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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 British then withdrew to their anchored ships—taking with them in a crate the life-sized portrait of George IV that hung in the dining room of their factory—and waited for London to dispatch an expeditionary force to punish the Chinese and force the emperor to pay them for the drug his agents had destroyed.
The Americans did not go with them. When Elliot asked them to do so, and thereby help “bring these rascally Chinese to terms,” Robert Forbes had responded with considerable heat. “I replied,” he recalled many years later, “that I had not come to China for health or pleasure, and that I should remain at my post as long as I could sell a yard of goods or buy a pound of tea. …”
The British squadron had arrived in June of 1840, blockaded the approach to Canton, and begun a series of small, fierce actions up the coast. The sporadic conflict that followed, and which came to be known as the first Opium War, would last almost three years.
American opinion about the war was divided—just as British opinion was. Some people, including many churchmen, argued that the opium traffic was simply evil. English overseas adventures were never popular, especially along the New England coast. The former President and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, now chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, nonetheless rose to England’s defense in a widely reported paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. Opium was no more the cause of the quarrel, he said, “than the overthrowing of the tea in the Boston Harbor was the cause of the North American Revolution.
“The cause of the war is the kowtow !—the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China, that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind, not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of relation between lord and vassal.” Adams’s views proved so unpopular that the editor of the North-American Review , who already had accepted his paper for publication, thought it wise to return it to him.
Still, it was also true that the end result of a British victory—a China more open and receptive to outsiders—would benefit both those who wanted to make money and those who wanted to save souls there. God did sometimes work in truly mysterious ways, and as the conflict dragged on, even some missionaries began to see virtue in it. “Although war is bringing its train of horrors upon this heretofore peaceful land,” wrote S. Wells Williams, a missionary from upstate New York stationed at Canton, “and the still sorer scourge of opium is slaying its thousands, we will encourage ourselves in the name of the Lord. The cause of the war is exceedingly objectionable, [but] so has been many of those in ages past which at the end have brought blessings upon the scene of their devastation.”
The Delanos’ sympathies, too, were divided. They had little affection for the English: Capt. Warren Delano I, the brothers’ mariner father, had been captured and mistreated by the British during the War of 1812. Warren and Ned sympathized with the Chinese determination to defend their homeland even against modern weaponry they could never hope to match, and they were outraged to hear that British sailors were raping and plundering along the coast. “I truly wish that John Bull would meet with one hearty repulse,” Ned wrote, “for why should he enter their peaceful habitations and commit the horridest brutalities upon the women?” When news came of a British defeat in another colonial war being fought in far-off Afghanistan, Ned was privately pleased: “I very nearly hope that the true owners of the soil, the natives of India, may succeed and drive from their country, the everusurping and proud-hearted Britons —that they may never get a foothold in China is a wish connected with that.”
At the same time, the Delanos and their friends had often chafed at the same Chinese hauteur that so angered the British. “Great Britain owes it to herself and to the civilized world [in the West],” Warren wrote early in the conflict, “to knock a little reason into this besotted people and teach them to treat strangers with a common decency.” And they prayed that if the British were to strike, they should strike hard, for a less than telling victory might rouse the Cantonese to take revenge on the factories, and the Americans knew they could not count on the mob making fine distinctions among the traders they found there. Even the mandarins “cannot tell the difference between us,” Warren noted; all foreigners remained Fan kuei .