Did Orwell smoke opium in Burma?

George Orwell spent five years working as a police officer during the 1920s before unexpectedly resigning to become a writer. There is compelling circumstantial evidence to suggest he experimented with opium while serving with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma.

A series of fortunate events led to deep research into this controversial topic.

A signed copy of Captain HR Robinson’s autobiography, A Modern De Quincey, came into my possession. Robinson was an opium addict who was with Orwell in Burma during the 1920s. Coincidentally, I was re-reading George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days at the time. Orwell, who made it clear he knew the author from “the old days” reviewed this memoir in The Observer during 1942, while working at the BBC. It was a very interesting curiosity for my burgeoning collection of Orwelliana. As you will discover, Robinson was blind when he signed his book.

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A few days later, while browsing rare bookseller websites online, I was surprised to find diaries by a Henry Osborne who served contemporaneously with Orwell’s father in India and decided to buy these twenty-six handwritten treasures. Reading about Osborne’s experiences, as an opium agent for the British Empire in the late nineteenth century, made me reflect on discussions that may or may not have taken place between Orwell and his father about the “dirty work of empire”.

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Further research into Orwell, Robinson, Burma and the opium trade, mainly via the British Library and Orwell Archive, led to many more questions than answers. Who knew that Orwell smoked marijuana in Morocco? Where did he get his ideas for that cocaine deal in his first book? It was clear this was a completely unexplored and controversial area of Orwell scholarship.

The author and journalist, famed for his political essays and novels, especially Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, has more lost years than Shakespeare. Biographers never discovered much about his life in Burma, then Paris, during the 1920s. Surprisingly, there has never been suggestion that Orwell experimented with drugs, considering half-a-dozen of his standard published works provide evidence of such experiences.

His widow, Sonia Brownell, zealously carried out Orwell’s dying wish that no biography was to be written and researchers were not granted permission to quote from his extensive archive of personal papers or published works for more than three decades after his death in 1950. The embers were well and truly cold for that period prior to the pseudonym, George Orwell, appearing on the cover of his first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London, in January 1933.

Rules never much concerned Orwell. One of the few photographs we have of him is as a teenager, insouciantly smoking, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from his mouth. Eton prohibited such activity but Orwell had a penchant, even though it was ‘awfully hard to get’, for Turkish tobacco in his teens. Smoking was to become a life-long habit.

If Orwell based most of his reportage and fiction from lived experience, it is very likely he smoked opium and was personally acquainted with other drugs. He wrote a memorably descriptive passage about an opium den in Burmese Days (1934) and we know from his diary he smoked marijuana in Morocco as well as writing about a cocaine deal gone wrong in Down and Out in Paris and London.

His most well-known novel, Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) has the protagonist agreeing ‘to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases…’ before being given a political manifesto which mentions ‘the truth-producing effects of drugs’. Near the end of this novel, Winston Smith falls into a strange, blissful reverie where ‘everything was settled, smoothed out, reconciled. There were no more doubts, no more arguments, no more pain, no more fear…in the delirium induced by drugs. He was in the Golden Country’. It should be noted that the most recent biographies argue Orwell was intimately acquainted with prostitutes and may have been sterile as a result of contracting venereal disease.

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Orwell’s allegoric fable, Animal Farm (1945) concludes with a memorable scene. The corpulent pig, Napoleon, announces that the name ‘Animal Farm’ had been abolished and ‘Manor Farm’ the correct and original name is to be reinstated. The pigs drain their glasses in a toast. The long-suffering animals look through the window at the strange scene of pigs, standing on two legs, consorting with men, their enemies:

Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing? … No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Transformation, in literature, especially fairy tales, is nothing new but this is a stunningly poignant example. If Thomas De Quincey had written this, his knowledge of opium-eating would be used to explain the visually vivid image of faces ‘melting and changing’. Orwell owned a copy of De Quincey’s, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) and reviewed books about Baudelaire, another opium-eater, as well as collecting pamphlets on opium.

Opium?

Why should anyone believe Orwell smoked opium when he was a police officer though? There are a number of facts about the writer’s life, not at all well-known, that provide interesting contextual evidence.

It is important to know that George Orwell, born Eric Blair, was the son of an opium dealer. Richard W. Blair’s entire working life was spent serving the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service regulating the quality, production, collection and transportation of opium from 1875 until his retirement in 1912.

Orwell, as the second child and only son, was born in Motihari, Bihar, a small Indian town near the Nepalese border where his father was stationed in 1903. The three-room bungalow where the Blairs lived was conveniently located near a large warehouse used for storing opium that would later be processed and exported to China.  Orwell was following in his father’s imperial footsteps by serving in Burma, then considered part of British Indian Empire.

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Secondly, Orwell was well-acquainted, perhaps friends, with the opium-addicted Captain HR Robinson, described by one biographer as ‘the most disreputable man in Burma’. Robinson, fearing imprisonment in 1925 for debt, attempted suicide and blinded himself permanently. Orwell reviewed his memoir, A Modern De Quincey, in 1942 saying:

Those who knew Captain Robinson in the old days will be glad to receive this evidence of his continued existence, and to see the photograph of him at the beginning of the book, completely cured of the opium habit and apparently well-adjusted and happy, in spite of his blindness.

Orwell was in Mandalay for a year while Robinson was resident and smoking opium. Orwell spent limited time ‘at the club’ with colleagues drinking and could not have spent all his time friendless, reading in his room. One published theory is that ‘the Poet’, in Robinson’s memoir, is Orwell. If correct, he was with Robinson the night the ex-army officer first smokes opium. Later, Robinson goes on to establish a smoking den in his own home. Orwell would not have needed to go to Chinatown or elsewhere to smoke the drug.

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Orwell, at the time he reviewed the book, was broadcasting for the BBC and Robinson may have been protecting his friend’s reputation or following legal advice. The book contract, signed by the blind Robinson in his upward-sloping handwriting, reveals the original title to be Burma Road, very reminiscent of Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, published eight years prior in the USA rather than Britain (due to fears about libel).

In the same review, Orwell’s observations, especially that the pleasures of the drug are ‘indescribable’, may be read as evidence of both personal, along with policing, experience. In Burmese Days, he also displays a knowledge of opium that may have come from policing except it is notable that the protagonist, Flory, is ‘a friend’ of the addict.

Burmese days

Next, and surprisingly for many fans of the writer, the superstitious Orwell had tattoos. Orwell’s passport records ‘tattoo marks on the backs of hands’ in the ‘visible distinguishing marks or peculiarities’ section of the form. His tattoos were also described as ‘blue spots the shape of small grapefruits – one on each knuckle’.

Did Robinson, who was heavily tattooed as ‘charm against death from a bullet-wound or the thrust of a knife’, influence the superstitious Orwell? In a macabre sense, Robinson’s tattoos proved effective as he was not killed when attempting suicide.

Robinson describes the ‘painful’ tattooing process at some length, emphasising that the ‘instruments were very primitive, and the process was very painful’. One assumes that Robinson took opium before undergoing the procedure but did Orwell? It was legal for registered tattooists to dispense opium to their clients if they had a ‘License for the Possession of Defined Opium by a Tattooer for Tattooing Purposes’. Theoretically, it was legal for Orwell to use opium while being tattooed.

Orwell knew he needed to hide his behaviour from others. Fellow Etonian, the conservative Catholic Christopher Hollis, on visiting Orwell in Rangoon during 1925, found a completely orthodox young police officer. One biographer believes this was the impression Orwell purposefully wanted to give Hollis who was returning to England and would undoubtedly discuss his trip with people who knew the Old Etonian. It is telling that a police colleague, Roger Beadon, was later amazed to find that George Orwell was the Eric A. Blair he trained with in Mandalay saying it was unexpected as ‘a flying saucer’ arriving at your front door.

Did Orwell smoke opium in Burma? There is no conclusive proof.  However, a ‘lower-upper-middle-class’ man who was prepared to quit his career against his father’s wishes to become a writer, steal himself to go down a coal mine with working men, get purposefully arrested, associate with a criminal underclass in Paris and London, spend time with the poor and homeless as well as risking his life in a time of civil war in Spain would surely not have baulked at smoking opium, if the opportunity presented itself, considering the nature of his father’s work.

George Orwell was addicted to tobacco and tea, nothing stronger but it is probable, while exploring the rich tapestry of life, indulged in other ‘indescribable’ pleasures.

Orwell and the Appeal of Opium, a 9000-word, peer-reviewed paper (with extensive bibliography and footnoting) is published in the latest edition of George Orwell Studies Volume 3, No. 1 (2018). My book, Orwell: On Drugs, is currently in preparation for publication in late 2019.

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