Updated: Aug 30
Tintin in the Opium Empire
At a very early age we have been exposed to one of the most influential images of drug use in our culture. Reading as children the comic book The Blue Lotus, we see Tintin lying in an opium den in Shanghai (named The Blue Lotus) and pretending to smoke an opium pipe. To children the book is of course only a gripping and exotic adventure story. Opium dens have disappeared from our cities. But the image lasts, permanently fixing associations of passivity, otherness, and harmfulness with the smoking of opium.
High on Opium
The Blue Lotus shows that drugs are tools used by sinister dealers and foreign powers in their attempts to enslave free people. An image in a comic book that is so powerful that children and adults continue to read it up until the present day. In 1999 the readers of the French newspaper Le Monde elected The Blue Lotus the eighteenth best book of the twentieth century.
Of course there is much more to Tintin than the breath-taking adventure. That The Blue Lotus, published in 1936, was also a critique of Japanese imperialism and features real historical events such as the bombing of the South Manchurian Railway by Japanese secret agents in 1931 becomes obvious when one starts to move from comic-book adventure to an interest in the ‘real’ adventures of the historical past. But it is only after becoming a drugs historian and starting to study the shifting images of drug use and traffic in the interwar period that one realizes how closely the adventures of Tintin in The Blue Lotus and its predecessor volume The Cigars of the Pharaoh (published in 1934) follow what the Belgian writer Hergé could have picked up from the media of his time. One can read Hergé and other comic book writers of his time together with media reports as a kind of mutually enforcing set of ‘facts’, associations and images that together create popular models of drug use, users, and dealers.
Tintin threatened by the drug cartel in Cigars of the Pharaoh
The opium den is visually one of the most striking and powerful images in these books. Though The Blue Lotus is situated in China, and so its ‘otherness’ is accentuated (also because Tintin wears Chinese clothing when visiting the den) Hergé would have known of the existence of opium dens in Europe as well. Close to his own hometown of Brussels, in major ports such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam and London, many Chinese lived and the police tolerated the existence of opium dens to some extent. In the same way, we see how in The Blue Lotus book the British and Japanese police forces in the parts of Shanghai that are under their control close their eyes to the opium trade and the opium den. For the corrupt British as well as for the imperialist Japanese the Chinese are ‘yellow rabble’ that should be kept under control, and Tintin is as disgusted with the British as he is with the Japanese.
Accomplices of the drug cartel: Japanese and British soldiers in Shanghai
At the same time the trade in illicit drugs as opium and cocaine not only threatens the Chinese and far-away countries in the Far East. Hergé would have read in his daily newspaper about major drug busts in the port of Antwerp, one of the biggest of Europe and an important transit point for the international drug trade. For instance in May 1931 four chests of opium were found by the Belgian police, containing 1200 kilograms of opium. A firm in Istanbul had sent the chests to the Netherlands, labelled as ‘dried fruits’; from the Netherlands the drugs had been sent to Antwerp with as final destination the United States.
Drug enforcement agents on the wrong track
The drug bust was the outcome of cooperation between the Dutch Central Agency for the Narcotics Trade in Rotterdam and Belgian customs. This kind of international cooperation is represented in The Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus by the first appearances of the detectives Dupond and Dupont (in the English translation Thomson and Thompson). The comical ineffectiveness of this duo is not only a stock-in-trade technique of adventure storywriters since Edgar Allan Poe, used to accentuate the brilliance of the amateur hero. It also shows that only by confronting the evil genius of the leader of the drug cartel with the good genius of a Tintin the enormous danger of the drug traffic could be contained.
The drug cartel that smuggles opium in cigars is an international octopus, with its tentacles across the world. It recruits its adherents among the white elite as well as among natives of the colonies. It actively interferes in countries as India to upset the political status quo. It is in league with the Japanese imperialists who use the profits of the illicit opium trade to further their conquest of China. It is organized as a secret society ruthlessly controlled by its Master. The identity of this Master is only revealed at the end of the Blue Lotus: it is the Greek film director and millionaire Rastapopoulos.
The drug kingpin
Once again Hergé shows that he has read his newspapers. Greeks performed important roles in the international drug traffic. Hergé is even predicting what is still going to happen. In 1937, a year after publication of The Blue Lotus, he could read in his newspaper that the 34 year old Greek sailor ‘D.X.’ had been caught in a taxi on his way from Antwerp to the Netherlands, with seven-and-a-half kilo of opium in his suitcase.
But this sailor was small fry. Rastapopoulos resembles not only in his name another Greek drug trafficker: Elie Eliopoulos. Described by historians Kathryn Meyer and Terry Parssinen in their Webs of Smoke as ‘having a Mephistophelean appearance’, and characterized by Harry Anslinger of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics as ‘head of a dangerous narcotics gang’, Eliopoulos was a key player in the illicit drug trade in the early 1930s. Did Hergé read that in May 1932 the Berlin police arrested the Greek on a German express train, and that it was claimed that an international organization of drug traffickers with branches in all parts of the world had been busted?
Hergé has often been accused of working with the stereotypes and prejudices of his culture. This makes his work from the perspective of drug history especially interesting. E-History, the uses of digital archives and text mining tools makes it possible for us to investigate this more comprehensively. We can see how he took the newspaper reports of his time, reconfigured them, and gave back images of the drug trade and uses that are still powerful. It is exactly because he was embedded in his time that his images could transcend the context of the 1930s and remain with us.