Opium: to the ancient Sumerian, ‘the plant of joy’; for the laudanum addicted British author Thomas De Quincey, ‘the celestial drug’, and for Homer in The Odyssey, ‘nepenthe’, an alcoholic medicine believed by scholars to contain raw opium, is given to Telemachus by Helen of Troy to ease his woes. Imbibed by the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Romans before spreading via Arab traders to the Chinese, opium, in its diverse incarnations, has cured ailments and chemically instigated euphoria for millions of people for thousands of years; its use continues to this day legally, in tiny quantities, for painkillers and anti-diarrhoeal medication, and illegally, in the immeasurably vast and profitable heroin trade.
However, its presence in modern societies the world over during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is perhaps what most intrigues humankind today. In the dank, seedy underbelly of Victorian London; in the California Gold Rush of the 1850s as well as dynastic China during the two Opium Wars and many other destinations globally, where the toxic, unquenchable thirst for the drug infected a range of countries and cultures. Opium, glorious, contagious, ruinous, is potentially humanity’s greatest and most incessant addiction.
London, United Kingdom
(Image: Illustrated London News, public domain)
The opium dens of Victorian-era London are one of the most well-documented, but fiercely contested examples of opium smoking in literature of the period. Modern scholars argue that writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and Thomas De Quincey portray a skewed image of a London overrun by an insidious opium network. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, De Quincey’s seminal 1821 work, titillated society from top to bottom; although it is true that opium was sold readily over the counter in pharmacies, in the form of laudanum, which De Quincey himself administered orally rather than smoking opium itself, it’s significant that there’s not one known photograph in the world of an opium den in London.
(Image: O. Herford (from Life Magazine, used as illustration), public domain)
Unlike in American cities of the same period, there were only handfuls of Chinese people in London at the time, and whatever trade there was centred around the Limehouse docks area. Nevertheless, the existence, or perhaps nonexistence of an opium trade in Victorian society still intrigues people today, particularly fans of Sherlock Holmes; did Holmes ever smoke opium in his pipe, enthusiasts wonder? Although Holmes, in the opening to The Sign of Four and in other stories, injects himself with cocaine, ‘his only vice’ according to John Watson, his trusty sidekick, Holmes seemingly disapproves of opium dens in another story, entitled The Man with the Twisted Lip. However, what is clear is that, to Sherlock Holmes aficionados and many people in general, the presence of opium dens in Victorian London continues to be a highly contentious issue.
Unlike London, where spurious claims of the sinister reach of opium were greatly exaggerated, Paris was a European city with a genuine incidence of addiction to the drug. Predominantly through the return of soldiers from French Indochina (now modern day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), the practices of opium smoking began to pervade French society. Newspaper reports from 1901 scandalised Parisian society by estimating that the city had in excess of 1,200 opium dens; despite this probably being an exaggeration, it’s certain that opium permeated the society of the time. The legendary Moulin Rouge was rumoured to be a hub of opium related activity, and it was even suggested that the notorious elephant’s head section of the building was an opulent, exclusive smoking den. Even the nobility was implicated; the Countess de Salles’ opium den in the Bois Boulogne was raided in 1947, where the rich and aristocratic mixed with famous writers and artists. Additionally, the problem was so prevalent throughout French port cities that in 1907, the navy ship La Nive’s much publicised crash was attributed directly to the insobriety of opium addicted sailors on board, causing loss of life and much embarrassment for the French government.