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I have decided to post this after some light reading in the early hours of this morning. The story, if you stick with it, demonstrates the historic nature of illicit trade and smuggling by nation states searching for power on the world stage. It links to Mr Trump and his use of Hydroxychloroquine (I’m shortening this to HCQ for the rest of this article) and the history of the development of the drug which paints an insight into the world search for a vaccine for COVID19. It also details historic links of nation states, in this case the UK, to illicit trade to gain a world advantage.
We have all seen the headlines. Trump is pulling the US out of the WHO. Controversial and debate-able, but for once I have some accord with him. Some of the world organisations really are just talking shops that consume huge finance with little in terms of effectiveness coming out. They are a sink on society that need a real good kick up the backside to make them more effective and efficient. I put FATF into this group too, all recommendation and no action.
The story begins in the Peruvian foothills where the Andes and Amazon meet and a tree called the Cinchona Officinalis grows. Back in the 1700’s a search was on to cure Malaria. The first nation to find it would gain a significant advantage in the colonisation of the third world countries that had mineral wealth to exploit. The UK was in this race with India central to the development of the nation’s wealth. Malaria was such an issue in the British colonies because the troops were getting ravaged by the humble mosquito. It was critical to keep the army fighting fit and the civil servants imposing politics on the indigenous population.
For centuries malaria has plagued people across the world. It ravaged the Roman Empire; it killed between 150 to 300 million people in the 20th Century; and according to President Trump’s friends at the the WHO, nearly half of the world’s population still lives in areas where the disease is transmitted.
Then came quinine.
According to legend, quinine was discovered as a malaria cure in 1631 when the Countess of Cinchona, a Spanish noblewoman married to the viceroy of Peru, fell ill with a high fever and severe chills, classic malaria symptoms. Desperate to heal her, the viceroy gave his wife a concoction prepared by Jesuit priests made with the bark of an Andean tree. The countess recovered and the tree that cured her was named “cinchona” in her honour.
Historians today know this legend, as romantic as it seems, isn’t wholly true. Quinine wasn’t discovered by Jesuit Priests but by the indigenous Andes tribe called the Quechua who had been using it for medicinal purposes prior.
The Brits, ever eager to exploit, decided on trying to cultivate their own crop of the trees to avoid paying the South Americans for the bark. Samples were analysed at Kew Gardens, the latest in a long line of British centres of smuggling (!!) – really Kew Gardens? They even built a special greenhouse, specifically for the Cinchona tree.
The Jesuit Priests established the trade routes back to Europe and the new discovery became the talk of the town across Europe. Oliver Cromwell, in Protestant England, was having none of it, believing a Catholic plot, he refused the drug and subsequently died of malarial complications because of his hatred of the Catholics. It was dubbed ‘papal poison’.
In France, quinine was used to cure the intermittent fevers of King Louis XIV. In Rome, the powder was tested by the Pope’s private physician and distributed for free by the Jesuit priests to the public.
By 1677, cinchona bark was listed by the Royal College of Physicians in its London Pharmacopoeia as an official medicine used by English physicians to treat patients.
The economic story starts to develop when the bark of the tree was transported back to Europe to be examined, analysed and exploited. In the 1900’s the French, Spanish, Dutch and British were all exporting it and much of the wealth of the trade can be seen in historic buildings, built at the time, in Peru. It’s value soared, malaria was one of the greatest threats faced by European troops deployed in overseas colonies. Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia monopolised the trade. Bolivia’s tax take during this period, from quinine alone, was 15%. According to Dr Rohan Deb Roy, author of Malarial Subjects, obtaining adequate supplies of quinine became a strategic advantage in the race for global domination, and cinchona bark turned into one of the world’s hottest commodities. Any possible comparisons to today’s search for a COVID19 vaccine?
The bark was used by the Dutch in Indonesia; by the French in Algeria; and most famously, by the British in India, Jamaica and across South-East Asia and West Africa. Quinine is frequently cited by historians as one of the major “tools of imperialism” that powered the British Empire.
The British, ever resourceful, recognised the value of the tree’s seeds. Why pay when you can grow your own?
The South American republics imposed strict export restrictions on seeds and plants, while gaining significant profits from exporting the bark. European powers, particularly France, Great-Britain and the Netherlands, needed the bark and wanted to break the South-American monopoly.
A number of expeditions were sent to procure seeds and plants, often by smuggling them out illegally so they could be replanted in colonial plantations.
Expeditions by explorers Richard Spruce, Clements Markham and Robert Cross all managed to procure seeds and trees. It was Charles Ledger, however, who managed to procure seeds from the Peruvian/Bolivian border for a bark that contained up to 10% quinine (a significant improvement over other species). Ledger sold his cultivar to the Dutch who eventually succeed in cultivating the tree most effectively in terms of quinine volume.
By the mid-1850s, the British had successfully established “fever tree” plantations in southern India, where malaria was rampant. Soon, British authorities started distributing locally harvested quinine to soldiers and civil servants. It’s long been rumoured that they allegedly mixed gin with their quinine to make it more palatable, inventing the gin and tonic drink. Small amounts of quinine are still found in tonic water to this day.
The British use of the bark supported the ever forward advance of the Victorian colonies, especially in India. It was, however, abandoned in the 1880’s, leaving the world market to the Dutch with their more potent cultivar.
Human exploits, go beyond plant life to each other. The story informs us about the lengths nations will go to exploit others. We sometimes sit, in the western world, and mock at others on the world stage and their particular form of democracy (or not). Yet we have developed as we have by exploiting other nations and people’s through history. Smuggling by the Brits was nothing new with expeditions regularly involved in it across the silk road and into Afghanistan and beyond.
I recall a colleague in Afghanistan recounting a story about a TV programme he saw there. His Afghan friend explained. It was a satirical puppet show that had an American as a clown and a Brit as the devil. He explained the Americans are clowns for funding Afghanistan but the British are the devil; they can’t be trusted.
It’s always good to see yourself through another’s eyes.
What the story suggests is the lengths taken to gain competitive advantage on the global stage. This is evident today in the search for a vaccine as nations will and do give a cloak of cooperation but are all racing to be the first. It is true of any mineral and trade, including finance.
We have written previously on the Brits importing drugs to China to destabilize their economy in the 1800’s and while all countries compete, the Brits are particularly good at illicit offshore finance in today’s modern economy.
It’s like a corporate creating a single holding company with lots of business entities registered separately to dis-aggregate risk. Why else the Cayman Islands, BVI, Jersey, and others?
How can the world regulators and policy-setters hold the UK to account for what goes on in the Cayman Islands? It’s true to say they aren’t held accountable because it is a self governing jurisdiction that likes to think of itself as a country – even though it isn’t. More able to run their affairs with less regulation making it easier to commit white collar crime – all the while keeping the UK clean from its stain.
So we go from a seed, to a drug to a trust fund, it is all related down the ages. It’s all illicit trade, smuggling, tax evasion and money laundering.
Quinine has largely been superseded by modern laboratory manufactured HCQ. And Mr Trump knows the benefits of that one, right?
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