How did the Parsees and the British profit from the distribution of Opium in World Trade?

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Certain historians, such as Eckehard Kulke in his examination of the Parsi community, have argued that these people became a major arbiter of social change in India, particularly after the British had begun long-term trading in the country around 1600. The Parsees had remained a relatively closed, cultural community until, around the beginning of the fourteenth century, they began moving into Indian towns and cities of Gujarat, a western state of India, such as Surat and Navsari. By the late-fifteenth century, they had established firm access to the court of the Mughal Emperors and had entrenched profitable trading networks and crafts within the Mughal Empire at large. By the time the British had made contact with the Indian Mughals, they sought assistance from local Parsees, both as translators and as mediators of trade.

It was very common for European colonial powers to use local intermediaries as the tendons that held their empires together. Middlemen like Parsi traders, interpreters, and diplomats enabled the British to solidify their hold of the Indian mainland while gaining a strong sense of what commodities were particularly amenable to the general public. One such major commodity was opium, which Indians (and Europeans) regularly used as a recreational drug. The cultivation of opium poppy happened all over the world. Parts of eastern Kazakhstan, the middle East, Persia, Afghanistan, China, and mainland India all supplied the ingredients necessary for synthesis of the drug, and the British maintained a colonial presence in many of these places. They could, therefore, direct the flow of synthesized opium to areas of high consumption.

The reasons why both the British and Parsees benefited from opium distribution at the world level, therefore, is related to the way the product was connected to many different places. Raw materials cultivated from poppy fields in one part of the world, such as British-controlled Hong Kong, eventually made their way to centers of opium synthesis. Freshly produced opium drug would then be transported to western-Indian provinces, like Gujarat, where Parsi intermediaries helped the British sell it to the Mughal Emperors. Mughal Emperors could then distribute the commodity to the consuming public. In the process, both the British and their Parsi helpers would be enriched in the process.

One must further recognize the even more lucrative enterprise of growing opium in India and selling it back to China. In his book, British Opium Policy in India and China, the historian David Edward Owen has discussed how the British East India Company came to first form an opium monopoly in Bengal, from which it subsequently exported massive amounts of opium to a hungry Chinese public. China was on the whole the most intensive opium-smoking culture in the world by the eighteenth century, and the sale of the drug there made British opium merchants a fortune. Parsi interlocutors who spoke local Bengali dialects and understood the local markets further profited by facilitating this trade. They would have been indispensable in moderating communication between British mariners and the local Indians who brought the opium to market. In general, this enormous profit was made possible because of the world-connections that European colonialism had created.

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