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“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
Ned Delano was just twenty-two when he joined his brother Warren in China late in 1840. Ned had come to help Warren trade in tea—and in opium.
Just one thing intruded on the idyll of the brothers’ boat trip to Canton: shrill voices from the shore crying, “Fan kuei! Fan kuei” —“Foreign devil.”
Opium smoking had been officially barred by the Manchu emperors at Peking since 1729—an inconvenient fact, which, until shortly before Ned arrived in China, Chinese officials and Western traders alike found it easy enough to ignore in the interest of vast profits. By 1830 the opium trade at Canton was said to be the most valuable trade in any single commodity, anywhere on earth.
The British dominated it as they did every aspect of the China trade, but their American competitors were fast gaining on them. The very first American in the China trade, Samuel Shaw, who sailed with the Empress of China to Whampoa in 1784, had foreseen the big profits those who followed him would make handling opium, which, he said, could be “smuggled with the utmost security.” It had taken a little time for Americans to make good his prediction, not because they had higher moral standards than their British rivals but because they had a less dependable source of supply.
When the British East India Company established its grip on India in the eighteenth century, it took over a system of state control over opium that had been a source of revenue for the Mogul empire. Warren Hastings, India’s first governor general, had understood both the drug’s dangers and its attractions: “Opium is not a necessary of life,” he said, “but a pernicious article of luxury which ought not to be permitted except for purposes of foreign commerce only.” At his direction the company planted vast pink and white fields of opium poppies on the Ganges plain, then monopolized the sale of the drug they yielded. (Hastings’s encouragement paid off; opium exports to China eventually accounted for oneseventh of British India’s revenues.)
The Americans, on the other hand, had to make do at first with the drug produced in Turkey. Hard economic facts helped boost American participation in the drug trade. The United State had precious little silver with which to pay for China’s tea, silk, and porcelain; the Chinese were uninterested in the “strange or ingenious objects” in which American manufacturers took such pride, and the sandalwood and seal and otter skins that the Chinese had once accepted as payment were fast running out.
Opium proved as good for the dollar as it was for the British pound. By 1839 every American house at Canton handled the drug, with the lonely exception of D. W. C. Olyphant & Company, opposed to the trade on moral grounds and ridiculed by its rivals as “Zion’s Comer.”
Russell & Company, which Warren now headed, was the biggest U.S. dealer in opium, and the third largest firm in the Indian opium trade, British or American.
The drug business bred hypocrisy on both sides. In response to a new edict from the emperor, the British East India Company had solemnly vowed to abandon the drug traffic in 1800, but actually it expanded its poppy fields and sold the opium produced from mem at auction to free-lance “country ships” owned by British and Indian traders. The drug supply never even slowed.
The emperor deplored the trade. It drained precious silver from his empire, for one thing: not only coins but lumps of raw bullion called sycee flowed steadily out of China to the West. And opium vitiated his people: there were said to be more than two million Chinese addicts by 1835, and the number grew each day; even members of the imperial household guard were reportedly infected with the deadly craving for the “foreign mud.” This seemed to him ungrateful behavior from outsiders to whom he had granted the right to trade, a concession about which the Manchus had never been enthusiastic in the first place.
Chinese officials were frankly contemptuous of the West, and the eagerness of Western traders to do business with them only underlined their scorn. To the emperor, all the other peoples of the world were vassals, a conviction that no amount of evidence seemed able to surmount. In 1793 an official British emissaxy. Lord Macartney, arrived at the gates of Peking with gifts, hoping to demonstrate that a commercial treaty with London would be to the emperor’s advantage. The Chinese ruler thanked George III for this gratifying evidence of his “respectful spirit of submission,” but he saw no need to encourage commerce since “there is nothing we lack.…”