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

Experts in the Jardine-Matheson Network

A wide range of expertise was required to keep the Jardine-Matheson network in operation. Here I focus on three (sometimes overlapping) areas of expertise that were particularly important to opium ship captains like John Rees on the Fujian coast. Other experts not discussed here but worth exploring include shipbuilders, opium poppy cultivators, insurance estimators, and political lobbyists.


Shroffs made their living by judging the quality and value of the silver that brokers like Shi Hou used to pay for the opium they purchased from the Jardine-Matheson receiving ships. People used a range of coins, sycee (ingots), and other forms of silver that would be bewildering to a person today accustomed to stable paper currency. A good shroff meant the difference between being cheated and profit, and as the quotations below illustrate, shroffs often doubled as translators, middlemen, and negotiators. In the third quote, we see Captain Rees punish a shroff by cutting off his queue, demonstrating a racial expression of the hierarchies aboard the receiving ships.

I refuse no money. Our treasure consists principally of chopped dollars. We have about 15,000 smooth dollars, 6,000 large sycee, 12,000 small sycee, and eleven bars gold received at $224, and seven doubloons received at $15. JM B7 10, Reel 505, 31, May 10, 1833.
The merchants come off in small boats during the night. Their money is shroffed and the opium delivered to them during the following day, and the next night they go on shore. The new Benares is cleared out and the Patna will I hope soon follow. JM/B7 5, Reel 525, 2, August 6, 1833.
I am much in want of a good shroff or two. I left my fellow on board the Findlay a few days. He there cheated the brokers and since his departure I have cut his tail for theft and promised to flog him and send him on board a mandarin for the next offence. I cannot get any other shroff sent me or I should not have mentioned this circumstance to you. JM/B7 5, Reel 525, 5, April 20, 1835.
My head shroff have been down here meantime and I expect him in from the country in a day or two. It is the same man that was with Parkins during the whole of his career on the east coast. If brokers can be had here for a northern trip I am sure he will get them. JM/B2 18, Reel 31, 157, February 6, 1839.


Translators were essential along the linguistically diverse southeast coast. In the first quote below, we learn about a young man trying to make his way as a translator for the foreign opium selling community. In the second quote, Jardine writes of the need to hire an official translator who can communicate with Chinese government officials after a shipwreck lands the lascar crew of The Fairy in the custody of the Fujian-Zhejiang Governor General in Fuzhou.

I have it now in my power to write to you by a Macao servant man who arrived here yesterday. It appears he was induced to come this way by the Chinchoo man who pastly acted as our interpreter last voyage and to whom I gave passage to Lintin. This fellow wished to return here again with me but I refused to take him and he has now arrived in a junk bringing along with him this man who speaks English and is related to W. Beale’s Compradore. The poor fellow, not reaping the golden harvest he expected, is glad to have the opportunity of being able to get back and is now the bearer of my letter. I cross-questioned him a little to discover if Beale had any knowledge of his coming but did not make out that he had. JM B7 5, Reel 525, 2, August 6, 1833.
The viceroy has received a letter from the Governor of Foochoofoo respecting the Fairy’s crew. They are well treated and detained till an interpreter can be sent from hence, etc etc. JM C4 5, Jardine to Rees, January 27, 1837.


Pilots were local navigation experts who knew how to steer a ship into treacherous bays and harbors, especially important when sailing to unfamiliar locations in a time before the advent of lighthouses and beacons. Both quotations below discuss the need for coastal opium vessels to hire pilots when crossing the strait to Taiwan, where the crew was unfamiliar with port locations and approaches.

On our first voyage our brokers went on shore at Tywan, sent a pilot on board who took us to Tong-Kan, where they said the money would be brought off to us and we should sell all our cargo. JM B7 10, Reel 505, 66, July 30, 1834.
Sending a contract with “a wealthy prince” here, by way of A Hee, Fitz’ shroff. The contract is with Sun What Hong, a partner is on board the Crishna along with a pilot and they will go to Formosa, the latter being in charge of the ship off Amoy. They are to buy $18,000 in rice: 10,000 piculs at 1.8/picul.  Payment is as follows: $5,000 advance in Quanzhou, 10 chests Benares at 400/chest (4,000), and $9,000 cash to be paid in Go Chu. The opium will also be delivered in Go Chu, on the vessel which is being sent for the rice. Fitz has agreed to pay the accompanying pilot $15/month till his return with a bonus of $25 if he performs his duty well. JM B7 5, Reel 525, 167, May 21, 1855.

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