The East India Company could only purchase tea from China with silver, and this worked until the 1770s when silver became scarce during the American Revolution. When Britain was cut off from the supply of Mexican silver they previously accessed, they needed a new supply of silver or a new currency to purchase tea. Opium became this new currency (MacFarlane, 109).
Opium would come to change many things in the economic, political, and social arenas of the British and Chinese Empires. “There was a time when maps of the world were drawn in the name of plants, when two empires, Britain and China went to war over two flowers: the poppy and the camellia,” (Rose, 1).
As tea became part of the British national identity, opium penetrated China. The poppy plant, Papavar somniferum, from which opium is made, was unknown in China until the 1600s. Dutch traders introduced China to Middle Eastern opium and the Native American calumet, also called the peace pipe (Trading Opium for Tea, np).
The Chinese government officially discouraged opium smoking, but this was ignored by Britain’s need for tea and a large Chinese population addicted to opium (Fromer, 37). Britain sold Indian-grown opium to China in exchange for silver, and then used that same silver to buy tea from China. This triangular trade, opium, silver, and tea, “powered a world economy” for nearly 200 years (Rose, 2).