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The Opium Eater

Posted Aug 04 2010 9:47am

Papaver somniferum is an ornamental plant cultivated for its vividly coloured blooms, hardy disposition, and ease of growing in all climates and under almost all conditions.  Popular with horticulturists, nurseries, and gardeners of all backgrounds, its seeds can be roasted, ground into paste, and used in different exotic cuisines.  First grown in the western Mediterranean region, archaeological digs have found traces of poppy production dating back to 4000 BCE and was likely first cultivated for food and the rich, edible oil that the poppy plant produces.  By 1000 BC, poppy production had spread to central Europe and Aegean regions as Greek and Roman physicians spread knowledge of the plant's various medical uses.  Of course, nowadays, Papaver somniferum is best known under another name after its most famous product, the opium poppy.

Although the anesthetic properties of the milky, latex sap of the opium poppy have been known since ancient times, its use as a recreational drug is relatively more recent.  Since Islamic law didn't ban opium use as it did alcohol, the opium trade flourished in the Arab world from the 7th century onward.  Opium could be smoked in pipes, mixed with tobacco,diluted in alcohol ( laudanum ), or otherwise ingested in a range of different ways.  The poppy became a major cash crop and trade flourished across the world.  Portuguese traders made a rich profit exporting Indian opium to China and other eastern countries.  Eventually, the British East India Company formed a virtual monopoly on the opium trade in the 18th century and opium import became a major source of revenue for the British Empire.  Attempts by China to ban its import led to a series of Opium Wars that raged throughout the 19th century and left a legacy of bitterness that still affects Chinese-British relations to this day.

In Europe meanwhile, opium became widely available as its medicinal value became apparent.  Until the introduction of opium derivatives such as morphine (introduced in 1804) and heroin (introduced in 1898), opium was the chief analgesic used by physicians in dealing with severe pain.  Thomas Sydenham (who, among other things, introduced laudanum to the U.K.) wrote that 'Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and efficacious as opium'.  Many patent medicines of the 18th and 19th century included liberal doses of opium. With names such as "Munn's Elixir", "Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup" and "Godfrey's Cordial", they were often advertised to the public as "cures for consumption", "pain killers" or "the woman's friend".   Pills containing opium could be bought and sold on market day in many places and people often "stocked up" to see themselves through the week.

Despite early warnings about the dangers of opium intoxication and withdrawal, testimonials concerning the recreational use of opium in Ottoman societies (along with coffee and hashish ), led to its becoming popular in Europe as well.  This brings us to Thomas de Quincey .   250px-Thomas_de_Quincey_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16026[1]

Born in 1785, the future author and intellectual would be sickly through most of his early life.  Despite his health problems, the budding scholar showed his intellectual prowess by entering Oxford University at a young age   Being a loner, he gravitated towards opium and laudanum use and eventually left Oxford without graduating.  While marrying and raising a large family, financial problems and his continuing opium dependence led to several stints in debtor's prison.  Only with his mother's death and the small inheritance he received (along with his daughters becoming old enough to manage his finances directly) did de Quincey attain any kind of real economic independence.

When de Quincey published Confessions of an English Opium Eater in 1821, he quickly became a literary success.  Still his best known work, de Quincey's autobiographical description of his opium use was first serialized in the London magazine (it was released in book form a year later).  Covering the period of his life from 1804 to 1812, de Quincey's book details his discovery of opium and provides a look into the widespread availability of the drug in his day (it also introduced the word "tranquilizer" to the English language).  In the opening chapter of the book, de Quincey writes, "I have often been asked how I first came to be a regular opium-eater and have suffered, in the opinion of my acquaintances from being reputed to have brought on myself all the sufferings which I shall have to record, by a long course of indulgence in this practice purely for the sake of creating a state of artificial excitement".   Through the course of the book, de Quincey described his early childhood, his education, and his life after leaving Oxford.  He also discussed the stomach and facial pain (trigeminal neuralgia) that led to his first taking opium on the recommendation of a friend.  In describing the "pleasures of opium", de Quincey was lyrical in describing the glorious visions that he experienced through opium use ("thou hast the keys to Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!").  He also took laudanum on a monthly basis and was often seen staggering through the streets of London while intoxicated.

As de Quincey's pain problems worsened, his opium use grew more frequent and he became a "regular and confirmed opium-eater" (opium-eater was the accepted term no matter what form the opium use took).  In addition to his daily opium sessions, he eventually took as much as 8000 drops of laudanum daily.  The longest section of the book, The Pains of Opium, detailed his downward spiral as the opium addiction gradually took over his life as well as the crippling withdrawal effects that he experienced when he eventually attempted to control his addiction.  Since the medical community hardly acknowledged that "drug addiction" even existed (the first attempts at medical treatment of addiction wouldn't get started until the late 19th century), Thomas de Quincey had few resources to help him cope with his drug dependence.  He would remain an opium addict for the rest of his life. 

Alarmed critics condemned de Quincey's work as being too positive and Confessions of an English Opium Eater inspired many later writers to experiment with opium (including Branwell Bronte, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Baudelaire).  While de Quincey answered his critics by including medical information on opium withdrawal in later editions of his book, his planned sequel, Suspiria de Profundis never materialized.  By the time of his death in 1850, de Quincey was largely a broken man due to his lifelong addiction, his estrangement from his literary friends, his poverty, and outliving most of his children (one son died in the Opium Wars although de Quincey likely didn't appreciate the irony).

Along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey is remembered as one of the high priests of the literary drug culture that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries (he once called himself the "Pope of the true church" regarding opium).  Despite the literary respectability that de Quincey and his fellow-writers gave the drug, the widespread availability of opium and the tendency of physicians to over-prescribe it for pain problems remained the primary cause of opium addiction in most societies. The opium trade only ended with the advent of morphine and heroin (along with competitors such as cocaine ).  As new "highs" became available (most of which were legal at the time mind you), drug addiction finally became formally recognized as a serious social problem. Still, it was only during the first decades of the 20th century that the backlash truly began

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