Chinese in Sydney: Opium Smoking.

Scarce colonial engraving showing Chinese opium smokers in Sydney. Contemporary witness account: There were some, twelve or fifteen persons in the place when we entered, and the peculiar acrid smell of the burning opium was almost unendurable for the first … Read Full Description

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Full Title:

Chinese in Sydney: Opium Smoking.






In good condition.


Hand coloured engraving.

Image Size: 

x 150mm
Chinese in Sydney: Opium Smoking. - Antique Print from 1868

Genuine antique



Scarce colonial engraving showing Chinese opium smokers in Sydney.

Contemporary witness account:
There were some, twelve or fifteen persons in the place when we entered, and the peculiar acrid smell of the burning opium was almost unendurable for the first few moments…The scene in the house we visited was of the usual kind. Couches, or rather benches covered with straw matting, are placed in little alcoves. On each bench reclines a brown and withered figure, whose unstrung muscles, leaden eyes, and corpselike visage, proclaim him a slave to the influence of the drug… “

The pain-relieving properties of opium had been known for centuries when the drug was first used in for the treatment of sleeplessness and illnesses such as coughs, smallpox, cholera, malaria, syphilis, dysentery, and tuberculosis. By the c.19th, many doctors believed so fervently in the benefits of opium use that that they personally indulged in the habit. The enthusiasm for medical treatments made from opium created many addicts among doctors and their patients, yet reformers’ efforts to restrict opium use focused on Chinese immigrants and the practice of opium smoking that they had introduced to America

In late 19th century colonial authorities saw little reason to impose controls on the sale of drugs, the primary source of which was a thriving patent medicine industry. Escalating rates of drug use were inevitably paralleled by an escalating incidence of addiction and overdose. Although research did not fully document the effects of narcotic addiction until the 1890s, reports of accidental overdose were causing considerable public concern. Despite public anxiety, manufacturers were not legally obligated to label a medicine’s contents. Purchasers of ‘Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne’, for example, would have been unaware of the six grains of morphine and six grains of cannabis extract contained within. In 1898, the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company patented a product it subsequently launched as a new ‘sedative for coughs’.  While the ‘therapeutic’ use of opiates remained largely unregulated, recreational opiate use was becoming the focus of increasing attention. The primary reason was racial.

Throughout the c.19th, smoking opium was imported into Australia for recreational use, primarily by Chinese immigrants. Until the 1880s this practice was widely accepted due to the revenue derived from taxation duties. In 1870, 27,769 kg of smoking opium was imported into Victoria, earning the colonial government £66,268 in taxation duties. Concerns about the practice of smoking opium were initially raised by a Rev. W. Young in 1868, in the Report on the Condition of the Chinese Population in Victoria. The report argued: As this habit prevails, the public morals will be corrupted, trade and commerce lessened, character and influence degenerated, crime perpetuated, pauperism produced, wealth dissipated, happiness ruined, and population destroyed. The presence of European women in the overwhelmingly male Chinese communities only inflamed such sentiments. Victorian parliamentarian John Wood, declared that although he ‘would not be inconsolable if through opium they [the Chinese] suffered the fate which fell on the first-born of Egypt’, he was concerned at, ‘the rapid increase of the use of opium amongst the white population, more especially among young girls who were systematically decoyed into dens occupied by filthy Chinese’. Despite growing hysteria, no colony was willing to ‘go-it-alone’ on opium prohibition.

By 1905 all Australian states and territories had passed similar laws making prohibitions to Opium sale. Smoking and possession was prohibited in 1908.

The use of opium by Chinese immigrants was, in large part, due to the actions of British colonial authorities. Throughout the c.19th, the colonial British government in India derived significant revenue through the sale of massive quantities of Indian opium to China. Facing mass addiction, the Chinese government sought to halt the trade. The British responded aggressively, unwilling to relinquish its lucrative enterprise, British authorities fought China in the so-called ‘Opium Wars’ of 1839–1843, one consequence of which was the latter’s forced acceptance of opium imports. Not until 1906 did a British government come to power sympathetic to China’s attempts to reduce the growing social devastation wrought by opium. In 1909, the relevant nations met in Shanghai and signed a resolution which, in turn, led to the signing of the first multilateral drug control treaty at The Hague in 1912. From this point on, the drug policies of individual nations were linked to broader issues of international cooperation. The Hague Convention committed signatories to prohibit the international trade of smoking opium and to suppress its domestic manufacture, use and trade. Less stringent restrictions were placed upon ‘medicinal’ opium, heroin, morphine and cocaine.

Australia became party to the Convention when the British signed in 1913. In 1914, Australia passed the second Opium Proclamation. Thereafter, a legal obligation existed to ensure that imported opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine, in any quantity, was destined for strictly medical use. By 1915, uniform legislation had been enacted in all States, regulating how opiates were sold, in what quantities and to whom.

From the original edition of the Illustrated Sydney News.

State Library Victoria: PCINF IAN 16-07-72 P.144

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