Cultivation and use of Opium before the 16th century

by Stuart Wakefield

Opium is derived from the seeds of the papaver somniferum plant, which is related to the common cabbage. Fossilised poppy seeds have been found that date back over 30,000 years to Neanderthal man. The first written record of poppies was written on Sumerian clay tablets that have been dated at around 5,000 BCE. These referred to opium as hul gil, the ‘joy plant’ that was used to produce opium in Mesopotamia.[i] As opium gained in popularity, it was first traded westwards to Assyria and Egypt before spreading along established land trade routes, (which subsequently became known as Silk Roads).[ii] An early Egyptian medicinal text, the Ebers Papyrus, dated around 1,550 BCE, records opium being mixed to produce a children’s sedative, and was specifically used as a remedy for infant teething problems. It has been suggested that mother’s offered their nipple to suckling babies smeared with poppy juice to stop them crying, and this practice spread over time to both Europe and India. Whilst its pleasurable effects were known, it was also used to overcome bowel disorders, and was even claimed to be an antidote for poison. By the fourteenth century, maritime trade dominated due to a lack of political control along the land route, which increased opium availability in South East Asia.

A page from the Ebers Papyrus scroll, which was an encyclopedia of medicine in ancient Egypt. Photo taken from

Opium was undoubtedly a valued trade good, and being easy to grow with a relatively low cost of production, extensive cultivation resulted in many regions. Poppy plants take approximately three months to produce opium and thrive in warm climatic conditions that are common in the Middle East, though they can be grown in a wide variety of locations. One acre of poppies can produce from three to five kg of raw opium, although both quality and yield deteriorate in less than ideal growing conditions. The flowers are normally coloured red or orange, although the colour may vary from white to purple, and the four petals are initially hidden within two outer sepals.[iii] The calyx is thrown off as the flower develops, and, following fertilization, the petals drop away to reveal from five to eight poppy capsules, which have the appearance of miniature pomegranates.[iv] The capsules are lightly lanced a few times to avoid damaging the interior cavities. The puncturing causes the milky latex to ooze out, which is then scraped off and then air dried when it turns dark brown.[v]

The historical significance of the opium trade is open to debate, with some claiming that it played a key role in major historical events including wars fought by Alexander the Great, The Huns and the Mongols.[vi] The first contact between the west and China occurred when a Greek expedition came to Kashgar around 200 BCE.[vii] It is apparent that opium use in Asia had been well established by the fifteenth century as a consequence of trade from the Middle East and India. However, after the fifteenth century, Asian trade and use of opium increased dramatically under the influence of European Charter Companies such as the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie) and the English East India Company.

Some historians suggest that opium may have been introduced into China by returning sailors or Tibetan Buddhist priests from Africa or India as the early as the first century BCE. However, it is generally accepted that Arabic merchants brought opium first to India and subsequently to China between 400 and 900 BCE.[viii] Opium was produced by some ethnic minorities in southern China to raise money to pay tributes to the Han Chinese Emperors.  Chinese traders also introduced opium growing to South East Asian minority cultures.

Opium smoking in China in the 19th century. Photo taken from

Some sources suggest that opium was primarily used by the lower classes, although it is quite possible that its wide availability and broad based appeal as a medicine led to its widespread use. An Indian folktale relating to opium suggests that recreational users will become ‘[…] as mischievous as a mouse, as fond of milk as a cat, as quarrelsome as a dog, as unclean as a monkey, as savage as a boar, as strong as an elephant and, as spirited as a queen!’ A 10th century CE Chinese poem advised of the opium poppy being made into a drink “fit for Buddha”. The 1916 China Year Book stated that ‘The poppy has been known in China for 12 centuries, and its medicinal use for nine centuries,’ and was introduced by Arab traders.[ix] Textual evidence in an eight century Chinese Pharmacopoeia manual suggests that ‘[…] Muslim traders were carrying opium from West to East Asia […] the medicine was prescribed for diarrhoea […] and for that frequent complaint in traditional medical lore, male impotence.”[x] Some historians have drawn parallels between the trades in opium to China and in tea from China. Both were regarded as desirable and worthy of consumption, with the Dutch Physician Cornelis Bontekoe making extravagant claims for the medicinal properties of tea and recommending consumption of up to fifty cups a day. However, unlike opium, tea joined tobacco, coffee and cocoa as luxury products in a lucrative but limited European market.[xi]

Historians have pointed out that smoking was unknown before Columbus returned from the New World with tobacco, and conclude that, prior to the sixteenth century, opium had always been taken orally.[xii] Whilst not being contradictory, other sources point out that opium smoking was well established in Java by 1690.[xiii] Others suggest that a smoking culture appeared in China during the seventeenth century, although the Chinese initially considered the practice to be barbaric.

Opium Den by Vincent G. Stiepevich. Photo taken from

[i] Dr. Anil Aggrawal, Narcotic Drugs, The Story of opium, Ch 2, (New Delhi, 1995); <;, [accessed 6 June 2017].

[ii] Drug Enforcement Administration, Museum & Visitor Centre; <;,

[iii] Study, Flower Sepals; <;,

[iv] Study, Calyx in flowers; <;,

[v] Frontline, <>, [accessed 12 June 2017]

[vi] All Empires History Forum, Ancient Opium Trade Routes; < >, [accessed 7 June 2017].

[vii] British Museum, Chinese Trade; < >,

[viii] Facts and Details; Opium in China; <;, [accessed 11 June 2017].

[ix] Ellen La Motte, Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, The Opium Monopoly, XV The History of the Opium Trade in China; <;, [accessed 6 June 2017].

[x] Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952, Part III, Drugs Taxes and Chinese Capitalism in SE Asia, edited by Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, University of California Press, 2000.

[xi] Frank Dikötter, Lars P. Laamann, Zhou Xun ‘Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China’ Hurst, London, 2004, 11

[xii] CBS News

[xiii] Englebert Kaempfer


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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