Last Updated 19 Dec 2022

Papaver Somniferum – Queen Elizabeth

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The poppy, otherwise known as Papaver somniferum, is a flower that most see as a symbol of remembrance for those who have fought in wars and died on the behalf of the general populace; however, in England, this flower used to be something worth going to war over. Papaver somniferum exists as the base for the infamous drug called “opium.” The need for power and wealth, combined with the lack of interest in the common man during the 17th to early 19th century, allowed for opium’s reign to move from Asia into Europe, and portrays deeper, ugly truths about the lives of British nobles and commoners alike. The opium poppy represents the baleful-yet-lavish lives of courtiers, the unhealthy lives of most commoners, and the lengths England would go to acquire power and wealth. War, colonization, illegalities, and addiction only compromised a few of the lengths England would go to in order to gain ground within the world.

This history, however, did not begin with the turn of the century; Queen Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 to 1603, and set a precedent for power. As a ruler, Queen Elizabeth I used “adroit political maneuvering and imperious command” to gain favor in the independent Parliament, as well as developed a “cult of love” to ensnare the overall country (Greenblatt and Logan 359-360). She had difficulty acquiring all of the wealth she needed to fit the perceived definition of royalty; lavishness signified power, as such flamboyancies as parties and excessive luxuries could be met through wealth alone. Throughout her reign, she used her strategic skills and loveliness to keep from being forced into marriages and to keep the illusion of true power going. Then came a trial, one in which her struggles could be put to bed after completion: the Spanish Armada being sent by Philip II to take England. When Sir Francis Drake and Lord Charles Howard returned to her with the news of victory, her reign could move forward, solidified in power and with access to more wealth via the navy and piracy (Greenblatt and Logan 361). Queen Elizabeth I, in the years after this, did all that she could to strengthen her nation; in 1600, towards the end of her lifetime, she established the English East India Company, which began the epic journey of opium throughout England (Greenblatt and Logan 381).

Queen Elizabeth I’s history is important for more than setting up the Company, though; she lived in a world of danger within her own court. Courtlife to the general populace seemed opulent, when in reality, few people surrounded nobility that could be trusted. Greed led to assassination attempts--and a few successful ones--and secret plots, ones that kept the time of the nobility occupied (Greenblatt and Logan 351). With such a heavy focus on riches and survival, the lives of common folk were lost in the trail of time, and were only noted when their religion either aligned with or threatened the higher powers. Now, this combined with the court’s desire of power and the brand new trading company, led to questionable investments and an all-but hidden problem in the ports of England.

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The British picked up on and developed its general trade in only a few decades after the establishment of the English East India Company; however, the real riches poured in when the opium trade took control. In the article, “Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia,” written by renowned historical author Anthony Farrington, it is stated that, “Hard cash received from the sale of the opium...was paid into the Company's factory...providing the Company with an immediate supply of silver for its legitimate purposes.” As the trade progressed into China, the English began seeing more direct funds coming to them instead of being poured out into the east for goods such as silk, tea, and spices (Farrington 2).

For the British, the trades being brokered by the English East India Company acted as the triangle trade of the east. This western trade system, in which textiles and manufactured goods went to Africa, slaves went to the Americas, and raw materials went to Europe, mimicked the way trade developed in the east. M. Foster Farley, Associate Professor of History at Newberry College, wrote in his piece, “Commissioner Lin and Opium,” that, “British trade with India, as well as with China, was claimed as a monopoly by the British East India Company… Trade was carried on by barter; but the opium trade was strictly on a cash basis.” He also mentions that the way the British used their silver to trade with India--when they did not outright own the goods, based on the fluctuating sanctions by the Bengali government--, took the goods and opium to China, and then returned to England with Chinese goods monopolized both of the Asian countries and their products (Farley 9). England thrived with the trade in the west as much as with the one in the east, though the latter was smaller in scale overall.

With this newfound and lucrative trade came difficulties, though. The merchants that traded the opium poppy--the ones who took it from its harvest in India to the smaller companies performing the illegal trades with China--began experimenting with the flower and desiring its effects themselves. In the article, “The Opium Trade and Opium Policies in India, China, Britain, and the United States: Historical Comparisons and Theoretical Interpretations,” written by Richard Harvey Brown, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, it is stated that, “The use of opium in India was embedded in social and religious customs...even the seals with which contracts and other legal documents were stamped bore the inscription ‘Take a draught of opium.’” As the essay continues, the increased usage by British traders is deemed unavoidable, based on how often they are surrounded by the substance (Brown 12). With these merchants now entranced by this exotic substance that offers both sustenance and mind-numbing properties, the addictions flourished among the British sailors.

Merchants and the crew must return to their home-turf at some point, and the addictions do not simply disappear. Thus, the crews began bringing opium back with them to England along with the goods that had been traded for. Those in power in England did not care about those who became addicted to the flower in China or India, as this only increased the value of the product they were trading, but it soon became a problem within their own country. Opium dens became prevalent in the ports that the merchants would return to; however, the dens did not stray far from there, but the drug itself did move through the towns. In the essay, “Opium Rampant: Medical Use, Misuse and Abuse in Britain and the West in the 17th and 18th Centuries,” author John C. Kramer, M.D., from the University of California, states, “Opium would become indispensable to the practice of medicine… Of the many drugs available few would be found as effective as opium.” While the usage of the opium poppy spread into England as a source of medicine, many were cautious about using it without care (Kramer 3).

At one point in British history, the dependency on opium by the general populace became so intense that they began attempting to grow the opium poppy themselves. Virginia Berridge, social historian with a PhD in history, says in her essay, “Our Own Opium: Cultivation of the Opium Poppy in Britain, 1740-1823,” that multiple doctors of the times tried to grow their own poppies to use in their medicines, as the supply was too low in quantity and high in price in England to meet the growing demands. “Medical reaction to British opium was very favourable,” she says, “and many doctors testified to its efficacy and purity” (Berridge 4). Addiction, while common among the merchants, became contained in the majority of lives by doctors regulating the dosages.

Overall, Papaver somniferum changed the face of England as well as accurately represented it from the 17th to early 19th century. The nobility required money and power to fund their lavish lifestyles, and acquired the needed funds by using the English East India Company established by Queen Elizabeth I as well as trade in the west that mimicked this bartering structure. Treachery abounded in the courts, and an overwhelming lack of care for commoners lived in the streets; the polish of the rich coated the anguish of the poor. The British both grew in wealth because of and lost parts of its populace to the illegal trade with China, before trying to rectify the situation on their own, after far too long of a struggle. The opium poppy, a charming flower too look at but vicious upon closer inspection represents the struggles of England in court life and the desolate underbelly that is the common folk. Papaver somniferum, a flower of remembrance to those who have gone to battle, should also be used to remember the dark times that came along with English expansion.

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