Friday, February 8, 2013

Tincture of Opium

In the early days of the colonies list of imports arriving in Brisbane Town frequently included boxes or crates of opium. Opium was not illegal and had been in medicinal use for centuries in Europe in the form of laudanum, also known as tincture of opium, a liquid mixture of opium, alcohol, and herbs.

The North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser 30.9.1856
Opium tincture or laudanum was a drug mainly used as a pain killer and as a sedative. It was also highly addictive and widely used and not always for medicinal purposes.

Many of the Chinese labourers who arrived in the colony from the 1840s were users of opium, bringing the habit with them from China.

A correspondent to the Moreton Bay Courier wrote of a court case involving Chinese shepherds on the Darling Downs. He reported that the Chinese interpreter, an educated man, had bemoaned the habits of his compatriots.

This Chinese scholar, by name Whang Kong Mong Ping, upon inquiry, I learn, is a mandarin, in his own country, of three tails and two peacock's feathers, sent by the Emperor of the Celestial Empire[1], who is also Brother to the Sun and Moon, to teach the barbarians of the western bush the imperial dialect, and the use of the bamboo, keangue[2], and things of those kinds, that are occasionally used in his dominion ; and has been tremblingly informed that those barbarians eat bullocks and sheep, and smoke opium, all of which are forbidden by the laws of his land.[3]

Laudanum Label
(The State Library of Victoria)
Often there would be fatal consequences. Investigating the death of a Chinese man, the Government doctor Challinor, reached the curious conclusion that a combination of opium and hot tea had resulted in the man's death.

DEATH FROM OPIUM.-An enquiry took place on Friday, at the Police Office, touching the death of   a Chinaman, named Aykee. It was elicited, from the evidence of the witnesses, that the deceased had been in the habit of taking large quantities of opium; and that, on the day of his death, he had swallowed more than the usual portion of this pernicious drug, and had partaken subsequently of some hot tea, which, in the opinion of Dr. Challinor, who had held a post mortem examination on the body, was sufficient to destroy life.[4]

In 1857, the Queensland Government decided to impose a tax on opium imports which is an indicator that substantial amounts of the drug were being consumed in the colony.

The Government intended to propose a tax of 10s. a pound on opium, thus following the example of the Victorian legislature, who urged us not to receive any from South Australia which had not paid the duty.[5]

It was later agreed that liquid forms of opium be exempt from the tax because these were considered a medicine.

The third reading of the Opium Duties' Bill having been moved, the 2nd clause imposing duties on solutions of opium was withdrawn on the ground that these solutions were imported mainly, if not wholly, for medical purposes.[6]

A Vial of Laudanum
At the time laudanum was freely available from druggists, not only to doctor,s but to anyone who wished to purchase it. The  widespread use of laudanum was revealed in a court case involving an alleged attempted suicide.

On Christmas day 1857, William Darling, described as looking like a man from the bush, entered the premises of the druggist William Kent at South Brisbane. There he asked the price of laudanum.  The following day, Joseph Wonderly, the druggist’s assistant gave evidence in the Police Court.

Joseph Wonderly: I am assistant to Mr. Kent, druggist, South Brisbane. I have not seen the defendant to my recollection during the last week. Some man got laudanum from me yesterday morning, between seven and eight o'clock. He got two ounces.

I asked him "are you aware of the effect of laudanum?" He said "I am, I have been in the habit of taking it." I gave him a bottle labelled "laudanum-poison." He seemed to me, to be a man from the bush. He was quite sober and collected. It is customary to sell as much as four ounces to parties going into the bush.[7]

Later that morning Doctor Hugh Bell was summoned to treat a man who had consumed a quantity of laudanum and lay unconscious. He told the court what had transpired.

The gabled house (right) of Dr. Bell in Adelaide Street, Brisbane
Dr. Hugh Bell, a duly qualified medical practitioner, deposed: I know defendant, I was called on yesterday morning between 9 and 10 o'clock in a great hurry to attend the prisoner. I was told he had taken some laudanum. I hurried out; defendant lives about a mile from Brisbane; he was lying on the floor face downwards; I could not see his face.

We had a little difficulty in rousing him. He appeared as if he had been drinking, he could not have had a large dose of laudanum unless he vomited immediately; he seemed to be suffering the effects of opium; I could not get to his breath.

He would not let me come near him; the pupils of his eyes were contracted;  I would not suppose a person intended to destroy himself if I had been informed he had taken two drachms; I gave him an emetic but he would not take it, but threw it away; I am inclined to think from what he said he intended to destroy himself.[8]

The doctor gave evidence that the dose that Darling claimed to have taken was enough to have fatal effects.

He said he had taken two ounces and if that was not enough he would take more. In other respects he spoke sensibly and got better. One ounce of laudanum is taken by some men, but two ounces of good laudanum is enough to kill any man. An ounce will kill a man unless he has been in the habit of taking it for a number of years.[9]

The druggist, William Bell
The doctor asked the police to take the patient into custody lest he should try to further harm himself. Charged with attempted suicide, a crime at the time, the prisoner was brought before the police court the following morning. 

After hearing the testimonies of the witnesses and the prisoner’s denials of attempting suicide, the Magistrate released him on a good behaviour bond. The Magistrate was not hesitant to criticise the lack of legislation that allowed such a dangerous drug to be available without regulation.

 The Police Magistrate ordered Darling to find sureties for his good behaviour for three months. His Worship censured the practice of selling persons drugs in such large quantities and expressed his opinion that the Legislature should interfere to put a stop to it.[10]

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2013.

[1] Emperor of China.
[2] A cangue is a device that was used for public humiliation and corporal punishment in until the early years of the twentieth century. It was similar to the stocks, except that the board of the cangue was not fixed to a base, and had to be carried around by the prisoner. (Wiki)
[3] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 23 February 1850
[4] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 24 November 1855
[5] The North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser Tuesday 8 September 1857
[6] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 7 November 1857
[7] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 26 December 1857
[8] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 26 December 1857
[9] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 26 December 1857
[10] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 26 December 1857

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