As the colonial powers carved up the world in the golden age of imperial plunder, the elite classes of the European nations became fabulously wealthy, setting up vast monopolistic global business empires, one of the most prominent and famous of which was the British East India Company. 

In the rush to procure the valuable goods and exotic commodities that produced such huge profits, there were no rules, and competing nations would brutally trade in slaves, make war and subjugate whole populations. 

The China of the time was a refined and sophisticated culture, an advanced civilisation stretching back millennia, producing an abundance of desirable produce such as tea, exquisite silks and beautiful porcelain. 

The problem for foreign traders was that China was largely self-sufficient and could itself produce anything it desired in both quantity and quality, and therefore had sparse interest in the European trinkets of the time, leaving little room for exchange deals, leaving foreign traders instead reluctantly having to part with cash gold and silver to obtain their wares. 

To rectify this ever mounting trade deficit, which had accrued to the East India Company a debt of 28 million pounds, then a staggering sum, the firm desperately needed to find cash to balance its books and hit upon a master plan to redress the situation….drug dealing. 

One commodity the British did have in abundance, through its conquests, was Opium from the meadows of India, over which they had established a colonial monopoly. 

In China, opium had been used medicinally for centuries, but the recreational use of the drug, by combining the substance with tobacco and smoking the resultant mixture, was largely unknown. The highly addictive nature of the substance made it a perfect product to virtually guarantee continuing returns. 

Forbidden from importing goods into China, from 1793, the firm enlisted the aid of British companies Dent & Co, and Jardine, Matheson & Co (still trading today) who smuggled the drugs into China via Lintin Island, where unscrupulous Chinese traffickers would ensure the onward distribution.  

After ten years of illicit trading, the company's huge financial deficit had been successfully turned into a surplus and the rising tide of Chinese opium addicts was predictably causing alarm in China. The Americans had also got in on the act and were smuggling inferior Turkish opium into China. 

The Chinese desperately sought to get a grip of the situation, but were unable to seriously disrupt the smuggling. 

By 1838, with opium addicts now being measured in the millions and utterly destroying the fabric of Chinese society, indolence began to spread in the civil service and corrupt officials were getting rich turning a blind eye, while social cohesion and good governance fell apart. 

Currency was leaving the Chinese economy at an alarming rate, and dismissing requests to legalise the trade, the frustrated Chinese Emperor decisively demanded that all opium trafficking cease, and had a letter sent to the British Queen, Victoria, asking her to intervene. It is a measure of the immense power of the East India Company, that the letter was completely ignored. 

In 1839, a sudden raid in the trading port of Guangzhou by the Chinese government arrested many Chinese drug dealers and surrounded the warehouses of foreign firms demanding the handover of their entire stocks, remaining in place until the companies were finally forced to yield up around a thousand tonnes of the drug, which took the Chinese 23 days to destroy. 

The British companies involved attempted to claim compensation from their own government for the losses, but the British establishment were outraged by effrontery of the Chinese to challenge their God-given right to deal drugs wherever they pleased, and, in reply, promptly despatched a military expedition to China. 

With the military might of the British Empire bearing down upon it, the Chinese were eventually forced to capitulate, obliged to sign the treaty of Nanking, expressly allowing opium to be traded in China and to make reparations for the loss of the destroyed drugs. 

Only in 1907 did Britain finally sign a revised treaty to reduce the supply of opium to China, and it was not until the Communist revolution took over the country in 1949 that serious attempts to control drug use in China began to address the legacy of British drug pedalling. 

These outrages of British behaviour are largely little discussed in history lessons, and largely consigned to the past, and were it not for the human cost, it would be amusing to reflect on the irony of Britain's contemporary moral crusade against drugs. 

However, it is significant that British and American military interventions in more recent conflicts tend to concentrate on commodity rich countries, mostly for oil, and the degree to which their companies reap the bonanza of lucrative redevelopment contracts to redress the destruction wrought by the vastly expensive weaponry involved, which itself repeatedly has to be replaced at great cost by the taxpayers, most of whom are little aware of the sinister web of business interests that benefit and continue to shape the world today. 

In an echo of the Opium wars in China, the intervention in Afghanistan after the destruction of New York's World Trade Centre was perhaps the most telling of all, as television pictures of British and American troops guarding, but conspicuously not destroying, the seized opium poppy fields were broadcast around the world.