Royal Commission on Opium

The Royal Opium Commission of 1895 was a commission of the British Government set up to investigate the Anglo-Asian opium trade.


Throughout the 19th century opium sent to China was one of British India's most valuable exports. In 1797, Lord Cornwallis set up an official state agency that licensed peasant cultivators to grow poppy, process it, and export it to China via Calcutta.

So valuable had this trade become to British India by the 1830s that its threatened closure by the Qing government caused the British government to send ships and troops to attack Canton and other coastal cities in the First Opium War. The British thereby forcibly prevented the Qing government from effectively ending the smuggling of Indian opium and its illegal sale to Chinese consumers. The Qing government's refusal to legalize the sale of Opium was among the factors that led to the Second Opium War.

As opium trafficking soared, the volume of criticism directed at it grew, especially in Britain. Reformers headed by Evangelicals and Quakers organized, petitioned and put forward Parliamentary resolutions aimed at stopping the trade. Finally, in 1893, under Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone's Liberal government, anti-opium pressures prevailed and Parliament approved the appointment of a Royal Commission on Opium.[1][2]

The Commission was to report on whether India's opium exports to the Far East should be ended and, further, whether poppy growing and consumption of opium in India itself should be prohibited, save for medical purposes. After an extended inquiry the Royal Commission released its report, running to around two thousand pages, in early 1895.[3] The report firmly rejected the claims made by the anti-opiumists in regard to the harm wrought to India by this traffic.[4] Instead, it claimed that opium use in Asia was analogous to alcohol use in Europe, that opium was not harmful to Asians, and that Chinese complaints were based on commercial concerns, not medical evidence.[5] This proved to be an unexpected and devastating blow to the hopes of the anti-opium reformers in Britain. The Commission's conclusions effectively removed the opium question from the British public agenda for another 15 years.[6] One member of the Commission, Henry J. Wilson, published a Minute of Dissent.[7]


Queen Victoria appointed nine members to the Royal Commission on Opium.[8] These consisted of seven British and two Indian members headed by Thomas Brassey, 1st Earl Brassey, who served as chairman.[9] Those appointed were accomplished, prominent public men who had to have sufficient resources to serve without pay on the commission for a considerable period of time. All those appointed were experienced at sifting through complex issues and coming to reasonable conclusions based on evidence presented to them. The Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade commented in its journal that after attending the early hearing in London, "the commission is as fair-minded and impartial a tribunal as could have desired to hear our case."[10]


  • Thomas Brassey, 1st Earl Brassey, (1836–1918) was the son of Thomas Brassey, the railway contractor of Cheshire. Brassey had an extended career as a Liberal Member of the Parliament. He was a prolific author best known for his Brassey's Naval Annual, a survey of naval affairs around the world. John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley, Secretary of State for India, summarized the prevailing view of Brassey in a letter to the Marquess of Lansdowne, Viceroy of India: "I hope that you will have been satisfied with our nomination of Brassey to the Chairmanship of the Opium Commission. He is perhaps not a very strong man, but he is hard working, well informed, and fair minded. We may rely on his impartiality which is the most important qualification in such an inquiry." His son, an aspiring but never successful parliamentary candidate, was an assistant secretary to the commission.[11]

Two members actively associated with the government of India were firmly pro-opium:

  • Sir Arthur Fanshawe (1848–1931), Director-General of the India Post Office, who had earlier experience with the excise revenues in the Indian Civil Service.
  • Sir James Broadwood Lyall (1838–1916) had retired to Britain in 1892 after a distinguished Indian career that culminated in his appointment as Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab.

The two avowedly anti-opium British members included:

  • Henry Joseph Wilson (1833–1914), an aggressive, radical Liberal MP from Holmfirth in West Yorkshire since 1885. He was a stubborn and tireless campaigner for the social reform and religious freedom.
  • Arthur Pease (1837–1898) was a Member of Parliament from Whitby who served on the governing council of the Society for the Suppression of the Opium trade. Pease was a conscientious Quaker, and strong Liberal Unionst, a high principled, rather pompous and self-satisfied sort of gentleman.

The two Indian members were:

  • Lakshmeshwar Singh (1858–1898), Maharaja of Darbhanga was a committed Indian nationalist who was one of the most generous financial supporters of Indian National Congress from its inception in 1885. He was also the elected non-official member of the Supreme Legislative Council that advised the Viceroy of India.
  • Haridas Viharidas Desai (1840–1895) was Diwan of Junagadh. The Viceroy nominated him on advice of Sir Charles Pritchard, a member of his Council who had served in the Bombay Presidency.

The remaining positions were filled by:

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

Richards, John F. (2002). "Opium and the British Indian Empire: The Royal Commission of 1895". Modern Asian Studies. 36 (2): 375–420. doi:10.1017/S0026749X02002044. ISSN 1469-8099.

Winther, Paul C. (2005). Anglo-european science and the rhetoric of empire : malaria, opium, and british rule in india, 1756- 1895. Lexington Books. ISBN 0-7391-1274-0. OCLC 154945794.

Woodcock, Jasper (1995). "Commissions (Royal and other) on drug misuse: who needs them?". Addiction. 90 (10): 1297–1308. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.1995.tb03539.x. ISSN 0965-2140.


  1. ^ Ocampo, J. A., 100 Years of Drug Control, United Nations 2009 ISBN 978-92-1-148245-4, p30
  2. ^ Buxton, J; The political economy of narcotics: production, consumption and global markets, Zed Books 2006, ISBN 978-1-84277-447-2 p29
  3. ^ Joshua Rowntree. "The Opium Habit In The East: A Study Of The Evidence Given To The Royal Commission On Opium 1893-4". China, Culture and Society. Adam Matthew Digital. Retrieved 25 November 2014.
  4. ^ Royal Opium Commission, First Report of the Royal Commission on Opium: with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices, Eyre & Spottiswoode for HM Stationery Office, 1895 . The following volumes are available online at the Internet Archive.
  5. ^ Brook, T and Wakabayashi, B; Opium Regimes: China, Britain and Japan 1839-1952, University of California Press 2000, ISBN 978-0-520-22236-6 p39
  6. ^ Baumler, Alan (2007). The Chinese and Opium under the Republic: Worse Than Floods and Wild Beasts. State University of New York. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-7914-6953-8. Retrieved 21 August 2011. Although the Royal Commission killed opium suppression as an active political issue for the next fifteen years, the anti-opium crusaders continued their campaign, denouncing the commission as a whitewash and attempting to counter it with data of their own.
  7. ^ Royal Commission on Opium : minute of dissent ... with his notes, memorandum on the attitude of the authorities in India, and protest against treatment of native commissioners, &c. : with portrait and table of contents / presented by Henry J. Wilson, M.P.. - London : P. S. King & Son, [1895].It was also published as a supplement to Friend of China, available online at the University of Hong Kong Library
  8. ^ For further details on the appointment of the Commission, see Institute of Historical Research Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 10: Officials of Royal Commissions of Inquiry 1870-1939 (1995) by Elaine Harrison : 'List of commissions and officials: 1890-1899. The Opium Commission is No. 85.
  9. ^ Lodwick, K; Crusaders against opium: Protestant missionaries in China 1874-1917, University Press of Kentucky 1996, ISBN 978-0-8131-1924-3 p86-87
  10. ^ Quoted in Dikötter, F; Narcotic Culture: a History of drugs in China, C Hurst & Co. 2004, ISBN 978-1-85065-725-5 p101
  11. ^ Who Was Who, 1916-1928. A and C Black. 1947. p. 121.Sketch on 2nd Earl Brassey (died 1918).