- 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
(A second, and bloodier, Opium War ended again in British victory in 1858; the Treaty of Tientsin opened still more trading ports and fixed a tariff rate for opium, thereby finally giving the trade at least quasi-legitimacy. The opium problem grew steadily worse. Since opium could now be imported without harassment, the emperor decreed that his subjects might grow it themselves; by 1875 fully one-third of the arable land in the mountainous province of Yunnan was blanketed with poppies, and at the turn of the century there were thought to be fifteen million Chinese addicts. In 1907 the British and Chinese jointly agreed to phase out the export of Indian opium over ten years, but the traffic continued to flourish inside China until 1949, when the Communists began to stamp it out.)
In the autumn ot 1842 Warren sailed for home for the first time in almost a decade; he returned just over a year later with his sister, Dora, and a new wife, Catherine Lyman of Northampton, Massachusetts, and their lady’s maid, aboard Robert Bennet Forbes’s new Paul Jones . The ship was swift—the passage took just 106 days—and fitted out with the very first icehouse in the China trade. “We had ice from the [ Paul Jones ],” Ned noted in wonder. “Sent out for mint and for the first time in China…mint juleps were concocted and drunk.” There were crisp New England pippin apples too, “and I need not say that I have eaten [them] with much gusto,” and the next day there was still enough ice left to make “ ICE CREAMS , things before unheard of in China.”
Life seemed to be improving for the Delano brothers. Warren and his little family—a child named Susan was born in 1844—bought a big abandoned bungalow overlooking the busy harbor of Macao and called variously Arrowdale (because the Delanos enjoyed archery in the garden), and. Rat’s Retreat (because of its original occupants, which had to be evicted before the family moved in).
Ned, soon to be a full-fledged partner in the firm, lived with them whenever he was at Macao. In 1844 he traveled to India to oversee the inspection and buying of opium, throwing himself into amicable but sometimes frantic competition at Bombay and Calcutta with the representatives of other companies. (He was greatly pleased when the clipper Antelope , which he had managed to load with fourteen hundred opium chests, delivered that cargo to Warren at Whampoa before proceeding on to Macao with just two hundred and fifty chests for his chief rivals, the British firm of Dent and Company.)
While Ned was away, however, Warren’s infant daughter died, a second was born but seemed alarmingly frail, and Arrowdale was gutted by fire. By the time he got back to China, his older brother had decided it was time to go home.
Before dark,” Ned wrote a few days after his return to Macao, “I accompanied Warren to the Deadhouse…to see [the] case containing the remains of his sweet little Susie. Warren was a good [deal] affected—and coming home he discoursed freely to me about his fears for Katie’s mind—its safety. Since Susie’s death, K, has been queer.…The voyage home—the change of scene, mode of life, etc. etc. I think must restore K. to her usual sanity.” Warren and his troubled family returned to America in the summer of 1846, accompanied by a Chinese wet nurse and man-servant.
Catherine Delano did recover her equilibrium and eventually bore nine more children; one of them, named Sara, would become the mother of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Within a few months of his return, Warren was “heels & head in business,” according to Ned. “Mixing in all kinds”—railroads, coal mines, shipbuilding; “I fear he is branching out too much.”
Ned found Canton insufferable without his brother’s benevolent protection. More senior partners were overseeing tea, opium, and imports, leaving him with only the firm’s correspondence to handle, a clerkish task he now thought beneath him. He detested the new head of the company, Paul S. Forbes—“a miserable, sneaking fellow”—and the feeling seems to have been reciprocated; though the two men worked in the same small office every day and dined together nearly every night, they often did not speak. Ned felt left out of things, had difficulty sleeping for “thinking, fretting, brooding,” resented what he considered “a great deal of undertone conversation, whispering,” and considered that “the looks of people betray the most horrible intentions toward me.”
Finally—and probably to everyone’s relief—Ned managed to work out satisfactory terms under which he could withdraw from the firm and sail for home, carrying with him almost eighty thousand dollars in profits. He began his journey on July 31, 1847. “Leave Canton,” he wrote that night, “and wish I could say, never to be bothered more with the place.”
He never really was. Ned did not marry and lived much of the time at Algonac, Warren’s stately home at Newburgh, New York, dabbling in several businesses without much energy or success and growing hugely fat. He died suddenly of a heart attack aboard his yacht in the summer of 1881.