In hindsight: Today’s opioid crisis is the latest instance of a centuries-long courtship between drugs and working people, from Canton to Kensington.
Josh Green in the former Ascension of Our Lord Church in Kensington, Philadelphia. Credit: David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer. Read the full column on the abandoned cathedral here.

by Andrew B. Liu

Last month, the New York Times published a long-form investigation on the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, some twenty miles southeast of the Villanova campus. Kensington was once a working-class hub of light industry, producing textiles and chemical goods, but starting in the 1950s, it experienced de-industrialization and economic recession. Today, it is notorious as the “largest open-air narcotics market for heroin on the East Coast,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Over the past two years, the neighborhood has been ravaged by an especially cheap and potent mixture of heroin — about $5 per bag — that has caused overdoses and deaths to spiral upwards.

The secret ingredient for this deadly mix is a synthetic opioid called “fentanyl,” reportedly fifty times the strength of natural heroin. The neighborhood now attracts “tourists” from Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, quickly transforming it, in the words of a local pastor, into the “Walmart of heroin.”

The Times article is the latest in a burgeoning genre of investigative journalism documenting the opioid epidemic in America and how it has ravaged so many communities beyond the public eye, not just Kensington but also, for instance, Boston’s “Methadone Mile.” Similar reports of rising opioid usage and deaths are also emerging across western Europe. In October 2017, the White House declared opioid addiction a “national crisis.” Officially, it has promoted local initiatives, such as increased access to care and public awareness campaigns. More informally, the President remains convinced that the crisis’s logical solution is to attack its root cause: the illegal trafficking of fentanyl from Mexico and, especially, China:

Trump’s claims, backed by prominent figures in both parties, are admittedly grounded in facts, and reporters have begun to uncover the hidden pathways Chinese-produced opioids travel across national borders. But Chinese officials have pushed back, arguing that the problem lies primarily in the U.S.’s high demand for the drug, which entices black-market activities. The irony, of course, is that China and the countries of the north Atlantic already share a long, intertwined history featuring opiate addiction, illegal trafficking, and political controversy — only before, the roles were reversed.

Opium flowers (Papaver somniferum). Credit: Jesús Cabrera/Flickr.

Opium in history is most famously linked to China and the Anglo-Chinese opium wars of the nineteenth century, but the drug existed long before, and in many more locations than, those military conflagrations along the Chinese coast. Opium comes from the opium poppy flower (Papaver somniferum), grown for millennia across Asia, from Turkey to southeast Asia. Inside the flower, a white pod exudes a milky sap that can be refined a number of ways, producing drugs such as morphine, codeine, and heroin. Synthetic opioids such as oxycodone and fentanyl artificially imitate the effects of the poppy flower.

In Chinese sources, opium was first consumed as a medicine at least by the Tang dynasty (618–907), then as a luxury and aphrodisiac during the Ming (1368–1644). In the eighteenth century, when opium smoking became popular among the Qing royalty (1644–1911), the drug entered China through commercial interactions across Bengal, Siam (Thailand), and Java (Indonesia). In hindsight, we may view the middle centuries of the last millennium as a global era of “drug cultures,”in which the circulation of not just opium but also sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, and tobacco — stimulants and depressants — fueled global interactions across Eurasia and the Americas.

We may view the middle centuries of the last millennium as a global era of drugs, in which the circulation of not just opium but also sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, and tobacco — stimulants and depressants — fueled global interactions across Eurasia and the Americas.

In the early 1700s, English people had grown accustomed to drinking expensive teas imported from China, which they took with sugar grown on tropical plantations in the Caribbean. They originally paid for teas with silver, but this strategy threatened to bankrupt them. In the late century, the British East India Company, based in Bengal, established a monopoly over Indian opium, to be exchanged for Chinese tea, racking up exorbitant profits from price differentials along the way.

Of course, the government could not be caught directly selling opium, so there emerged a “country trade,” or, informal network of small English and Scottish firms who took on the responsibility of ferrying Bengal, Patna, and Malwa opium to Canton. Later, they were joined by American merchants who purchased opium from Turkey. At the time, “opium was no hole-in-the-corner petty smuggling trade, but probably the largest commerce of the time in any single commodity.”¹

By the mid-century Opium Wars, consumption in China had begun to trickle down from the highest classes to their eunuch servants and then merchants, soldiers, vagrants, and thieves. The nineteenth-century wars liberalized foreign trade, continuing the flood of imports, but by the end of the century, domestic opium cultivation served as a necessary supplement, turning China into the perhaps world’s leader of opium production by the twentieth century.

Stephen Girard (1750–1831), Philadelphia’s most famous merchant and the wealthiest man in America at the time of his death, was one of many American and British businessmen who invested in the opium for tea trade with China. Credit: Wikimedia.
Image depicting working-class Chinese opium smokers. By an unknown Chinese artist. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Why did Chinese people get so addicted to opium in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Historians speculate opium’s popularity arose, aside from its pharmacological effects, largely due to the social conditions in China and southeast Asia that brought misery to so many. Witness accounts suggest that the “coolie” manual workers, in particular, depended upon opium to help them “refresh” and recuperate from the back-breaking toil of ferrying goods and people day after day.

Of course, the real effect was not to “refresh” but simply mask the symptoms of bodily decay; “in all probability, opium made it possible for the coolie to wear out his body long before its time in a relatively painless fashion.”² Historians have made similar claims about the role of sugar and tea among the working classes of the British Isles and western Europe, even if the physical effects were less extreme. If sugar and tea served as “proletarian hunger killers,” in anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s words, then opium, too, came to occupy a similar role for the immiserated classes of Asia.

It would thus represent a great advance in our understanding of the current American opioid crisis if we acknowledge it is as more than a local or overnight phenomenon, in Kensington or elsewhere. Rather, it is the latest manifestation of a transnational and centuries-long courtship between drugs and working people, not only in Asia but also Europe and the Americas. As such, in figuring out how to make sense of the current crisis as well as how to deal with its alarming effects, we may find it useful to turn to modern Asia and its mixed history of political responses to curb opium production and consumption.

Andrew B. Liu’s column for the Lepage Center this fall focuses on histories of capitalism in China. He is an Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University.


  1. Michael Greenberg, British Trade and the Opening of China, 104.

2. Carl Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy, 145.