Early 19th century England was not a wonderfully glorious time the way many histories make it out to be. It was a time where close to thirty percent of the British population was addicted to opium through the form of Laudanum. This drug was a cough suppressant and pain reliever consisting of alcohol mixed with opium, among few other chemicals. Laudanum had so much of the British population addicted that it became an epidemic. People whose entire lives were becoming controlled by a substance their doctor told them was okay. This epidemic feels oddly familiar as we face the opiate crisis today in New Hampshire and America as a whole. No, thirty percent of our population is not strung out but in 2016 an alarming 42,249 people died as a result of an opioid overdose. History seems to be repeating itself and we’re sitting idly by. Thomas De Quincy’s piece “Confessions of an Opium Eater” delves into the pleasures and pains of opium addiction along with the harsh resentment and treatment of Asian people in England at the time, a piece very reminiscent to today’s society with our own opioid epidemic and our nation’s resentment towards Muslims and the culture of Islam.
De Quincy begins his piece by saying that it is both a retelling of his trials and tribulations, highs and lows if you will, of opium use but also states directly that it is both a cautionary tale and also one to be used for instruction and guidance. Although De Quincy received absurd criticism from his peers for his benevolent light cast on opium eating during the Pleasures of Opium portion of his piece, however his Pains of Opium section is much more in depth and lengthy. De Quincy was not looking to highlight the euphoria that is opium-eating but rather highlight the horrible sensations and nightmares brought on by excessive use and withdrawals. Rather, the language used by De Quincy during his piece, is what threw many readers off, his rhetoric is very positive even when speaking towards the harsh realities of opiate abuse and addiction. “I do not readily believe that any man having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium will afterwards descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol, I take it for granted//That those eat now who never ate before; And those who always ate, now eat the more.” This is an excerpt from De Quincy’s introduction where he is outlying for the reader his true and honest opinion. He knows that opiate abuse and addiction is harmful and deadly but of all his peers who he knows to have taken opium, none could say no a second time; the pleasure too greatly outweighed the pain.
At the time of its publication, “Confessions of an Opium Eater,” a vast percentage of the British population was addicted to Laudanum. Originally the drug was given to patients to be used as a pain killer, anti-diarrehal medicine, and cough suppressant; oh yeah, and it did not require a prescription. This meant that every day people could walk into their apothecary and pick up a bottle of Laudanum at leisure and thus Britain’s first opioid epidemic was born. Similarly, in America today, many of those suffering from opioid dependency and addiction do so because their doctor introduced them to the drug. The family of opiates provides such fantastic painkillers that they are tremendously over-prescribed in America today and too many of our citizens are suffering and dying because of it. In 2016, 116 people in America died of an opioid related-drug overdose every single day. Were told to look at history as a means to learn for the future but clearly we have not opened the history book on opioid dependency and addiction in quite some time.
During De Quincy’s time there was a very serious feeling of shared indignation by the Asian population in England at the time because the English population saw all Asians as one in the same. This was a generalizing theme prevalent in the romantic period of British literature referred to as Orientalism. Orientalism, at the time, was the generalization of British citizens towards people of Asian decent and grouping them all into one race; that race being below and weaker than the majority Caucasian Britain at the time. In De Quincy’s piece “Confessions of an Opium Eater” there is one instance where he is staying at a cottage in what seems to be the hills of England, outside London’s limits. While staying at his house he is accompanied by an English servant girl who is beautiful and Caucasian. One afternoon a passing traveler, who happens to be of Asian descent, visits the pair. The servant girl, having never seen an Asian person before sits and stares at the “tiger-cat” before her as she waits for De Quincy to say something to him. To further drive home the English resentment towards people of Asian descent, De Quincy describes the juxtaposition of the features of the white English girl and that of the Asian before them. The English girl is described as having an “exquisite fairness” with an “independent and erect attitude” about her, in comparison to that of the Asian man (Malay as De Quincy referred to him) with his “sallow and bilious skin…enamelled or veneered with mahogany by marine air…restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations. De Quincy is making a judgment on the man before him simply because of his heritage and race.
To further show his lack of regard or remorse toward the Asian man standing before him, De Quincy, knowing only two words in an Asiatic language, the words for barley and opium, he decided to speak to the Malay through lines from the Iliad because he felt that of all his linguistic knowledge, Greek was the language longitudinally closes to the Orient and therefore the man before him must recognize what he is saying if only slightly. De Quincy opens his home to the Malay and allows him to rest for a little while but only because the man does not speak English at all and will not be able to tell De Quincy’s neighbors that he was helped by De Quincy. The piece gets even more racist and bigoted when, as the Malay goes to leave De Quincy’s residence, De Quincy presents him with a piece of opium under the pretext that because he is from “the orient” he must know exactly what opium is, considering that is its birthplace.
This entire scene plays in perfectly to the ideas of Orientalism during the Romantic period of British literature but also is very reminiscent and relevant to the society we live in in America today. For a vast majority of Americans if they were to board a plane carrying a large number of Muslim individuals, those Americans would be uneasy; likewise, our nation’s treatment of African Americans prior to and during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. For too long white Europeans and white Americans have placed themselves at the top of the food chain and feel as though they are the superior race.
De Quincy, with this piece of literature describes heroically what society was like during the Romantic period of British literature. The entire nation was strung out on opiates while hating all other races simultaneously. Despite the fact the entire country was in a euphoric, drug induced haze, the literacy rate rose drastically during this time along with a rise in literature about nature and the egotistical sublime which dealt with the idea that everything that happened in the world was directly related to the author and his actions, hence the use of the word egotistical. The Romantic period of British literature gave rise to some of England’s most illustrious poets and gave rise to the growing fear of drug addiction among the British population. 1820’s England was not that different from 2018 America, and that is not okay. #RomanticPeriod #Laudanum #OpioidEpidemic