Opium poppy cultivation is known to have occurred in the ‘cradle of civilisation’ of lower Mesopotamia by the Sumerians at least as far back as 5,000 years ago. The Egyptians become keen cultivators of the poppy, and traded it throughout the Mediterranean. In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great became enamoured with opium, and introduced it throughout his vast Empire, from Eastern Europe to India. It was used medicinally in China and as a household remedy for a range of maladies in India over a thousand years ago.

During the Inquisition of the 14th century, opium was linked to the ‘work of the devil’ and was subsequently almost entirely purged from most of Europe. It was not ‘rediscovered’ until the mid-16th century, when the German-Swiss Renaissance physician Paracelsus wrote on the medicinal qualities of ‘laudanum’ or the ‘stones of immortality’; these were essentially opium thebaicum, citrus juice and quintessence of gold, used as general purpose painkillers.

By the 18th century, Britain controlled most of the world’s opium trade, mainly through the British East India Company, shipping it from India to China, where a national crisis began to emerge as large swathes of the population became addicted. This culminated in the Opium Wars (sometimes called the Anglo-Chinese Wars) of 1839-60, when the Chinese government attempted to stem the flow of opium into the country, a major source of revenue for Britain.

The 19th century Romantic Movement in Britain saw a rise in the popularity of opium, its reputation enhanced by the writings of influential figures such as Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Dickens, and particularly Thomas de Quincey (“Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”).