India should resurrect heroes of the Opium War

Dr G Shreekumar Menon

Delving deep into history unearths changing boundaries of nations, unheard of countries, empires and their conquerors. Boundaries of nations possess a fluidity of their own, often changing contours and dimensions for many reasons ranging from wars, natural disasters and international agreements. When any present- day nation, enthused by aggressive expansionist designs, cites ancient maps and trade routes, to justify brazen aggrandizement, then it becomes a grave threat to peace and harmony, everywhere. If instead of educating, History starts inspiring, then, Geography starts sketching and redrawing, causing irreparable havoc and damage.

Global memories are fresh of history inspired leaders like Hitler, Hirohito, Stalin, Mussolini, and many others who aspired to conquer continents but ended up inflicting misery and hardship on humanity.

The present Chinese dictator-premier Xi Jinping is another of those history inspired tyrants in the making. Having grandiose visions to “make China great again” and calling for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, he has grand dreams of conquering many countries that lie beyond the borders of China. His designs on India, for the present, envisions annexing the stretch from Ladakh to Sikkim. Singapore’s modern day architect Lee Kuan Yew had with great perspicacity warned “Watch this man.” History has pumped in him an avariciousness that gives him an unbounded greed and robust determination to annex neighbouring countries and territories.

The continuing standoff on the Himalayas between Chinese and Indian armed forces is adequate proof of his intransigence and commitment to create a conflagration, to claim opaque borders and vast swathes of land, which he perceives, belonged in the remote past, to his ancestors. But we need to show him that there are many other chapters from the pages of History, that speak about the “century of humiliation” that his nation underwent, at the hands of Indian and British forces. Xi Jinping needs to inhale the chemistry of Indian Opium, pungent, having a distinctive ammonia like odour. Xi’s ancestors had smoked, drunk and inhaled Indian Opium, thereafter reeled and swooned into despair and agony. His amassed troops on the Himalayas maybe ignorant of the travails that Indian soldiers, traders, farmers, merchants and loaders had inflicted on the Chinese empire. Indians and their ‘plant of joy’ (opium) had humbled and crumbled the Qing Dynasty.

Time to open the scarred pages of history and read the events that unfurled from 1839 to 1949.

Biased writers of History, often make a claim that there was no nation known as India then but we all know there was this land called Bharat. ‘Bharatvarsha’ is the term used in the Holy Vedas, Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata to refer to the Indian subcontinent. The traders, merchants and soldiers who lived in this geographical space had in the recent past inflicted a crushing defeat on the Chinese empire, which rattles the Chinese to this day.

It was the East India Company which realised the potential of Opium to create an illicit market in China and enslave entire China. What resulted was the most unimaginable subjugation of an entire population in human history. A ‘foreign weed’ as the Chinese would call Opium with derision, spelt the doomsday for the Chinese empire. This was made possible by ordinary Indian traders who rose to become extraordinary businessmen. We hardly read about them in our distorted history books, our children are never taught about them, general knowledge books never refer to them, in civil service examinations, guides and study materials there is no reference whatsoever to them, Business schools have not heard of them, politicians are ignorant about them, economists never get to study about them. There are no memorials for them, India’s great success icons remain total strangers to Indians. India has to resurrect its great heroes and bring them to the limelight, their heroism, valour, and success need to be celebrated and glorified.

The biggest Indian Opium trader of those times was Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a Parsi entrepreneur. His Opium trade with China resulted in a long trading partnership with the Canton based company Jardine Matheson & Co. Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy & Company, founded 200 years ago in September 1818, pioneered the Opium trade. He took as partners the Gujarati Jain Motichund Amichund, the Konkani Muslim Mohammed Ali Rogay and, later, the Goan Catholic Roger de Faria. A tribute to their connection exists even today in a portrait of Jeejeebhoy which hangs in Jardine Matheson & Co’s Hong Kong office. Jeejeebhoy’s services were first recognised by the British Empire in 1842 by the bestowal of a knighthood and in 1857 by the award of a Baronetcy. These were the very first distinctions of their kind conferred by Queen Victoria upon a subject living in India. The British wrecked China’s economy with the help of intrepid Indian merchants. The supreme naval power of Britain actively collaborated in the most massive Opium contraband smuggling rackets in history, and waged war against China on behalf of a group of Indian drug lords. Such things are beyond imagination now.

Another great name in the Opium trade is that of David Sassoon. He established the house of David Sassoon & Co., with branches at Calcutta, Shanghai, Canton, and Hong Kong; and his business, which included a monopoly of the opium-trade, extended as far as Yokohama, Nagasaki, and other cities in Japan.

The Jewish Encyclopaedia of 1905, states that Sassoon expanded his opium trade into China and Japan. He placed his eight sons in charge of the various major opium exchanges in China. Sassoon’s sons astutely expanded the Opium trade into Canton, China. It is estimated that during 1830 – 1831 Sassoon traded nearly 18,956 chests of opium earning millions of dollars. Part of the profits went to Queen Victoria and the British government. In the year 1836 the trade increased to over 30,000 chests and drug addiction in coastal cities of China became endemic and uncontrollable.

In 1839, the Manchu Emperor ordered that the Opium trade be halted. He ordered the Commissioner of Canton, Lin Tse-hsu, to lead a campaign against opium. Lin seized 2,000 chests of Sassoon’s Opium and threw it into the river. An outraged David Sassoon demanded that Great Britain retaliate militarily. Thus, the Opium Wars began with the British Army fighting as mercenaries of the Sassoon’s!

The First Opium War was fought from March 18, 1839 to August 29, 1842 and British historians glorified it as the First Anglo-Chinese War, though in reality it should have been called as First British-India Allied Forces versus China Opium War. There is no recognition for India and the contributions of Indian soldiers and traders. As a result of the war, Britain won trading rights, access to five treaty ports, and Hong Kong. The Chinese Army, high on opium addiction, was routed by the British Army, which comprised of several Indian Military regiments. British Commander, Major General Sir Hugh Gough led the battalions comprising of:

•1st company Madras Rifles,
•2nd Madras Native Infantry,
•6th Madras Native Infantry,
•14th Madras Native Infantry,
•The Bengal Army

The unit of the Madras Foot Artillery was awarded the honour title “Dragon”, as the Unit captured a Chinese Dragon Cannon.

The war culminated in 1842 with the signing of “The Treaty of Nanking”. This included special clauses inserted to guarantee the Sassoons the right to trade Opium in China absolutely unhindered. Britain launched the Opium Wars to give the Sassoons exclusive rights to drug an entire nation! David Sassoo and his sons came to be known as “The Rothschilds of The Far East” for their complete monopoly over the opium trade.

This great entrepreneur deserves a meritorious recognition for his dynamic handling and arm-twisting of both, China and Britain. No other entrepreneur of yesteryears or of modern times can emulate his feat, yet he remains unrecognised in India. No Business School, Management Institution, Civil Services Academy, eulogises or teaches his business acumen and strategy.

The Second British-India Allied Forces versus China Opium War enabled Britain to secure Southern Kowloon and other Western powers got extraterritorial rights and trade privileges.

China’s fabled Summer Palace Yuanmingyuan was completely destroyed by Indian forces. Four brigades of Indian Infantry:

•Sikh Regiment
•Madras Regiment
•Bombay Native Infantry
•The Ludhiana Rifles
took part in the sacking of the Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan, – the imperial summer palace of the Qing Dynasty.

David Sassoon died in his country house in Pune in 1864. His business interests were inherited by his son Sir Albert Sassoon. Some of the prominent institutions built by David Sassoon and his family are:
•David Sassoon Library & reading room, Fort Mumbai
•Magen David Synagogue, Byculla, Mumbai
•Jacob Sassoon High School, Byculla, Mumbai
•E.E.E. Sassoon High School, Byculla, Mumbai
•David Sassoon Hospital, JJ Hospital
Premises, Byculla, Mumbai
•Masina Hospital, Byculla, Mumbai
•Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, Colaba, Mumbai
•Sassoon Dock, Colaba, Mumbai
•Elphinstone Technological School, Parel, Mumbai
• Contributed generously for constructing the Gateway of India
•The Bank of India, Fort (head office), Mumbai
•The David Sassoon Reformary and Deaf School, Matunga, Mumbai
•Sassoon Hospital, Pune
•Lady Rachel Sassoon Dispensary, Pune
•David Sassoon Vriddha Ashram, Pune

David Sassoon had made two great empires – British and Chinese to completely dance to his tunes. How many drug lords of today can claim such astounding power and influence?

Would it not be appropriate to name a missile and a military base after David Sassoon? Pakistan is naming their nuclear missiles as Babur, Ghaznavi, and other names of Islamic invaders, to psychologically intimidate India.

We need to take a leaf out of their book. If we name a missile as ‘Sassoon’ the enemy across the Himalayas would experience excruciating shame, explaining to their present and posterity how one Opium trader humiliated and crushed the mighty Chinese empire. It would be a constant reminder to China, about their bête noire, who once brought them to utter ruination. Incidentally, the Opium Wars are also known as the ‘Sassoon Opium Wars’! Can any of the present-day dons anywhere else in the world claim such a privilege?

One of the most prominent British traders, engaged in Opium trafficking was a company named Jardine, Matheson & Co, which owned two ships, named, ‘Mangalore’ and ‘Carnatic’. Yes, the ship sported the name of the picturesque seaport town of Karnataka State, ‘Mangalore’. No other city in India enjoyed this distinction. But, most unfortunately not a single warship or submarine of the Indian Navy is sporting this name. On July 7th 1839, these two ships landed in Kowloon loaded with Opium. The Boatswain of the ship ‘Mangalore’ was one Thomas Tidder. A group of sailors consumed a local rice liquor known as samshu, and thereafter in a drunken brawl killed a local named Lin Weixi in the village ofTsim Sha Tsui. This event culminated in TheBattle of Kowloon (which was fought between British and Chinese ships off Kowloon, on 4th September 1839, and has been called “the first shot of the First Opium War”).

Indian Naval ships are participating in maritime exercises along with other nations in the South China Seas. If one Indian warship or submarine sports the name ‘Mangalore’, the Chinese would be rattled by bitter memories of the Opium Wars.

Another great name in the Opium trade is that of Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (R.D. Tata, 1856–1926) the Indian businessman who played a pivotal role in the growth of the Tata Group. Under the name Tata & Co, Ratanji was trading in Opium in China. Ratanji also played an important role in the completion of the Tata Steel Project in Jamshedpur. These great stalwarts shook the mighty Chinese empire using a simple plant! Should India not resurrect these great icons to inspire our youth and demoralise the Chinese? Let the youth learn that wars are not just won by armies alone, sometimes traders, farmers, and merchants can create amazing war stories. Opium Wars are not just success stories for Indian and British armies, but also for the humble Indian farmers, traders and merchants. It is indeed the ‘plant of joy’ for all Indians.

While on the topic of Opium Wars, the invasion of Lhasa, capital of Tibet, by Indian forces under the leadership of Colonel Francis Younghusband cannot be overlooked.

The British expedition to Tibet, also known as the ‘Younghusband Expedition’, began in December 1903 and lasted until September 1904. Tibet, then ruled by the Dalai Lama under the Ganden Phodrang government was a Himalayan state under the suzerainty of the Chinese Qing dynasty.

Younghusband’s force included the 8th Gurkhas, 40th Pathans, 23rd and 32nd Sikh Pioneers, 19th Punjab Infantry, Royal Fusiliers, as well as mountain artillery, and engineers. The force also included Brigadier- General James Macdonald, and Lt-Col Herbert Brander. The Convention of Lhasa was concluded by Younghusband, the Regent, Ganden Tri Rinpoche, and the Tsongdu (Tibetan National Assembly), on 7 September 1904 at the Potala Palace. After Younghusband and his Indian troops left Lhasa, Chinese influence soared, planting theseeds of the 1950 invasion.
Reviving memories of Younghusband by naming some upcoming new Himalayan highway, airfield, or military encampment, can build psychological pressure on the Chinese.

Dean Cheng, Senior Research Fellow at Asian Studies Center, in his scholarly essay “Winning Without Fighting: The Chinese Psychological Warfare Challenge” says “At the moment, the PLA is not only planning foroperations on the physical battlefield; it is also preparing to conduct “political warfare,” including what is termed the “three warfares”: public opinion warfare, legal warfare, and psychological warfare.

Psychological warfare is in some ways the most far-reaching of the “three warfares.” It involves the application of specialized information and media in accordance with a strategic goal and in support of political and military objectives. Such efforts are aimed at a variety of potential audiences and usually involve operational missions against an opponent’s psychology and cognitive capacities”.

India should also embark on a sustained psychological warfare by naming the many infrastructural projects coming up on the border areas after our great heroes of the Opium Wars, and the Tibet invasion.

India needs to resurrect its heroes of history, whose exploits have been kept under wraps and foreign invaders glorified in order to psychologically enslave millions of Indians.


The author Dr G Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) Ph. D (Narcotics), is

  • Former Director General National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, and Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India
  • Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, USA.
  • Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA 
  • Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A.
  • AOTS Scholar, Japan

Dr G Shreekumar Menon can be contacted at shreemenon48@gmail.com

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