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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
Lin Tse-hsü, the emperor’s incorruptible new high commissioner, began enforcing long-standing edicts, and confiscated the traders’ opium.
Meanwhile, with the British traders away, the field was left to the Americans, and by the time Ned began his duties, Russell & Company was cleaning up. Robert Forbes had sailed for home, leaving Warren in charge of the firm; as the most senior trader in Canton, he was also the American vice-consul. Under his shrewd direction, tea for Britain was being carried out through the Chinese counter-blockade to waiting British ships —all at stiff rates, about which the British traders could do nothing but complain. “While we hold the horns,” one Briton wrote, “they milk the cow.”
“The English are awfully envious of the success of their rivals,” Ned noted, “& throw at them every abuse you think of—quietly the Americans pursue a straightforward course, without condescending to notice them.…”
That straightforward course also earned Warren profits from the Chinese. A nine-hundred-ton British ship, the Cambridge , had been trapped inside the Chinese perimeter. Warren bought her cheap, renamed her the Chesapeake , then resold her at a comfortable profit to Commissioner Lin, who, in turn, had her towed below Whampoa and lined her decks with cannons and barrels of powder; brilliantly colored streamers reading “Courage” fluttered from her masts, meant to intimidate any foreigners who sought to sail past her.
Despite the rumors of riots in the city and assault from the sea that from time to time forced the Russell men to pack their belongings and flee to Macao, the life they led at Canton was comfortable. The company chef was superb; there was still plenty of Calcutta ale on hand; each man continued to have his own servant to lay out his white linen suit, see to the mending of his mosquito netting, and stand behind his chair at meals, which, one American guest wrote, “could not have been more completely like home had it been transported by lightning line.”
But it was also often a lonely and dispiriting existence. Neither Ned nor Warren ever saw Canton as anything more than a place to make money. Ned pronounced it a “vile hole” even before he got to China; Warren thought life there “about as monotonous as at sea on a long passage.” Letters from home arrived months after they were written, if at all. During Ned Delano’s seven years at Canton, four of his five sisters died; it became difficult for him to open new letters for fear of more tragic news. Portraits were sent back and forth just so that family members could remember how one another looked. Six months after their sister Susan died of “the fiend consumption,” the brothers eagerly opened a parcel containing a memorial portrait of her: “Did not look farther than the head—my dear sister Susan was unlike the picture,” Ned wrote. “I am much disappointed.” Warren sent home at least two portraits of himself, painted by the celebrated Cantonese artist Lamqua, though he was not overly impressed with either likeness:”…in my humble opinion,” he wrote, “neither of them look any more like me than they do—like—like—like Martin Van Buren.”
There was little to do but work. Office duties filled the daylight hours. During the evenings Ned sometimes played bowls in a distressingly bumpy lane attached to the factory; more often he joined the other traders in the square out front for a stroll or a game of what one visitor called “the primitive and healthful sport of leap-frog,” a favorite spectacle of the Cantonese who gathered there at dusk each day to see what the barbarians were doing.
On especially warm evenings the Russell men sometimes ventured out onto the river, being careful to stay out from under bridges and far enough from shore to remain beyond the range of the stones and garbage that were often hurled at them from hiding.
Locked up together in the compounds for months at a time, the traders got on one another’s nerves. Ned was especially sensitive to slights, real or fancied; an overly familiar joke about his expanding girth or his youthful appearance, or an unexplained shift in his place at table, could sour him for days.
Private smuggling sometimes added a little excitement. Ned evidently conducted a brisk independent business in silks; he got up early one morning, for example, and “saw 67 cases of silk smuggled into the Lena ’s launch. $10,000 at risk. Gained by operation $500. E. King [a Russell partner] discovered the move but I persevered and succeeded.”