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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
The Americans treated the hong merchants upon whom they relied for their licit profits with considerable courtesy and respect. Warren and his partners had great admiration for Houqua II, for example, the grave, cultured old merchant who traded heavily with Russell & Company and was considered one of the world’s richest men (worth twenty-six million dollars in 1833, the year Warren first knew him, according to William Hunter). Even in Warren’s old age, Houqua’s portrait hung in his library, and he often quoted to his own children something this closest Chinese acquaintance had once said to him: “Mr. Delano. I strive to serve my Heavenly Father on earth as I would have my sons serve me.”
But cut off from the city of Canton itself by both law and custom, the traders had little opportunity to know ordinary Chinese other than as servants, shopkeepers, laborers, or members of hostile mobs. Traditional Chinese xenophobia had a good deal to do with that.
But so did the American zeal to get rich and get out fast. “From this country it is impossible for me to write any thing descriptive that can be interesting,” John R. Latimer, a Canton trader who left China about the time Warren arrived, once wrote home, “being debarred the privilege of going into the Country and even into the city, with no other society but our own countrymen. Our business constantly occupies our attention. From the hour of our arrival our constant study is to be away as soon as possible.”
Only one of the early Russell partners, William Hunter, ever even bothered to learn Chinese; the rest made do with the curious amalgam called pidgin (“business”) English. And the pages of Ned Delano’s diary are filled with evidence of his ignorance of the people and customs of the city that started just a few yards behind his bedroom. Perhaps the opium traders’ inability to see most Chinese as other than menials or curiosities helped them keep faceless the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who craved the drug they sold.
In any case, huge profits were being made, and the Delanos and most of their fellow Americans saw no reason not to compete hard for a share of them. The protests of missionaries and others that the drug trade was intrinsically wicked they found provoking. “I do not pretend to justify the prosecution of the opium trade in a moral and philanthropic point of view,” Warren wrote home, “but as a merchant I insist that it has been a fair, honorable and legitimate trade; and to say the worst of it, liable to no further or weightier objections than is the importation of wines, Brandies & spirits into the U. States, England, &c.”
Robert Bennet Forbes agreed. “As to the effect on the people, there can be no doubt that it was demoralizing to a certain extent; not more so, probably, than the use of ardent spirits,” he wrote later, “indeed, it has been asserted with truth that the twenty or thirty thousand chests,—say twelve to fifteen million pounds,—of opium, distributed among three hundred and fifty millions of people, had a much less deleterious effect on the whole country than the vile liquor made of rice, called ‘samshue.’”
Besides, he added, all the best people did it: “I considered it right to follow the example of England, the East India Company…and the merchants to whom I had always been accustomed to look up as exponents of all that was honorable in trade,—the Perkins’s, the Peabodys, the Russells, and the Lows.”
The drug trade was risky for the Chinese, who called it the “black tiger” because it had ruined so many: sporadic crackdowns sometimes cut into profits; captured smugglers were occasionally strangled; pirates cruised the coastline; and prices shifted wildly, depending on how much of the drug had made it to shore.
But for the foreigners, who took few risks and who were always paid in advance, it was relatively safe and wonderfully lucrative. Years later William Hunter recalled the drug traffic with something like rapture: the trader’s “sales were pleasantness and his remittances were peace. Transactions seemed to partake of the nature of the drug; they imparted a soothing frame of mind…and no bad debts!”
It had all threatened to end suddenly in March of 1839, nearly two years before Ned arrived, when Lin Tse-hsü, the emperor’s incorruptible new high commissioner of Canton, began enforcing long-standing edicts to end the trade forever. Lin surrounded the factories with troops and ordered the traders to turn over to him all their opium and to promise to import no more. Hong merchants who failed to bring about foreign compliance, Lin warned, would be decapitated. Warren and the other traders had spent several nervous weeks locked inside their factories before the British superintendent of trade, Charles Elliot, surrendered the last of 20,283 chests — each of them containing enough narcotic to render 8,000 of the most hardened, three-pipe-a-day addicts insensible for most of a month. Russell & Company turned over 1,400 chests. All of the drug was dissolved in water, diluted with salt and lime, then dumped into the sea after apologetic prayers were offered to the gods for its defilement.