The scent of opium, the 'tears' of the poppy flower, the dried secretions of papaver somniferum, wafts throughout many histories of life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Besides its considerable impact on the trade between nations and colonies, the drug itself gathered a symbolic weight. Its peculiar smell and exotic aura fired the rhetoric of writers, pervaded descriptions of the undersides of cities, and fuelled the aggressive bombast of racial politics. Opium came to represent a cultural impasse. At the far edges of Empire, and on the sidelines ofthe Opium Wars, colonial outposts such as Australia developed particular ways of articulating and inflecting the 'otherness' associated with consuming opium. In Australia opium smoking provoked a rhetorical nexus of intoxication, cultural division, and clamorous assertions of nationality. Opium 'dens' were described in newspapers, novels and official reports and became bound up in political debates about moral hygiene and the invasion of a 'pure' uncorrupted society; the often hysterical tenor of these descriptions is testament to the social antipathy provoked by opium, but also offers a fertile ground from which to scrutinise the racially and sexually inflected politics of colonial print cultures.
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