This page was created by Peter Thilly. The last update was by Kate McDonald.
Archival Reasoning and Spatial History
Using historical archives to try and understand how people made money in illegal drug trading can be a bit tricky. If we only rely on government sources about the arrest and prosecution of drug traders, we are limited by the government's limited understanding of the mechanics of the trade. Perhaps more concerning, these sources only contain stories about unsuccessful drug traders: the ones who got caught. Sources from the point of view of the drug traders, meanwhile, are exceedingly rare.
Lucky for us, there are two uniquely good archives about the drug trade in 1830s China. The archives of the Qing government include volumes of detailed cases on the arrest and prosecution of opium traders. Meanwhile, the British firms engaged in illegally importing the drug into China kept meticulous records, in part because the owners of these firms felt that their personal views about “free trade” excused them of any guilt about breaking the laws of a government they did not consider worthy of respect. This context is extremely helpful to historians interested in triangulating between different source bases to try and better understand what happened.
As such, the two central paths of this module are created out of these two archives of primary sources. The first path is a legal case from the Qing archives. The second is a diverse collection of materials taken from British archives. This format is specifically designed to enable visitors to actively participate in the sort of archival reasoning that historians use when they triangulate between sources.
In the final two pages of this introductory path, I lay out my own interpretation of the two archives that make up this module. I approached these sources with an explicit desire to understand how the opium trade worked: I wanted to know who was doing what, and to understand what people did to make this illegal offshore trade so enormous. My hope is that visitors to this module might have other questions to ask of these sources, and might discover other connections, and craft different narratives.
This module also seeks to contribute to the methodological aims of the larger Bodies and Structures project, which called upon module authors “to identify, explore, and analyze the shared and distinctive dynamics of place-making within a particular historical space.” Archives shape and limit how we as historians understand a process like place-making: they reveal and highlight certain dynamics, while excluding or minimizing others. As such, the existence of two such radically different archives about the same historical space is lucky indeed.
The organizing principle of my approach is a “spatial history of profit.” I wanted to understand how the people who bought and sold opium made their money, and I have approached this question by considering the testimony of opium suspects captured by the Qing state together with the sales reports of the British opium ship captains. Here the focus is on the roles of distance, space, travel, and time in the story of opium profits.
The conclusion to the module offers a fuller explanation of the following themes:
- The intersection of space and time. How both Chinese and British opium traders operated in a complex race against time when it came to pricing, each side seeking to use timely information to maximize profits.
- Environment and physical geography. The physical landscape had a structural impact on the intertwined stories of profit and corruption on the maritime frontier. The Fujian coast is a place where secluded bays are set into a jagged coastline closely abutted by steep mountains: a notoriously difficult environment to surveil and police. For the British opium captains and their Chinese partners on shore, this geography was a godsend. For the Qing officials charged with rooting out the illegal trade, it was an enormous obstacle.
- Discrete physical spaces. Here I consider the boats, buildings, beaches, bays, and villages that the people in the module occupied, and consider how these spaces were constructed and used, and what role these spaces had in the history of opium profits.
- Space as process. The concept refers to an approach to spatial history that considers how different spatialities are constituted, transformed, broken down, and reconstituted through the movements, actions, and decisions of people. In the conclusion, I consider how different spatialities of commodity and information circulation emerged out of technological and diplomatic breakthroughs like the advent of clipper ships and the conclusion of the Opium War in 1842. I also discuss how cases like the Shi Hou one that makes up the first path of this module indicate a spatiality of treason that structured interactions between the Qing state and Fujian's coastal residents.
- I also consider the spatiality of law enforcement and corruption on the Fujian coast at various points within the two main paths of this module. After all, an important part of the project of opium profiteering involved not getting arrested and punished by the state. The geography of Qing rule helps to explain why some people were arrested and others not, and space played an essential role in structuring how states and state actors selectively enforced or ignored laws.