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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
To minimize the damage done his empire by the barbarians, the emperor restricted the traders to the Canton compound, licensed up to thirteen local merchants—called the “hong” merchants—to carry on all foreign trade, and held these merchants personally responsible for infractions of regulations by foreigners. Foreign traders were not to venture inside the city walls; foreign women were barred even from the factories; foreign ships were forbidden to approach closer than Whampoa, twelve miles downriver.
But Canton was a long way from the Manchu emperor’s northern capital at Peking, and events in this southern city had long resisted imperial control. Officials dispatched there by the emperor soon found themselves overburdened, underpaid, and subject to heavy taxes, for which they leaned heavily on the hong merchants. Some officials took bribes and in exchange promised to be less than rigorous in enforcing the opium laws. When an opium ship anchored offshore, for example, war junks were likely to be held back until all the precious chests were safely landed and the vessel was under way again; the junks were then dispatched to fire a noisy salvo into the sea so that their commander could boast to Peking that he had bravely driven off the barbarians.
If the Chinese authorities ever really became serious about halting the trade, Warren once wrote home, “Foreigners cannot by any possibility sell or smuggle the drug into the country.”
Most drug transactions were handled briskly at Canton. Incoming opium vessels halted briefly under the lee of Lintin Island in Canton Bay and often transferred their cargoes to waiting storeships before proceeding upriver to the official anchorage at Whampoa. Chinese buyers paid for their orders on shore at Canton with hard cash and were given a chit as proof of purchase. Then, aboard the buyer’s boats rowed by as many as seventy men—the Chinese called these craft “fast crabs” or “scrambling dragons” —they raced one another to be first at the side of the latest vessel. Ned soon learned to recognize opium ships from afar by the smaller boats that invariably swarmed around them even before they dropped anchor.
On deck a representative of the firm filled the Chinese buyer’s order, weighing out the fist-sized cakes of the drug from the 133.5-pound chests and receiving a five-dollar commission for every chest he handled. Robert Bennet Forbes, Warren’s friend and predecessor as head of the firm, boasted that he made the very substantial sum of thirty thousand dollars for himself this way in one year. Warren was always more circumspect about his earnings, but the firm’s opium profits soared while he was in charge, and his own commissions may have too.
During a visit to Singapore, Ned visited several opium dens: “Found smokers in all of them…pale, cadaverous, death-like.”
The traders could not plausibly claim to be ignorant of the human toll the drug took. In 1844 William C. Hunter, a former Russell partner, showed a visitor two flourishing dens within a few hundred yards of the factories themselves, each filled with men in various stages of stupefaction. During a visit to Singapore that same year, Ned Delano himself visited several licensed dens: “Found smokers in all of them. One man was prostrate under its effects—pale, cadaverous, death-like…for when I took his pipe from his hand he offered no resistance, though his eyes tried to follow me.”
The Americans argued that they only carried the drug; what the Chinese did with it once it was out of their hands was not their concern. It was the British and the Turks who manufactured opium, and it was the corruption that pervaded China itself that made its distribution there possible. “The high officers of the Government have not only connived at the trade,” Warren wrote home, “but the Governor and other officers of the province have bought the drug and have taken it from the stationed ships…in their own Government boats.”
Such sharp, self-serving distinctions may have helped ease the traders’ consciences—which were otherwise well enough developed. A number of opium traders, including Warren and Ned, held strong opinions about such moral issues as slavery, for instance. Ned even carefully pasted abolitionist doggerel into his scrapbook: