7/2/12 - american opium

In today's excerpt - in the 1700s, British merchants made fortunes smuggling opium into China, over the objections of Chinese leaders. The resulting epidemic of opium addiction devastated Chinese society. However, profits proved too tempting and by the 1800s American merchants had joined in the trade, earning vast sums including the fortune inherited by Franklin Roosevelt:

"While opium consumption dates back mil­lennia in China, opium smoking is thought to have been introduced by seventeenth-century Dutch traders, who combined opium with tobacco in pipes. Although the Chinese government banned importation of the drug, the British East India Company made large profits by smuggling Indian opium to China. The firm of Jardine, Matheson originated as a British opium-smuggling operation. Britain's Indian opium was off-limits to American merchants, but in 1804 Benjamin Chew Wilcocks of Phila­delphia found a substitute in Turkish opium. American ships bought opi­um from Smyrna, Turkey, either by sailing to the eastern Mediterranean or purchasing it at Gibraltar.

"The leading American drug-smuggling operation in China was J. & T H. Perkins Company, which brought in more Turkish opium than its rivals. One of its principals, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, instructed a cap­tain in 1791 that he had 'best sell the furs down the River, to avoid [cus­toms] charges.' On behalf of the hong merchants, [a prominent Chinese leader named] Houqua [who was reputed to be the richest man in the world] warned the Americans: 'Opium, the dirt used in smoking, has long been prohibited by an order received, it is not allowed to come to Canton.' The Ameri­cans, like the British, ignored the law. In 1817-1818, if silver coin is factored out, opium is estimated to have made up 10 to 30 percent of the value of US commodities used to purchase Chinese merchandise, while Americans supplied between 10 percent and a third of the opium consumed in China.

"In 1823, Warren Delano II sailed to Canton and within seven years rose to be a senior partner in the Boston-based firm of Russell and Com­pany. Having made his fortune, Delano retired in 1851 to Newburgh, New York. He wrote: 'I do not pretend to justify the prosecution of the opium trade from a moral and philosophical point of view, but as a mer­chant I insist that it is a fair, honorable, and legitimate trade. I considered it right to follow the example of England, the East India Company, and the merchants to whom I had always been accustomed to look up to—the Perkins, the Peabodys, the Russells, and the Lowes.' Delano's daughter Sara married James Roosevelt and gave birth to his grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"In the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, the British, with as­sistance from the French, invaded China in response to the government's attempts to stamp out the foreign opium trade. Britain and other Western powers imposed 'unequal treaties' that gave them commercial privileges on the Chinese. In 1844, the Treaty of Wang Hiya guaranteed Americans the same terms that were extorted by the British. Following the example of Britain, the United States imposed trade treaties on Japan beginning on July 8, 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet steamed into Tokyo Bay.

"From that point until the Chinese Revolution of 1911, China was a shattered state, riven by warlords and drenched with blood in the cata­strophic Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864. The historian John K. Fairbank called the opium trade in which American merchants took part 'the most long continued and systematic international crime of modern times.' "


Michael Lind


Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States


Harper Collins Publishers


Copyright 2012 by Michael Lind


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