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Sunday, July 7, 2024

Calicut's Opium Trade ... the hidden story

                                                        Tomb of Cornwallis at Ghazipur

 As per the Malayalam calendar, Thiruvathira Njattuvela, the period of copious rains ends today. Astronomically, this is the period when the Sun transits the Thiruvathira asterism. Each of the 27 asterisms (which are star patterns outside the constellations) is transited by the Sun for a period of approximately 27 days. But, the particular nature of the Thiruvathira Njattuvela is the interplay of heavy incessant rains and bright scorching sunshine. It did not disappoint us this year as well.
This season is ideal for planting pepper vines in Kerala. This is also the season when the mature vines start flowering. This is the time when slender catkins appear on the nodes of the pepper vine. It is believed that the heavy rains falling on these catkins cause pollination as the rain drops slide down from node to node, carrying the pollen to the spikes.
In a way, pepper, as much as the monsoon, made Calicut. Traders came from all across the world to Calicut looking for just one cargo - pepper. The same monsoon which enabled profuse flowering of the pepper vines helped the Greek Mariner Hippalus to reach the destination of the black gold! 
Even Vasco da Gama who claimed to have come seeking 'Pepper and Christians' was being diplomatic when he added the Christian bit. After all, his patron, King John II of Portugal had signed a treaty mediated by the Pope (the Treaty of Tordesillas) which cast an obligation on him to look for Christians.
All this attention by middle eastern and European traders might have made the Zamorin, the ruler  of Calicut, rather self-conceited. When the Portuguese requested the Zamorin's minister for permission to carry back some live vines of pepper, the Minister was reluctant. The matter was brought to the Zamorin for a decision. The ruler was dismissive of the request: Let them take away any quantity of pepper vines. After all, they can't snatch the Thiruvathira Njattuvela from us!.
When today we find that Brazil produces over 35000 tonnes of black pepper and Kerala harvests only 30,400 tonnes, we can only mourn the short-sightedness of our rulers. To think that Brazilian black pepper emerged from the few vines planted by the Portuguese in the Para valley of the Amazon river! 
India lost its primacy in pepper production long ago. Today, Vietnam with an annual production of 163,000 tonnes produces more than 34 percent of the world's black pepper.
After the initial skirmishes and trials of strength, the Portuguese realised that peace with Calicut was in their own interest, as Cairo and Venice traders were taking advantage of the disturbance to increase their trade volumes with the support of the Muslim traders. Accordingly, a treaty was signed between the Zamorin and Albuquerque on Christmas eve of 1513. This agreement provided for the Portuguese to trade freely in pepper in Calicut and even do barter trade in exchange for pepper. The price of pepper was fixed as the same as the ruling price in Kochi market. Portuguese were also allowed to build a fort in Calicut. The relationship, and consequently the trade, between the two parties was rather bumpy with frequent skirmishes and rapprochement until 1600 when a major obstacle, Kunhali Marakkar was neutralised. 
 It was the rise of the Dutch, a new European power, on the horizon which enthused the Zamorin to consider breaking away from the stranglehold of the Portuguese. The Zamorin entered into a treaty with the Dutch in 1604 explicitly with the objective of the 'expulsion of the Portuguese from the territories of His Highness and the rest of India'. For the Dutch, it was sweet revenge for what the Portuguese had perpetrated against their emissaries in Surat. A few Dutch merchants had landed fifty years ago on the Surat coast for trading. But the Portuguese who had control over this the port, caught hold of these merchants and hanged them in Goa.
But, the Zamorin's grand design of using the Dutch to defeat the Portuguese could not be realised. The Dutch were smarter than the Portuguese and did not waste their resources in operations unconnected with trade. As K V Krishna Ayyar put it, 'As a commercial nation, their policy was maximum gain with minimum outlay. Anything that saved them money or energy was eagerly grasped at.' 
Initially, the Dutch were confined to trading much the same commodities as the Portuguese - 64% pepper, 10% rice and 6% cardamom.  But soon they realised that pepper trade was getting too competitive and there were too many players. It was then that they discovered the potential of opium as a currency. 
According to the Dutch records, it was in 1641 that they had first recorded the import of opium (they called it amphioen) into Malabar as these goods were 'appreciated by Malabarians'. This was imported  perhaps as a present to trading partners or even the rulers. The port of origin of this opium was Surat. Very soon, they succeeded in introducing opium as currency in Malabar's pepper trade. 
An entry in their records of 1651 very clearly describes their yacht Sperwer bringing from Bengal 20,000 pounds opium 'to buy pepper in Malabar'. The years that followed witnessed the rapid rise of the Dutch and the collapse of the Portuguese in Malabar. The Dutch had conquered Ceylon in 1658 and, in 1660 a naval fleet under Admiral Van Geons landed in Malabar, ostensibly to seek a regime change in Cochin but with the clear aim of throwing out the Portuguese from this coast. They conquered Quilon which was the chief possession of the Portuguese in Travancore and proceeded to unseat the Portuguese from Cranganore and Cochin in 1662. 
By 1664, the Dutch had entered into trade agreements with most of the rulers of Malabar. The treaty that the Dutch Captain John Nieuhoff signed on 21st February 1664 with the rulers of Travancore, Karunagapalli, Quilon, and Kottarakkara  provided that 'Nobody, after this treaty, was to import sell or exchange any opium into these countries except the Dutch East India Company. No one was permitted to export pepper or cinnamon out of the country or to sell them to anyone except to this Company'. Similar treaties were concluded with Kayankulam, Purakkad, Cannanore and Cranganore also. Cochin was already under the Dutch rule.
The sole exception was the Zamorin of Calicut. He could not be persuaded to sign such a treaty of trade monopoly. But it was not moral posturing that dissuaded the Zamorin from trading in opium. The English had already established a firm trading post in Calicut and were importing opium from their own Surat port. Smuggling by Muslim coastal traders was also rampant. In fact, Ali Raja of Kannur was one of the major importer of opium from Surat for export to the Middle East. The Zamorin found out that Surat opium was superior to the Bengal opium of questionable quality which the Dutch sought to foist on Malabaries. The Zamorin also got handsome customs from the Muslim traders, unlike with the Dutch who had a barter agreement.
It was the avarice of the Dutch that led to the collapse of their opium-for-pepper trade. They fixed the exchange rate too high so that soon smuggled opium drove the monopoly trade out of business. For instance, initially, one pound of opium was traded for 100 pounds of pepper. Because of the opium smuggling, the Dutch were forced to bring down the price to 60 pounds of pepper for one pound of opium and soon to 40 pounds. Considering that the smugglers were offering one pound of opium for 35 pounds of pepper, this climb down by the Dutch almost nullified their pretensions of monopoly over both these commodities. The Dutch lamented that, with the fall in the exchange rate of opium they were burdened with a stock of 30,000 pounds of 'unmarketable' opium in their warehouses. 
The VOC Governor General Hustaert gave desperate instructions in 1664 :'...we have to sell it (the unsold opium) against pepper even if the price has to decrease until 60 lb pepper, otherwise the amphioen (opium) will wither and be spoiled'.
There were two main sources of opium in India. In the east, Ghazipur district, adjoining Varanasi grew the best opium in India.  It was not for nothing that the British fought the battle of Buxar in 1764. By a firman 
dated 12th August 1765, the Delhi Emperor had granted the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company. 
                                                Government Opium and Alkaloid Factory, Ghazipur

Cornwallis had created an opium department under the Board of Revenue. It included the Benares Opium Agency with its factory at Ghazipur and the Patna Agency at Bankipore. (In fact, the Opium Factory at Ghazipur still functions directly under the Control of the Department of Revenue, Government of India.) When Cornwallis returned to India as the Governor General for a second time, his first visit was to Benares and Ghazipur. He passed away in Ghazipur and his tomb in what is known as Gorabazar is a major attraction in Ghazipur.

East India Company copied the Dutch model of meeting their trade deficit by using opium as a currency. Their main import from China was tea. They had to create a market for opium in China in order to balance the trade. In 1793, they opened an embassy in China to represent King George III. But official China was not amused by these overtures. 
The East India Company then hit upon a sponsored smuggling of opium. They would auction the opium to private traders in Kolkata who in turn exported it to China either through Chinese traders or through smugglers. The revenue from this auction was used by the Company to buy tea from China. The Company had borrowed money to the tune of 28 million pounds. They had no working capital to trade with China. As the illicit trade in opium started flourishing, the Company was not only able to wipe off all its losses but could generate a surplus of 7 million pounds by 1806. In fact, when the British Crown took over the administration of Indian territories from the Company in 1858, opium was second only to land tax in terms of government revenue. Rudyard Kipling who had visited Ghazipur in 1888 described it as 'an opium replenish the coffers of the Indian Government'.
Cornwallis Tomb - A Brahmin and a Moulvi are shown mourning the death of a benevolent ruler!

The western sources of opium were mostly confined to Malwa region, under native rulers. The Company did not have much control over the production. But, export of contraband opium was taking place from the Company ports at Surat and Bombay. Simultaneously, Portuguese agents were exporting it to Macao from their ports at Daman and Diu. This opium would be smuggled into China from Macau.
Who consumed all the opium that came to Cochin or Calicut? We know from Dutch records that in 1685, they had '20,000 pounds of bad Bengal opium in stock, which shall not improve in quality but grows bad...' They were desperate to dispose of this stock. 
On top of this, the Dutch found that the pirate William Kydd was dumping opium. It is necessary here to refer to the story of William Kidd, as told by Maddy in his blog post  Maddy is rather sympathetic to the plight of Kidd who is described as a creature of his circumstances. But, the Dutch, who wer active in Kayamkulam and Kochi when Kidd was operating in these ports, have a different story to tell. 'Apart from all the considerations above, the Malabar coast is flooded by amphioen sold by the pirate William Kidd for next to nothing...' (memorandum of 1698 from a VOC official posted in Kochi.)
We can only conclude that much of the opium obtained in the barter trade must have been exported to the Middle East or smuggled into China. Local consumption might have been only marginal. Cannabis is used selectively in some Ayurvedic preparations also. But what is striking is that there is very little information on this. It is only now, when documents from the Dutch archives get translated, that we get a picture of the major role of opium in Malabar trade.


1. 'Pepper for Opium Vice Versa : Hans Derks (downloaded from on 10-06-2024 

2. K V Krishna Ayyar : The Zamorins of Calicut

3. K K Nair : By Sweat and Swords

4. Dr. T I Poonen : Dutch Hegemony in Malabar

5. Maddy : A Pirate in Malabar


  1. Dr Joe Thomas KarackattuJuly 8, 2024 at 8:08 AM

    A fascinating peak into the period that follows the exit of the Chinese traders and missions to these parts. Helps in building continuity in the narrative of Calicut’s glorious past.

  2. Thanks CHF, for an interesting topic. The opium problem in Malabar is a little studied one, and while it is clear that the Dutch dumped quite a lot, who the consumers were is not clear. It is also mentioned that Ali Raja and his people were smuggling quite a bit, (also Tamil pattar's across the Palghat gap!) to Malabar during the 17th century. But there is no mention of a lot of addicted men in the region in any account. Was it all transshipped elsewhere? Very likely to Arab lands or to China through Malacca, a place with which Marakkars continued to trade. Kydd's distress sale of booty around Malabar was a one time affair, if you track his movements, he was not really a trader of anything.

  3. Many thanks, Dr. Joe, for commenting. Your comments seem to suggest that the period of opium follows the end of the Chinese trade. But, in another sense, it also begins another tumultuous era of clandestine trade in opium which culminated in the Opium Wars of 1830s. In other words, this could open up a new door for research in Sino-Indian trade!

  4. Thank you Maddy for your erudite comments. I had speculated on the ultimate destination for the flood of opium in Malabar. Some of it could have been local consumption. I think much of it was exported to the Middle East and beyond. Malabar sellers were forced to receive opium in exchange of pepper by the Dutch who did not want to part with their silver and gold. These sellers must have sold the opium to Arab traders in exchange for gold, silver and other commodities like dyes, silk cloth etc. What is interesting is that there does not appear to be any literary evidence about the opium. Even Kunjan Nambiar, who was a contemporary of the Dutch and alluded to the existing monopoly trade in his work Karthaveeryarjunavijayam only talks about the habitual drunkenness of Nairs but not about opium addiction. In describing the rule of Ravana, he gives a perfect picture of the Dutch after the subjugation of Kayamkulam, alluding to Lanka as the capital of Ravana (the Dutch capital was also Ceylon!)


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