Sometimes the best intentions can lead to the worst results. When Great Britain took the moral high ground and agreed to end its lucrative export of opium from Imperial India to China in 1908, it unleashed a century of criminality. Just as America’s misguided Prohibition of alcohol made illicit fortunes for the Mafia, so organised crime within the British Empire grew rich on its trade in illegal narcotics in the 20th century.

Empire of Crime is the first book to reveal the full extent of organised crime inside the British Empire and how gangsters exploited its global trade routes to establish a new age of criminal networks that spanned the world. They even took the liberty of using the very weapons of imperial power—Her Majesty’s Royal Navy—to smuggle drugs from continent to continent. HMS Belfast—now an iconic museum ship moored in the River Thames—was once packed with Triad narcotics from Hong Kong intended for distribution in America. The revelation has embarrassed a few naval veterans, but a few others have stepped forward to give me their recollections of the day the drugs were discovered.

Uncovering these stories has not been easy as at the time they would have caused great embarrassment. The government reports I have used to write my book have been locked away in secret colonial archives for decades so it is only now that we can learn about the tough battle against organised crime undertaken within the Empire. Certainly approaching the subject as an historian, wanting to map out this little known territory for the first time, has helped relax those witnesses I spoke to.

If Britain had handed a great gift to organised gangsters, it also took on the burden of pursuing the purveyors of this new evil. Principal among these innovative drugs-busting investigators was Russell Pasha, Commandant of the Cairo Police, and founder of the Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau. Seeing the damage caused by a new wave of opium-derived drugs, especially heroin, on the streets of the Egyptian capital, he set about pulling together evidence of a vast international network linking East with West. Sometimes colonial policemen were drawn into the underworld and had doubts about whether they were really on the right side.

‘I began to wonder if I was getting a kick out of my business,’ said 22-year-old Inspector Drummond of his undercover battle. ‘I used to tell myself it was a nasty job that had to be done, that after all I was only doing my duty, and that the important thing was I should do it well. But did all of them have to die?’

In Hong Kong, Inspector Wallace agonised over the everyday corruption around him. ‘I sometimes feel that it is all rather a bad dream,’ he said. ‘Even if I leave this colony penniless and in disgrace, at least I shall take my principles with me—and these are more precious to me than anything else.’

The story told in this book for the first time is one of high principles challenged by evil conspiracies, of moral crusaders tested by mobster realities. At the heart of it is an extraordinary global empire seeking a mission for good, but derailed by criminal gangs and monstrous illegal profits. Empire of Crime is the dark underbelly of our colonial history.

Empire of Crime by Tim Newark is published by Mainstream.

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