Opium is an awkward commodity. For the West, it’s a reminder of some of the shadier and best forgotten parts of its history. For China (and a few other countries), it’s a symbol of national humiliation, left to the past–unless it needs to shame a foreign country. But the opium trade survived for decades, through to the end of the Second World War. How did that trade actually work? How was it possible to trade a good that was, at best, tolerated in the strange gap between legal and illegal. This trade is what Peter Thilly covers in his book The Opium Business: A History of Crime and Capitalism in Maritime China.
In this interview, Peter and I talk about opium, how people traded this quasi-legal good, and the changing opium trade—including a surprising source of illicit drugs in the region.
Peter Thilly is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi. He is currently working on a global microhistory of the 1853 Small Sword Uprising.