Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Archival Discoveries (2)

Big and Little Li (大小李), a.k.a. John and Thomas Rees

In the Jardine-Matheson archive, I found volumes of letters from the captains of the ships that anchored in places like Shenhu Bay. One of those captains was named John Rees, and one storyline in the archive revolves around John's feud with his brother Thomas, who was the captain of the rival Dent & Company opium ship that also frequented Shenhu Bay. It did not take me long to figure out that the foreign opium merchants known in the Shi Hou memorial as “Big and Little Li” were in fact John and Thomas Rees.

The Shadowy World of Corruption

As I explored further into the Jardine-Matheson archive, it became clear to me that the major arrests that took place in Yakou during early 1837 (i.e. the arrest of Shi Hou and his compatriots) most likely happened as a result of the failure of the Chinese opium traders to make good on their annual Lunar New Year bribe to the local government.

The Jardine-Matheson representative in Shenhu Bay, John Rees, wrote on January 2nd of that year that trade was stopped in Shenhu Bay for five days “in consequence of a party having cheated the Mandarines out of their customary fees.” Then on January 15 a group of government officials descended on Yakou village for the purpose of “recovering their fees,” and again stopped all boats from coming out for a period of three days. On the 21st Rees lamented that trade was completely stopped in Shenhu Bay due to the fact that “the Mandarines are about collecting their fees prior to the New Year and I believe are squeezing the brokers that we deal with rather hard.”

It was the Lunar New Year, a traditional time for the settling of debts and bribes, and not coincidentally the period during which Shi Hou and his compatriots were arrested. A month later, after sending a Chinese employee ashore to reconnoiter the situation, Rees reports that a new official stationed near Yakou “had burnt several houses and destroyed some boats…in consequence of the brokers not coming to terms with him. They have not paid the Mandarines 1/3 of their fees, and several of the brokers have absconded.”

The Qing document that describes Shi Hou's arrest does not in any way suggest that local officials may have been complicit in the trade, profiting from the trade, and seeking vengeance on the Shi lineage for failing to pay their usual bribe. This is to be expected, and does not diminish the value of the Qing memorial as a historical source. As we shall see, the memorial describes (sometimes in surprising detail) testimony about 111 individual people, providing access into local Fujianese society in a way that the Jardine-Matheson sources never could.

Sources: JM B2.7 [Reel 495] No. 131, 2 January 1837; no. 132, 15 January 1837; No. 133, 21 January 1837; No. 140, 28 March 1837.

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