- 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
That evening there were nine for dinner, eight Americans and a Spanish silk merchant unable to arrange passage home. It was a less convivial evening than usual for, as Ned noted, all the guests nervously believed that they represented the “entire foreign community of the city and most likely of the whole Empire.”
A month later, when a British assault on Canton seemed only a matter of hours away, and thousands of Chinese were fleeing into the countryside, the frantic prefect of Canton asked Warren to intercede with the British. Warren said he would see what he could do, but only as a strict neutral interested in protecting his firm’s property. The British commander received him politely enough but would guarantee nothing.
Going back to the city, Warren’s fast boat, flying a white flag of truce, was ambushed from shore. He described what happened next to Ned, waiting anxiously at Whampoa: “When near Canton…the cowardly Chinese let go a shot at my boat, which passed some 30 feet over our heads, two men jumped overboard, two or three threw themselves on the bottom of the boat and roared like squalling babies, while the remainder in the greatest terror and confusion imaginable, screeched and screamed to the soldiers, to desist firing.…The Lingo [translator] then went on shore, and after an hour or more of delay, half a dozen petty soldier Mandarins came on board, and took me in triumph to the city of Canton. Yes, I was marched into the City, the distance of three-quarters of a mile, a prisoner, to the wondrous astonishment, admiration and gratification of a gaping multitude. The gallant soldiers informing those we passed of the terrible conflict which had taken place.…I was brought before his Excellency [Gen. Yang Fang, assistant commander at Canton], a decrepit-looking man of the age of 74 years , with bleared eyes, and deaf as a haddock, who asked me some foolish questions, examined my clothing, hat, shoes and cane, and expressed his surprise that my head was not shaved. He took my hands, examining them carefully, and smelling them , asked me to unbutton my shirtbosom, and show my hide, which I did, and he then pronounced me a good man, an excellent man, one of the best men he had ever known, and seizing a lousy, ragged, dirty soldier, who stood within three inches of His Excellency, said I was ‘all the same as he.’”
Warren was released after urging his captors to seek some sort of compromise with the British. They did, and the Chinese agreed to pay the besiegers within six days a ransom of six million dollars, more than twice the annual British revenue from tea.
The British finally returned to Canton in March 1841, firing naval guns at the waterfront batteries and occasionally over the factories into the city itself. Most of the Americans, including Ned, took cover when the first shot was fired, but Warren stayed on the roof watching the shells arc over his head to crash into the tangled streets.
The Delanos had mixed emotions at seeing a semblance of normal trade return: the threat of war seemed to have lessened, but business was no longer exclusively in American hands; looking over the books for 1839 and 1840, Ned could not help sighing over the “magnificent profite, the like of which I think cannot again accrue.”
The war moved on northward along the coast and up the Yangtze as far as Nanking, the British fleet blasting its way through the war junks to stop at one fortified village after another just long enough to plunder it before moving on to the next prize. (British soldiers and sailors and Indian sepoys alike competed for treasure, and the Hindustani word for plunder— loot —entered the language after this expedition.) The Chinese regiments could do little to »top them; their special whistling arrows and the sword-waving warriors who turned brave somersaults as they advanced were no match for British firepower.
Ned was disgusted that the British victory had been so effortless. Had the Chinese possessed “any of the Tartar spirit,” he wrote, “not an Englishman would escape from his interior position to tell the tale of bloodshed, and of punishment to the invader of the soil of a peaceable people…I have no pity for them —the idea of 10,000 men submittancing 10,000,000!!”
The Treaty of Nanking that officially ended the war in 1842 extorted from the emperor twenty-one million dollars in indemnities and forced him to open five new ports to commerce and to cede Hong Kong to the British. There was no mention of opium—both sides pretending to know nothing about it—and so the trade continued. The American Treaty of Wanghia, negotiated by Caleb Cushing two years later, expressly declared the drug “contraband,” but Yankee traders, including the Delanos, continued to ship and sell it with more ease and enthusiasm than ever.