- Historic Sites
“A Fair, Honorable, And Legitimate Trade”
The opium trade is remembered as a British outrage: English merchants, protected by English bayonets, turning China into a nation of addicts. But Americans got rich from this traffic—among them, a young man named Warren Delano. He didn’t talk about it afterward, of course. And neither did his grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
Edward Delano arrived at Macao off the South China coast aboard the American vessel Oneida on December 7, 1840. His initial impression of the tiny Portuguese colony was reassuring. A crescent of handsome whitewashed houses with a half-dozen church spires scattered among them, clinging to a green hillside, it reminded Massachusetts boys like Ned of the fishing village of Nahant.
It had been a long, uneasy journey of 160 days. Ned was just twenty-two and prone to seasickness. He had never before been more than one hundred miles from the family home at Fairhaven, near New Bedford, and he had not seen his older brother, Warren Delano II, since Warren had sailed for China seven years before. Now Warren was the head of Russell & Company, the biggest American firm in the China trade, and had sent for Ned to join him as a clerk.
Their reunion was restrained at first. “W. came in…with his dressing gown on,” Ned reported. “I should not have known him under circumstances different from which I was now placed—he appeared to me worn out—a yellow cadaverous visage [he was recovering from an attack of jaundice] added to a slow gait and body [a] little inclined forward —we embraced—scarcely a word was said—only that he was heartily glad to. see me…he said that I had arrived…at a time when he could do much for me and hoped that I should not have to stop here [in China] as long as he had.…”
Warren is “a perfect Number One,” an admiring Ned wrote home. “Of course he feels his authority—yet he does not abuse it—a young man of 31 at the head of R & C[ompany]…he can carve a duck, eat curry, be interesting in conversation, be sarcastic in his remarks, tell a good story, and do many other things ‘too numerous to mention.’”
Macao was only the off-season residence of the China traders; most business was conducted at Canton, on a single riverfront block of thirteen factories. These two-story buildings where foreign traders lived and worked were located in a small compound to which the Chinese tried to keep all foreigners confined. A few days later the brothers set out together on the eighty-five-mile voyage to Canton. It was a pleasant three-day trip aboard a dispatch boat propelled by crimson sails and eight oarsmen.
Away from the other traders, Warren abandoned his public reserve, and he and his younger brother engaged in what Ned called “a delightful frolic…biting and pulling ears, pinching flesh, etc…,” then lay back on carved benches and talked of old times as they glided among brilliant green islands, past weathered pagodas, orange groves, and fields of rice. “We amused ourselves,” Ned remembered, “with shooting birds, snipes and magpies, the boatmen swimming on shore after them.”
Only one thing intruded upon this idyll. From time to time shrill voices reached them across the water, shouting “Fan kuei! Fan kuei!” —“Foreign devil.” And when Ned scanned the shore to see who was calling to them, some of the villagers grinned and made an odd hacking gesture at the side of their necks.
Warren explained that the villagers were warning them that before long all the foreigners’ heads would be cut off.
Ned had arrived at a tense but profitable time for the American traders. A curious, on-again, off-again war had been under way between Britain and the Chinese emperor since June, and the neutral Americans were its beneficiaries.
Tea was the staple of the China trade, and December marked the height of the Canton season; as Ned was shown to his room on the second floor of the Russell factory, the smell of the tea chests newly stored in the godown below was almost overpowering, and he would spend much of his first weeks in China weighing and tasting teas, “a dirty business…the tea getting into the nostrils, soiling the hands, etc.”
But opium ran a close, shadowy second.
Though China and opium remain linked in the popular mind, the drug was not native to that land. The first opium was thought to have arrived from Egypt with Arab traders around the turn of the seventh century A.D. , and for hundreds of years it was used only in small quantities as a medicine and restorative. Dutch traders at Formosa were probably the first to smoke opium mixed with tobacco to fend off the effects of malaria. In the mid-seventeenth century, Chinese merchants along the South China coast imitated them, gradually eliminating the tobacco from their pipes and thereby inducing a state of euphoria unknown to those who simply swallowed the drug. Soon this indulgence became addiction and spread from the wealthy to the poor.