- Historic Sites
“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
Hong life was unrelievedly masculine. Traders were at least theoretically barred from the brightly painted floating bordellos called flower boats that were tied up here and there along the crowded riverfront. One evening Ned noted that he had “played the gallant to a young lady in a boat.…Modesty would not force a kiss from me and I left her with only a squeeze of the hand. Chinese laws being against foreigners entering the boats de plaisir , I did not venture my person in the lady’s chamber.” Other persons were ventured, however, and some of the sturdy women who rowed the traders up and down the river also proved pliable.
Several of the Delanos’ friends kept Chinese mistresses at Macao. William Hunter’s bore him at least two children. He proved so fond of her that after setting out for America and his first vacation in eighteen years, he turned back halfway, apparently unable to be apart from her any longer. Ned was disgusted: “The man must be insane.…A man who has been from home since 1825…and amassing more than $200,000, return[ing] to China and his miserable Tanka mistress.”
On January 7, 1841, the British captured Chuenpi and the Big Taikok, two fortresses guarding the mouth of the Pearl River. Ned and several other Russell men had themselves rowed out to Chuenpi a few days later to see the damage firsthand. British steamships had first perforated its walls and silenced its guns; then, landing parties of infantrymen and sailors had trapped some seven hundred defenders and slaughtered all but a handful as they tried to flee into the sea.
After poking through the ruins, Ned wrote: “I saw the burned body of a Chinaman. Some [British] sailor had put a bamboo in his mouth surmounted by a Chinese scroll. In another room [a] large stain of blood…then a mandarin’s boot and remnants of hats…guns, bows.…” A British marine showed him five still unburied bodies and cheerfully cut a souvenir for him from the coat of one of them, a wooden tag painted with the dead man’s name and unit in Chinese characters. The rest of the bodies had been hastily buried in a mass grave just outside the walls, over which the British had put up a bamboo topped with a coolie’s straw hat and a hand-lettered sign: “This is the Rode to Gloury.”
Hong life was unrelievedly masculine. Traders were theoretically barred from the floating bordellos called flower boats.
One of Warrant’s shotguns went off and killed a Chinese boatman. The Delanos paid the man’s family; Ned called his death a “lucky thing for them.”
Ned was appalled—“What horrid butchery!” But he was not undone: “Ate a hearty dinner,” he noted before going to bed that evening.
Tension was high, and the Delanos themselves inadvertently added to it. A few days after Ned’s visit to the ruined fort, he and Warren were once again on the river, an arsenal of arms on deck as protection against pirates and for shooting at water birds. The boatmen acted as loaders, and as one returned Warren’s shotgun to the deck, it went off. Two men were hit: one died within minutes; the other was only scratched on the scalp. Their angry companions refused to row further until the rest of the Delanos’ guns were fired into the water. The bloody corpse was wrapped in a blanket and carried below.
Word of the shooting had somehow preceded them to Canton and, while they were still several miles from the factories, the dead man’s family rowed out to meet them: “The wife or widow set up an ugly howling and wailing. Our boat was stopped until the matter should be settled. 2 of our servants [went] to Canton for money. We offered [the grieving family] in charity one hundred and fifty dollars. The family and relatives after quarreling upwards of an hour about it, came to the conclusion that the brother of the deceased would in consideration of a…present of $200, marry the widow and receive said sum in consideration. This was granted, and after humbugging two or three hours more the body of the deceased was conveyed away with the whole concern.…The family have probably more money now than they have ever had or ever will have again. The deceased was employed as a common boatman, which class actually get from 1.50 to $2 p[er] month! of course…the death of this man is a lucky thing for them.…”
Later, when an agitated trader whispered that he had heard some foreigners had killed two boatmen, Ned assured him “it is all nonsense.”
The war seemed to be coming closer. On February 27 the British paddle steamer Nemesis sent a boarding party up the sides of the refitted Chesapeake , the ship Warren had sold to the Chinese. The British sailors set her afire, and when the flames reached her magazine, she exploded. Looking out the factory window a dozen miles away, Ned saw the blast, “a sudden and brilliant light” on the horizon: “This spectacle made my heart and I reckon the hearts of those with me go pit a pat quite seriously.”