Cigarettes are addictive. However the availability of tobacco around the world, in the early 1800s, limited them as a mass-market item. Even the largest wind-powered ships contained limited space. Filling ships with enough tobacco to addict a whole country was not viable during this period.
However, another product did fill this role, opium. Tobacco and opium are considered to be equally addictive, but opium is substantially more difficult to stop using. Furthermore, opium is significantly more compact than tobacco. Wind-driven ships can transport enough opium to hook and maintain the addiction of an enormous number of people.
Another product that is less addictive, albeit far easier to quit than tobacco or opium, is caffeine. And Victorian-era British loved their tea, the vast majority of it imported from China by the British East India Company. Tea was so popular The Company was running out of gold and silver to trade for it. There was a massive trade imbalance between Britain and China.
British East India Company
During this time the British East India Company was occupying and colonizing India. The company raised a private army, significantly larger than the official British army. They also privatized colonization. The British noticed the Chinese had a particular fondness for opium, which the Indians happened to be especially good at producing.
Many of the innowiki innovators remain nameless. Even those we know are often not household names. We think that’s unfair. However, in this case, whoever dreamed up this strategy likely wishes to remain anonymous. Getting to the point, the British East India Company realized they could addict countless Chinese and trade inexpensive opium for tea, selling the tea to the British.
Unwilling to do the dirty work themselves they relied on an Indian man, Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. Like countless drug dealers that came later, Jejeebhoy came from a poor family but desired riches. With more than a little help from the British East India Company, Jejeebhoy quickly transformed himself into a Victorian-era Pablo Escobar.
This strategy proved wildly successful. The volume of opium coming into China, and the commensurate opium addiction, skyrocketed. Over ten million Chinese were addicted to opium, doing whatever was necessary to procure the drug.
In response, the Chinese decided to crack down on opium imports. Chinese government officials began destroying shipments of opium and the British responded by demanding payment for the destroyed cargo. The Chinese predictably told the British to piss off and blockaded non-Chinese ships which too often carried opium. In response, the British sent a combination of government soldiers and East India Company mercenaries to fight for payment. The resulting skirmish is the First Opium War.
Most of the fighting was naval. The Chinese were badly outgunned by the British, who had far better technology and more practice thanks to never-ending European wars. In 1842, China was defeated. They signed the Treaty of Nanking, ceding Hong Kong and other small islands to Britain. China was forced to open five ports to import opium and export tea.
The next year civil war broke out in China and a rival Emperor vowing to end the opium trade. He seized a British ship, Arrow, and jailed the crew. War erupted. In the heat of battle, the Chinese killed a French mercenary leaving the French livid. Soon, China was battling all of western Europe. They lost, again. In response, the British outright demanded the legalization of opium, reparations, and the right for missionaries to engage in cultural imperialism.
Like most drug dealers, Jejeebhoy eventually pivoted into a more legitimate business, selling cotton during the Napoleonic War. He also donated an enormous amount of wealth to charitable causes, a common pattern for criminals trying to gain legitimacy and respect after-the-fact.
Before the Opium Wars, the Chinese economy was arguably the largest in the world. However, the fighting, addiction, and terms of surrender proved a terrible burden. China suffered a severe economic setback for the next century.