Black Gold: Opium and the Architecture of Imperial Trade in Nineteenth-Century Asia

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

Abstract / Description of output

In the nineteenth century it was opium, not oil, that was referred to as ‘black gold’. For a time Indian opium was the world’s most valuable commodity, central to the China Trade and important to colonial revenues. But the association with gold was more than just a passing comparative reference, for opium’s rise as a trading commodity was pegged directly to the need to find an alternative to gold and silver bullion hitherto used in exchange for Chinese luxury goods. By addicting great swathes of the southern Chinese population to opium, Britain and other western powers were able to substitute precious metals for this drug.

Grown in India and shipped to China, opium was used as currency in the purchase of goods that were then transhipped for sale back in Europe and America, effectively underpinning Britain’s imperial trade networks out of Asia. What came with this substantial and extremely lucrative trade was an entire architectural infrastructure that facilitated the storage and movement of both the opium and the re-sale commodities it generated.

This infrastructure is not often considered within the ambit of ‘imperial architecture’, if at all, and is regularly ignored as perfunctory and uninteresting. But if architecture, as Mark Crinson has observed, echoed, inflected and was integral to the other practices and relationships that empire required for its furtherance, then the ubiquitous ‘factories’ and godowns of the China Trade must be seen as significant actors in the spatial and mercantile ambitions of Britain as a world power.

This paper discusses the nature and significance of these infrastructures with respect to their place in architectural history, their significance to networks of imperial trade, and how we might consider them more properly in relation to the economic geography and material culture of empire.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)9780734052650
Publication statusPublished - 19 Dec 2016
EventSociety of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand Conference 2016 - University of Melbourne, Melbourne School of Design, Melbourne, Australia
Duration: 6 Jul 20169 Jul 2016


ConferenceSociety of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand Conference 2016

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Jardine, Matheson & Co.
  • British
  • company
  • corporation
  • trade
  • empire
  • imperialism
  • trade infrustructure
  • China Trade
  • grey architecture
  • networks
  • opium


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