Opium and fabulous gems: India’s importance to the British Empire


Lithograph by Emily Eden showing one of the favourite horses of Maharaja
Ranjit Singh with the head officer of his stables and his collection of fabulous j
ewels including the Kohinoor diamond marked as number 1


India has been called, “the jewel in the crown,” but actually, this expression doesn’t go far enough. The wealth of Victoria’s England rested to a great extent on the opium, gems and other goods that India provided.

One example: England’s balance of trade with China in the 19th century was horribly out balance until the  British began cultivating and exporting opium on a massive scale. England owed China huge sums for tea. Opium redressed the imbalance. England disavowed its responsibility  for the trade by privatizing the actual transport and sale to British merchants who bought opium from the Crown in Calcutta. This way, it was not England who was responsible for the thousands of new Chinese addicts every year. It was the unknown, private merchants. Once the goods left the auction in Calcutta, the Crown didn’t know where it went. Actually nearly all of the big opium buyers were British. Their wealth formed the basis for major corporations who are some of the largest companies in Southeast Asia, today! Not that they are selling opium now. But their foundations are laid on the thousands of chests of opium they took to China from India and the government run opium factories at Patna and other places on the subcontinent. In India, opium was a government monopoly by law. No one but the Crown was allowed to cultivate and sell opium.

So, in a very real sense, much of the luxury (including countless cups of tea) that was enjoyed by the English during the 19th century was based on the government traffic in opium. Afghanistan was too wild and unstable a source of the drug in the 19th century. It had to wait for the 20th century to become the major supplier that it is today.

But there were other sources of wealth to be taken from India: spices were the original reason that the British came to India, and their value lasted right through the Victorian era. Tea came largely from China, as already mentioned but, the English began to grow their own in places like Darjeeling and other high elevations where growing conditions were right. India was a great source of precious stone. It is claimed that the nearly mythic Kohinoor diamond came, originally, from India, though it passed through the hands of Shah Shuja in Afghanistan on its way to becoming the literal jewel in the British Crown. There were also fabulous textiles and a host of precious goods the English claimed while ruling India.

The one great gift the British gave in return was a single language that allowed a diverse and scattered people to talk to each other throughout the subcontinent. There were also some very great British heroes who truly served India, such as Philip Meadows Taylor, who served the Nizam of Hyderabad for many years and helped improve the lives of the people who lived under the Nizam’s rule.


About hudsonhousemysteries

I am a graphic artist. My work is based on photography and I am also a writer of historical novels, specializing in the Victorian era with a strong emphasis on the historical connections between that time and this.I began writing by working with my late father, Alvin Schwartz, who wrote Superman and Batman comics for more than twenty years. Starting very early, about age six, I plotted comic book stories then moved on to writing film, advertising and fiction ranging from young person’s novels to my current historical novels http://hudsonhousemysteries.com/south.php. In addition to telling a good yarn, I like to use an historical perspective to comment on modern issues. I learned about art from my mother who was one of Hans Hofmann's students and had one of the last show at Peggy Guggenheim's in NYC. I have had one man shows in Montreal and Toronto. My art website is Alan McKee.com.
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