From Arab traders the peoples of India and China first learned of opium, which initially they ate and drank in solution. The inhabitants of the East Indies then discovered how to mix opium with chopped tobacco or betel leaves to make a smokeable concoction called "madak."

By the second half of the eighteenth century the Chinese were in firm possession of the technique of smoking opium, a technique whose delicate ritual and profound physiological effects may afford the devotee a higher and keener pleasure than he will ever get by simply eating or drinking the drug. Thereafter wherever the Chinese went, to railroad construction sites in Nevada and canal digging in Panama, they carried the technique with them.

To smoke opium you need, of course, a pipe. But it is a pipe like no other, a pipe you cannot stuff with anything and for which matches are useless. In the memoirs he wrote as he sailed home an invalid in the middle of the Opium War, Lieutenant Bingham of Her Majesty's corvette Modeste describes an opium pipe he happened to pick up on an island at the mouth of the Canton River. "The stem of this pipe, in cane, perfectly black from use, " he writes, "is seventeen inches long, and one inch in diameter, having a turned mouthpiece of buffalo's horn; six inches of the opposite end are encased in copper beautifully inlaid with silver. Midway on this is a round copper socket three inches in circumference, in which is placed the bowl, formed of fine clay handsomely chased, and resembling in shape a flattened turnip, with a puncture about the size of a pin's head on the upper side; the diameter of this bowl is nearly three inches." Apparently Bingham did not attempt to use his handsome souvenir. But Duncan MacPherson, a surgeon with the 37th Madras Native Infantry in the same campaign, was more daring. "I had the curiosity to try the effects of a few pipes upon myself, " he explains. If he mastered the technique, what he did must have gone something as follows.

Settling himself comfortably on his side upon a couch, he took up a drop of gum-like opium on the point of a long needle and held it over a spirit lamp. Under the heat of the flame the drop gradually turned pale, softened, swelled, and began to bubble and sputter. Before it could actually turn to vapor, MacPherson carried it still on the point of the needle to the surface of the pipe bowl, tipped the bowl over the flame, put the stem of the pipe to his lips, and inhaled. The opium passed into his lungs in the form of a heavy white smoke. Two or three puffs entirely consumed the drop; MacPherson repeated the operation several times; and very soon he began to feel the effects of the drug. (Fay, pp. 8-9)

Related Material


Fay, Peter Ward. The Opium War 1840-1842. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Last modified 23 June 2006