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Opium use

Some of the Chinese immigrants in the Waranga area were opium users. One of the many stereotypes trotted out by the press of the day referred to “opium dens” and the number of “depredations” attached thereto. At the same time, the writers tended to overlook the excessive use of alcohol by the European miners that was far more likely to result in violence and other crime.

Ironically, it was the British who had introduced opium to China. They had something of a monopoly on the worldwide opium trade in the 19th century and saw huge trading opportunities given the size of the Chinese population. Opium was being illegally imported into China by British merchants, particularly from about 1820. The Chinese government began to resist more strongly because of the impact on its citizens. Two wars were fought between the Chinese and British resulting in the latter securing their trading position along with other economic concessions.

One of the large centres for trading was the Guangdong region of south-eastern China. Many miners who came to Australia for the gold rush were from this area and were already opium users when they arrived. It may be that others took up the habit after they arrived, given the difficulties they faced living in this country.

Older men

There is not much reliable information about the extent of opium use during the halcyon days of the gold rush of the 1850s and early 1860s. It seems to have been fairly common, also providing a business opportunity for merchants and owners of establishments where the drug was used. Distribution may or may not have been under the control of the secret societies mentioned in the previous story.

Some of the men who remained in the Waranga area from the mid-1860s were regular users. It seems that many of those who were left here after most of their compatriots had gone, tended to be loners, often destitute. With no option of returning to their homeland, opium may have dulled the pain of their existence.

Opium poisoning death

There is one account of a Chinese man who died of opium poisoning at Scotchman’s Gully, Whroo in 1874. It was unclear whether this was an accident or perhaps an intentional overdose with a view to committing suicide. At the inquest into his death, his mate Young Hong said that Ah Hin was a poor man who “smoked opium more or less according to the money he made.” 1 Ah Hin was apparently in very low spirits at the time of his death.

The venerable Dr J V Heily did an autopsy after the death and provided a graphic six- page deposition to the inquest, which was held at the Balaclava Hotel in Whroo. The good doctor had known the deceased prior to his death and, along with other witnesses, stated that Ah Hin had been a regular user for many years. On the day of his death, he had taken the opium in a liquid form rather than smoking. It was concluded that he had probably done so with suicidal intent.

Other deaths around this time were not caused by opium poisoning, although it was often noted at the inquest if the deceased had been an opium user.


Within the European community, there were also opium users. At the time, it was not an illegal drug. As well as taking the drug recreationally, as some of the Chinese did, others used it as a non-prescribed, cheap medicine known as Laudanum. Various other products like cough syrup also had an opiate base. Men, women and children used the medications regularly and purchases from chemists were not limited.2 Cocaine was also readily available over the counter.

Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a growing awareness of the dangers of opium use. Medicinal use started to come under stricter controls and there were efforts to dismantle the opium trade.

No such efforts were made to control alcohol consumption, which along with tobacco tended to be the drugs of choice of the Europeans who flocked to the area during the gold rush. Some of the Chinese also imbibed alcohol.

Sources: 1 PROV File No 1874/590; 2 Historic UK website