Opium Factory at Patna: The Stacking Room

By Nancy Ai
M. Arch Candidate, Princeton University and Art Hx Graduate Research Assistant and Designer

Illustrations of the Mode of Preparing the Indian Opium Intended for the Chinese Market / from Drawings Made by Captain Walter S. Sherwill. - YCBA Collections Search
At first glance, what are all these balls placed everywhere?   Are they rocks? Bowls of rice?
Balls on shelves Balls in arms Balls arranged in grids Balls in bowls Balls on the ground
These are opium balls.  A lot of opium balls.  Where are they? Why are they on shelves?
“THE STACKING ROOM, OPIUM FACTORY AT PATNA, INDIA.”  This lithograph was originally a part of the book, The Indian Opium, Its Mode of Preparation for the Chinese Market, binded with six other lithographs, each showing a step of the opium-making process. These lithographs were first displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851 inside the Indian Court, Raw Materials under “Medicinal” and “Stimulating and Intoxicating Drugs” (Royal Commission). The lithograph we are looking at displays the fifth step, “Stacking,” following “Examination,” “Mixing,” “Balling,” and “Drying.”   So, what are the figures doing? Why are they stacking opium balls? What is the infrastructure that allows them to do so?
These are the steps before stacking. According to the author’s descriptions, the crude opium is first examined in the Examination Room in order to discern its value and purity. Then it is mixed into a uniform paste in the Mixing Room. After that, the paste is transferred and rolled into balls in the Balling Room. After rolling, the balls are placed in an earthenware cup and set to dry in the Drying Room. They are then moved into the Stacking Room.
While this lithograph of the stacking room represents one of the steps within the process of opium production, the lithograph also presents a series of processes in itself.
Here we learn about W.S. Sherwill, the maker of the lithograph.  Walter Stanhope Sherwill was a British surveyor in charge of overseeing, recording, and reporting the opium production process (Perdue). He drew these between the First and Second Opium War - both wars forced China to open its doors further to British Indian opium. Why would something deemed “Medicinal” need to be forced into China? Was it because it was for profit? Are these images biased? Did they serve as surveillance? As an advertisement or display of British power?
Here, the openings are shaped like Romanesque arches or rounded arches. These Romanesque arches fill the perimeter of this room, allowing daylight to penetrate.   Roman arches were popularized in early Victorian Britain and were adopted in India in the nineteenth century (Sharma). How did this transfer of architecture element and knowledge happen? Was it imposed through British colonialism?
Upon a closer look at the light and shadows, how are there light rays starting at the ceiling? How is there light on the inner shelf if there are only openings on the right perimeter? Are there more openings behind our sight? How accurate is this depiction?
This shelf seems to be at a different angle than the rest. Did it rotate? Is it operable?  Or is it against a wall? If it is against a wall, does that mean the footprint of the stacking room is not simply rectangular? What does that mean about the shape of the building? Or the way spaces of production were divided?
The verticality of the space is enhanced by the shelving posts as well as the sheer height of the shelves. This displays an incredible abundance which symbolizes not only the richness of “British” production but also architectural prowess.   With this height, how did people reach the uppermost shelves?
According to the lithograph, height can be reached through ladders and wooden planks.  How are the planks mounted on the building? Do people often fall off? How often do injuries happen?
The scale of the figures seem questionable.  Are the people on the top right really as big as three opium balls? Or does representing the figures this way accentuate the size of the space?
Those of power are represented as larger than the laborers in scale. The laboring figures are diminished while the immense factory structures dominate the scene.   Is that a whip in the left person’s left hand? Who is he?  Approximately 2,500 clerks worked in 100 offices of the Opium Agency which was a colonial institution that monitored poppy farmers and enforced contracts and quality with strict surveillance (Bauer, 3).
What happened here?  It looks like someone dropped his opium balls.   To maximize production, laborers were supervised and expected to work at high speeds.
The ground of the factory is either occupied by grids of opium balls, forming a path for circulation. This path is filled with a series of actions, all moving towards the stacking of the opium balls. There seem to be no spaces for rest nor paths of return.  By looking beyond this image, we can start to see the expanse of these paths.
“Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor Lith. London”  Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor was an engraving and lithographic printing company that was founded in 1835.   This lithograph reveals multiple layers of networks opium was involved in: the trade and production of opium, the network of print production, and the circulation of pharmaceutical and botanical knowledge.
While opium has a long history of being medicinal, it became capitalized under the British Indian government (Bauer, 2). Simultaneously, the desire to profit from the exploitative process of opium production continued the branding of opium as a “medicinal” instead of a commodity.
This stacking room is only a small part of the British opium operation in Bengal, India. The Finances and Public Works of India from 1869-1871 reported that “about 500,000 to 550,000 acres of land are now cultivated with poppy in Bengal, on much of which a second crop is grown.” This commoditization of the medicinal at such a scale was the backbone that supported the British colonial operations.
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Art Hx: Visual and Medical Legacies of British Colonialism