Come and see our opium pipe

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National Maritime Museum, First floor, Traders gallery

What is an opium pipe doing at the National Maritime Museum and what does it tell us about our attitude to trade?

You may be surprised to see drug-taking paraphernalia at the National Maritime Museum but this humble pipe tells of a less-than-heroic episode in the nation’s history and one with repercussions to this day.
Hundreds of years before the term ‘narco-state’ would be coined, Britain had resorted to cultivating opium (from which heroin is derived) in India and sending it to China. China had until then shown little interest in Britain’s exports while accepting only silver in payment for its tea. As hoped, recreational use of, and addiction to, opium thrived in China. Finally Britain had something to trade for tea.
After over a century of attempts by the Chinese authorities to prohibit the use of opium, in 1839, the authorities seized and destroyed 20,000 chests of opium. The British insisted on being compensated and then initiated the First Opium War (1839-42), which China lost. Chinese territory was opened up to foreign merchants, the flow of opium continued and a second war would ensue (1856-1860) with much the same result as the first.

See the opium pipe in our Traders gallery

Follow the rise and fall of the East India Company, touch and smell the exotic goods brought to Britain and explore the lasting legacies today.