Opium’s Long Shadow: From Asian Revolt To Global Drug Control

Author: Steffan Rimner
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. 385p.
Reviewer: Stacie Kent | September 2020

There is much to recommend Steffan Rimner’s first book, Opium’s Long Shadow: From Asian Revolt to Global Drug Control. In it, Rimner, a historian by training, tells the story of how opium became an international opprobrium of the first order and how transnational publics “introduced new norms of conduct into international society” (284). According to Rimner, between the 1870s and 1920s participation in drug control emerged as a pre-requisite for membership in the international community. This was a change of no small order given the importance of opium production and distribution to the maintenance of the British regime in India, the crown jewel of the world’s hegemonic imperial power. The shift, he argues, was accomplished by transnational protest and pressure that was “both intimate and universalist, planned and improvised, appearing in new places and times unexpectedly” (278). Protestors included institutions such as the London-based Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade, the U.S.-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Beijing-based International Anti-Opium Association. They also included charismatic transnational individuals such as Soonderbai Powar, who traveled Europe and the U.S. on anti-opium speech tours, as well as globally-minded pamphlet publishers whose trade in victimization narratives gave voice to some and rallied others.

In its global scope and integrative narrative, Opium’s Long Shadow offers a long overdue corrective to studies of opium’s history. While opium was a paradigmatic regional and global commodity, most historical work on it uses a national frame. With the notable exceptions of Carl Trocki’s trans-imperial Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy (1999) and Timothy Brook’s and Bob Wakabayashi’s edited collection Opium Regimes (2000), an East-Asia regional comparative study, most scholars have otherwise examined opium production, consumption, and eradication as national histories. Foremost among the national histories that attend to opium is Chinese history, where opium is often synonymous with a century of humiliation and anti-imperialist nationalism. For the most part Rimner does a good job attending the particular ways in which opium effected China, but the book is more valuable for how the Chinese story gains global dimensions, both through the story the book tells and the details it mobilizes. Indeed, Opium’s Long Shadow is a fine example of what a locally-attuned global history can look like.

Whereas Chinese exceptionalism is key to nationalist opium historiography, Rimner places China’s opium history in regional and global contexts of emerging norms. The Treaty of Tianjin (1858), infamous for legalizing opium imports into the Qing Empire, was, he argues, “the only missing piece in an emerging system (of legalization) across the Asian region” (44). That China fit into a pattern of regional developments was something gestured to by Opium Regimes. Here the case is stronger and more explicit. The global dimension of China’s opium history also comes out at moments when Rimner places foreign collaborators into Qing opium eradication efforts and when local social control over opium farmers becomes the measure of China’s international legitimacy — key to securing international cooperation. Chinese cries against opium were not only heard abroad, but China became a site of transnational anti-opium lobbying, monitoring, and assistance. The suggestion here is that successful elimination of opium in China between 1907-1917 was not merely a project of national renewal brought about by energetic officials and local publics, but was aided and given international legitimacy by a global network of activists.

Rimner claims a place for the anti-opium movement alongside other international mobilizations of public opinion, such as abolitionism and nationalist anti-imperialism. The global scope of Opium’s Long Shadow, combined with its interest in “dynamics of political problematization” means that much of the book focuses on how transnational networks formed and what they did. This work begins in Chapter Two. (Chapter One covers the introduction of opium from British India into China. It is a weaker chapter. Rimner overstates the role of opium in the Opium War, and those interested in the imperial economics of the opium trade would be served better by Trocki.) In Chapter Two the reader is presented with the idea of “emotional mobilization as a historic event” and with global reception of an eloquent protest against the opium trade issued in 1869 by the Qing Empire. The chapter offers an interesting study of the “universal appeal” of an understudied speech by a key figure in the Empire’s foreign affairs and how it evoked sympathy and self-criticism in politicized audiences for more than forty years. Chapter Three builds on this story of British self-criticism and the role publishing networks played in creating transnational affective bonds, but shifts focus to India and opium critiques penned by Indian activists, British journalists and doctors, and even a German theologian. These protests, which could be quite visceral and supported by lurid illustration, mobilized publics and recast opium as a story of imperial abuse. Chapter Four shifts gears to the key official response by the British government — the Royal Commission on Opium, which sat 1893-1895. The chapter begins and ends with roughly synchronous discussions of opium control in Burma and Singapore, which frame the Commission as both part of a global moment but also apart from it. Rimner is not kind to the London commission. He focuses on its defensive position in favor of Indian opium and its attempts to discredit anti-opium publicity. The government avoided controversial questions, and it favored expert testimony that cast opium as a problem of individual consumption. The chapter constructs a dialog between anti-opium protests and a state that increasingly felt the need to respond to them — a formula the rest of the book follows. Chapter Five on the American-sponsored Philippine Opium Commission (1903-1905) provides a comparative study in government commissions. Tasked to find a solution to the “opium problem” in the newly acquired American colony, the Commission embarked on a comparison of opium control regimes throughout maritime Asia. Whereas the British commission had cherry-picked evidence, the Americans pursued open-ended region-wide “scientific fact-finding.” Rimner argues the Americans, newcomers to colonialism, took in lessons and information from “older Asian opium regimes,” and in particular Japan, whose success curbing opium use in Taiwan made it a model of anti-opium policies and practices. Up to this point, Opium’s Long Shadow builds a story of strengthening evidence and public support for the anti-opium position. The final three chapters show how that evidence and support translated into codified international cooperation to police, curb, and eventually criminalize opium. Chapter Six returns to China as the location of the first major accomplishments towards this end. The chapter discusses both the 1906 Qing Anti-Opium Edict, which began the eradication of Chinese cultivation in exchange for the end of imports from India, as well as the 1909 International Opium Commission, held in Shanghai. Rimner’s details of the actors and conversations behind both events argue that the end of opium in China drew momentum from and fed momentum to broader transnational campaigns. Multilateral collaboration between government and non-government actors, across political lines, was becoming a new norm. Chapter Seven uses World War One to explain the delay in implementing agreements reached at the IOC in 1909 and to open up a new dimension of the opium problem: morphine production and trafficking. The latter was a transnational phenomenon in its own right, linking Ottoman suppliers, German and British manufacturers, Japanese importers and smugglers in China. The final chapter, which focuses on the International Anti-Opium Association and efforts at the Paris Peace Conference to institutionalize international opium control, shows the long-awaited victory of anti-opium lobbying and the incorporation of non-governmental oversight into international governance. In Rimner’s telling, this is both an ideological victory and a key step in global institutional integration. The Treaty of Versailles (1919), which gave effect to the 1909 IOC agreement meant “drug control was now an official institutionalized concern of global governance, raising the interdependence among long-awaited national and imperial drug regimes and drug consuming societies.”

Opium’s Long Shadow is an extensively researched book in multiple languages, and the early chapters in particular provide a great number of primary sources that could be used to teach about opium’s history. Yet, I have several reservations. Three of these are substantive. Others concern presentation. For a story of such breadth that touches on issues of political economy, interstate relations, medical science, and popular culture, it is unsurprising that several elements need fuller treatment. First, the book references but does not elaborate on the role medical opinion played in the construction of opium politics. It would be helpful to know what investigative methods and assumptions shaped medical opinions and how it was possible to have medical opinion on both sides of the issue. Likewise, if the book more fully explained what the Philippine Commission meant by “scientific fact-finding”, it could better substantiate its contrast between that commission and the Royal Commission, as well as its similarities to Japanese colonial administration. Second, the author sidesteps problems with the Japanese empire in Taiwan. While the author shows awareness that racism was a key part of colonial rule in Taiwan, he does not extend that awareness to critically situate Japanese success with opium eradication via hospitals and education. Such places could be key sites of imperial domination, and there seems to be a missed opportunity here to talk about how U.S. concern with opium control filtered perceptions of imperial rule. Third, a sharper critical edge is needed to deal with the victimization narratives mobilized by the anti-opium cause. The picture the author creates at times suggests a noble, well-meaning imperial public constructing problems for themselves to solve, and doing so with only mildly veiled orientalist images of Asians. This is not to gainsay the prominent role the book gives to Asian voices. It does well on that account. But these voices are themselves at times complicit in peddling an imagery that is frankly problematic, even if rhetorically effective, and the author should say more about this. As for narrative, Opium’s Long Shadow would have benefited from closer editorial oversight. Rimner has a tendency to include tangents as well as to overstate and speculate, both substantively and rhetorically. There are also places where the text really could be clearer. Like many histories of transnational alliances, the text is chock full of momentarily important players and interactions, and at times the shifts of perspective can be a problem. An absolutely wonderful moment in the text where a globally circulating, multi-lingual petition offers a “material manifestation of global public opinion,” is otherwise marred because the reader encounters two pages of description before she learns the petition’s purpose. Individually, such narrative gaffs are not too much of a problem, but as they collect through the book, they undermine the coherence of what is otherwise an original study and a model for what global history can look like.

Like other work by younger historians, Opium’s Long Shadow demonstrates what we gain when scholarship cuts across standard disciplinary subfields. Its argument that international public opinion successfully shamed and pressured states mixes political, cultural and diplomatic history, and broadly conceptualizes the players and factors that contribute to global norms, regulatory regimes and drug control more specifically. The book succeeds in its goal to create space for the anti-opium cause alongside abolition and anti-imperialism, and indeed the Asian critique it showcases provides a pre-history of post-WWI anti-imperialism. For students of media and communication, early chapters offer a lesson in the manufacture of outrage and of community that transcends cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic boundaries. At the same time, the very intimate ways in which the cause coalesced argues for the importance of individual action to effect progressive change, a lesson perhaps pertinent to many more such changes.

Stacie Kent, Assistant Professor, Boston College

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