Following the racist logic Donna Murch exposes in the contemporary opioid crisis leads back to the nineteenth century. The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, is neither the first drug cartel to capture wealth by pushing opium on a vulnerable population nor the only one to sanitize profits through philanthropic donations.

The Sackler family is not the first drug cartel to capture wealth by pushing opium on a vulnerable population.

Consider the following example. The Boston merchant Thomas Handasyd Perkins profited handsomely from the Atlantic slave trade, but like many others, he gradually turned his attention to opium and amassed a fortune. His nephew and fellow cartel member, John Murray Forbes (of the storied Forbes family), used ill-gotten drug loot to become the country’s earliest railroad magnate. These captains of industry were, of course, nothing if not considerate of their fellow man. Perkins used his drug money to establish hospitals, schools, and libraries throughout the Boston area, while Forbes became an ardent abolitionist, financing the free-staters in Kansas during the 1850s and working tirelessly on behalf of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860 and 1864. Slave trading and drug pushing thus helped subsidize northern humanitarianism.

Perkins and Forbes provide useful entry points for reconstructing a larger, global story of what we might call the long Opium Wars.

Building on the pioneering work of Caribbean scholar-activist Eric Williams, a new generation of U.S. historians emphasizes the centrality of slavery to U.S. and British economic development. As these scholars have shown, a sophisticated “empire of cotton” linked enslaved cotton pickers in Mississippi to cotton brokers in New York and Liverpool, cotton manufacturers in Lowell and Manchester, and bankers throughout the Anglo-American world. No slavery, no cotton; no cotton, no industrial revolution; no industrial revolution, no Anglo-American economic supremacy, so the story goes. Yet despite scholar Lisa Lowe’s call to consider the “intimacies of four continents,” South and East Asia have remained curiously marginal to this Atlantic story. One of the most important engines of cotton capitalism, however, was the opium trade to China.

From the time Christopher Columbus first set sail, China had been the ultimate prize—a real commercial El Dorado stimulating Euro-American libidinal economic fantasies. Europeans spoke of conquest, but China remained independent and controlled the terms of trade. In fact, the majority of silver pilfered from the Americas during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries found its way to China, which needed relatively little from Europe but had much to offer (tea, silk, and spices). Opium was one potential solution to this massive trade imbalance that inhibited early industrialization. Importing a highly addictive commodity proved to be the most important tool for British and U.S. merchants eager to rearrange the China trade on favorable terms. When Chinese authorities responded by prohibiting opium imports around 1800, an illicit drug trade was born that escalated into a series of opium rushes, transforming Western opium smugglers into capitalist pioneers and buttressing British imperialism in Asia.

By the 1820s, opium was the single greatest Western import into China. While the British East India Company controlled 90 percent of the opium trade, thanks to its monopoly on Indian-grown opium, U.S. firms cornered the market on smuggling a cheaper Turkish product into China—prospering by selling death and despair. “Opium was more than simply an economic commodity,” Lowe notes. “The distribution of the highly addicting drug that induced docility and dependence targeted the biology of the Chinese population, constituting a very different form of governance than earlier modes of political dominance or territorial conquest.” The opium peddler, claimed British reformers, “slays the body after he has corrupted, degraded and annihilated the moral being of unhappy sinners.”

Opium smuggling served larger imperial goals in addition to generating outrageous profits. While Liverpool cotton brokers successfully married British industrial capitalism to what historian Walter Johnson has called “slave-racial capitalism” in the U.S. South, manufacturers in cities such as Manchester quickly pushed domestic consumption to its limits and became desperate for new markets that could absorb surplus product and forestall recessions. Many capitalists pinned their hopes on India and China, home to the largest reserve army of consumers on Earth. But neither Indian nor Chinese peasants had much use for European manufactures. Instead, British narco-colonialism opened up new markets—that is, newly conquered consumers—for a different product: opium. These markets were predicated on the coerced cultivation of opium in India and its coerced consumption in China.

Opium smuggling served larger imperial goals in addition to generating outrageous profits.

When Chinese authorities once again targeted opium smuggling in the 1830s, the British responded with all-out war—two, in fact (1839–42 and 1856–60). Imperial violence against China complemented the torture of enslaved blacks on cotton plantations in the West, forming a global regime of racial capitalism. Abolitionists, meanwhile, drew explicit connections between the suffering of enslaved blacks and Chinese opium addicts, both of whom were vulnerable racialized populations subjected to the depredations of Anglo-American capitalism. The Irish abolitionist Richard Allen, for example, was a persistent advocate for “the prisoned, plundered Chinese, whom the English are warring against, in the hope of making them swallow opium . . . the Hindoos, who are forced to grow the opium, and taxed for the support of Juggernaut . . . American slaves, and slaves everywhere.”

The U.S. Civil War temporarily disrupted the cotton economy, but racial capitalism proved flexible enough to survive the abolition of slavery. As for Britain, its victory in the Second Opium War resulted not only in the complete legalization of the opium trade but also in the consolidation of the Chinese “coolie trade.” Both countries saw domestic opium consumption skyrocket. In the United States, opium and opioid derivatives distributed to sick and wounded soldiers during the Civil War made opium the first mass-consumption narcotic in U.S. history. The negative connotations of opium use, however, were reserved for Chinese immigrants rather than veterans or middle-class white women addicted to morphine. As the historian David Courtright shows, transformations in medical practice as well as racial and class anxieties eventually led to legislation such as the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act that produced illegal drug markets and immoral (i.e., working-class and nonwhite) drug users.

The turn of the twentieth century witnessed a series of racial panics that trafficked in the grammar of addiction. Racist depictions of Chinese opium use underscored the Chinese threat to U.S. society and bolstered racist political campaigns for Chinese exclusion during the 1880s and 1890s. Meanwhile, black resistance to racial terror was interpreted through the lens of “Negro cocaine madness.” By the 1930s, in response to Mexican immigration and Latinx urbanization, white observers worried about “reefer madness.” In each case, white drug addiction was bracketed amid increased concern about racialized laboring populations whose indocility justified what Micol Seigel calls the “violence work” of policing. These moral panics veiled the fact that early giants of the pharmaceutical industry—Bayer and Merck—amassed fortunes producing heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines for citizens and soldiers.

Nineteenth-century regimes of racial narco-capitalism thus haunt the opioid crisis of today. They remind us that domestic U.S. opioid consumption is only one side of a global story. Trump’s obscene attempts to blame Latinx immigrants for the United States’ nasty habit must not obscure the role of U.S. imperialism in transforming Afghanistan into a narco-state that supplies a majority of the world’s illicit opium (including a significant amount that finds its way onto U.S. streets, where users without prescriptions turn to illicit substitutes). The Sacklers are only one face of contemporary racial narco-capitalism, which keeps universities, hospitals, and philanthropic foundations flush with drug money. 

The only way to escape the corrupting influence of capital derived from slavery and the long Opium Wars is to wage a global struggle, as our abolitionist forebears did, against racial tyranny and economic plunder.