canton, China 25.5 million pounds of tea between 1785 and 1787. Such a huge demand for tea had not only drained the economy but the consumption of tea was also thought to be “damaging to health”.

Jonas Hanway, founder of the Marine Society, “attacked tea from every possible angle” in some of his publications in 1756. Apart from these scathing attacks, there was hardly any commodity in Britain that could be exchanged with tea.

On the other hand, British India was rising along with the East India Company which saw in Indian cotton and opium the much desired commodities that could be exchanged with the Chinese tea.

Under the leadership of Robert Clive, the East India Company not only took control of Bengal after defeating the Nawab of Bengal in the Battle of Plassey but it also “placed Britain in control of the major opium-growing regions of Patna, Benares, Behar and Malwa.” Moreover the Indian cotton and opium were in high demand in China. So the British East India Company established in Canton “an equitable trade exchange.” In her book, Lucy Inglis writes “It was the beginning of a trade exchange that had disastrous results for China.”

Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium is divided into three parts. In the third part of her book, Lucy Inglis dwells on heroin “the most successful illegal” synthetic drug that emerged out of a research laboratory as another avatar of opium.

Half a century after Freiderich Wilhelm Serturner, a German chemist discovered the “active substance Morphium from opium latex” in 1817, the conception of heroin began at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, where two young chemists worked together to find “a form of painkiller that wasn’t as addictive as morphine.” Augustus Matthiessen, one of the two chemists, committed suicide in 1870 before they could synthesize the drug.

In spite of the death of his colleague, Charles Romley Alder Wright, the other chemist, continued working alone. In 1874 he was able to synthesize diacetylmorphine which is popularly known as heroin. However F.M Pierce, a London doctor who tested the synthesized drug, “failed to make comparative tests with standard morphine, so diacetylmorphine didn’t seem any more or less effective, and was thus discarded as yet another failure.”

In 1898 at Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company, a research chemist named Heinrich Dreser “who is often credited–wrongly–with the invention of heroin” published two papers on “the pharmacology of derivatives” and the other on “the effect of some morphine derivatives on respiration” It revealed that he had been looking for a drug, “specifically, in the diacetylmorphine experiments”, that would treat advanced lung disease.

To his surprise, it was found from “studies on sufferers” that diacetylmorphine “really did stop them coughing, made them feel calm, and as a sedative, helped them get a good night’s sleep” With the success of the synthesized drug in the treatment of TB patients, Dreser named his company’s diacetylmorphine preparation as “diamorphine” which was given the brand name “Heroin”. It was then put in for patent and granted in 1899.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) had left 620,000 men dead and thousands wounded. During the war, the Union Army “issued almost 10 million opium pills and 2.841 million ounces of other opiates in 1865” to help the wounded soldiers reduce their excruciating pains.

Subsequently in the years that followed, it was noticed that there was a striking rise in the number of morphine addicts among the war veterans many of whom had been administered opium pills or morphine to relieve pain in the amputation of their limbs. Morphine addiction was so widespread and common among the war veterans that it came to be known as “the army disease”.

The scourge of morphine and heroin addiction persists till date. After diacetylmorphine or heroin was synthesized in 1874, the term “narcomanias” was introduced to refer to the heroin addicts. Heroin addictions and deaths due to overdose were more often reported in America than not in late 19th century. In 1903 a London junior doctor, Sophie Frances Hickman was found dead in Richmond Park “next to intravenous morphine paraphernalia.”

During the Vietnam War in the early seventies of the 20th century, a report to the Congress claimed that “15 per cent of US troops serving in Vietnam were addicted to drugs, especially heroin.” The report prompted President Richard Nixon to announce a “new offensive” on drug trade at a press conference.

In 1971 the notorious phrase “the Golden Triangle” was coined by Vice Secretary of State Marshall Green to refer to the triangle of Laos, Burma and Thailand, where more than “1000 tons of raw opium” were harvested every year by 1968-69.

Although Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium is exhaustive in providing detailed information with regard to opium and poppy, Lucy Inglis, its author, does not make any reference to the extension of the Golden Triangle towards the West along the India-Myanmar border. Nor does she mention about the Burmese drug lord Khun Sa who controlled nearly 70 per cent of world’s heroin supply.

However Lucy Inglis writes as well about the alleged involvement of CIA in the drug trade. She writes, “Nevertheless, there is the inescapable fact that it (CIA) was present and using Air America as a front, dealing with the Hmong who used opiates as hard currency, and hence in all likelihood the US was involved in establishing the Golden Triangle on which President Nixon declared war on 17 June 1971.” Since then there has been no winner but drug lords.


* Kongbrailatpam Rajeshwar Sharma wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a freelancer. You can reach him at sharmarajeshwar36(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on April 17 2024.



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