About 2500 BC, “Milk of Paradise” was the Minoan term for the white liquid dripping from a delicately cut opium seedpod. Ever since, in the Near East, western Europe and China, in Britain’s 19th-century war on China and in drug-fuelled murders in London and New York, opium and its derivatives have generated ecstasy and misery around the world. All this is eloquently surveyed by Lucy Inglis. A gifted historian, she does not, alas, hold a chair at any of Britain’s leading universities.
Packed with facts, her book also charms with its insights and compassion. Opiate drugs, Inglis writes, arouse our worst fears and soothe horrendous physical torment, creating “a churning mass of bliss, horror, luxury, depredation, good and evil”. These pleasures and traumas, over the past 200 years, she shows, have been produced by gangsters and governments, as well as by well-meaning doctors who, in the 18th century, prescribed opium-laced laudanum for pain-ridden adults and crying babies. In 1797, Samuel Coleridge completed his masterpiece Kubla Khan after a three-hour laudanum-inspired dream. Another poet wrote of Coleridge’s addiction: “for the greater part…inclination and indulgence are the motives”. In one of Inglis’ well-chosen colour illustrations, we see an advertisement from 1887 for Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, in which a pretty young mother is dripping opium-laced liquid into her babe in arms’ mouth.
Historians will admire Inglis’ narratives, based on the best sources, not always in English. She comprehensively surveys the British mania for Chinese tea in the 18th and 19th centuries. They did not possess adequate sums to buy the leaves and Chinese emperors disliked dealing with foreigners, no matter how high-ranking. Inglis shows how the British companies Jardine Matheson and Dent’s deepened Chinese opium-stoked addictions by exporting huge amounts of Indian opium, illegal in China, into its southern ports. When this became a fraught matter with the Chinese, Britain waged its two Opium Wars. After the first, it demanded and received Hong Kong – where to this day, Inglis observes, opium remains an abiding plague.
In the late 20th century, the CIA established a secret heroin-producing operation in Laos and flew the product to Saigon on Air America planes. It was given to the wives of South Vietnam’s leaders, to keep them on side. They sold it to American soldiers, who brought the habit home with them. (Inglis appears slightly uncertain about this. No need: it is true, as I found out in Laos, Vietnam and the US from actors in the scandal.)
In both London and New York, everyone supposes that opium derivatives such as heroin lie at basis of much crime. When I was a boy in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, we heard that Mafia bosses were involved in the vast opium and heroin rackets – and that one of these gang lords had been thanked by Washington for helping the Allies during the war. Such crime is now more widespread than ever, as Inglis shows in vivid detail. In London, we read about the increasing use of knives in drug wars and the employment of children to take opium-derived drugs from one county to another.
Inglis concludes that the poppy “will be here when we most need it. It always has been.”
Jonathan Mirsky was formerly associate professor of Chinese history and comparative literature at Dartmouth College in the US.
Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium
By Lucy Inglis
Picador, 464pp, £25.00
Published 9 August 2018