This page was created by Peter Thilly.  The last update was by Kate McDonald.

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

Manipulating Space and Time

Time was an essential component of how actors calculated their actions in the pursuit of opium profits. Below I explore two avenues through which to understand the role of time in a spatial history of the opium trade, but visitors are encouraged to develop their own arguments about time and to use the materials in this module to link up with the others.

Monsoon seasons and Asian commerce in the age of sail

In the age of sail, the movement of people, objects, and boats between China, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent was almost entirely dependent on the yearly pattern of monsoon winds. A single boat could only make the journey from India to China and back (or the reverse) but one time per year. This is because travelers going from India to China could only set sail during the southwest summer monsoon, and the trip would take two to three months. Likewise, the journey from China to India had to take place during the northeast winter monsoon, and again this trip would take nearly three months. The monsoon seasons therefore structured and limited trade between China, Southeast Asia, and India for most of recorded history.

Then, in 1832, the leadership of Jardine-Matheson and a coalition of other opium merchants got together to purchase an opium clipper known as the “Red Rover,” which quickly became the first ship in recorded history to sail to China from India against the wind. This new technology enabled firms like Jardine-Matheson to bring ever-increasing quantities of opium from India to China, at record speed. As discussed below, one important consequence of more rapid connections between India and China was that it changed the calculus of opium pricing in Lintin and along the China coast.

Opium prices, the movement of information, and a race against time

Directly related to the history of sail technology and the centrality of the monsoon to Asian trading patterns, opium profits were highly dependent on taking advantage of differences in opium prices between locations. One example of this from the module is the quote from Captain Rees that headlines the Malwa page. In that example, Captain Rees discusses how the brokers in Shenhu Bay had managed to acquire information about the price of Malwa opium at Lintin and were consequently purchasing large amounts. For Captain Rees, setting prices was a matter of constant anxiety, as he was under pressure to sell as much opium as possible but at as high a price as could be obtained. The ability of his customers in Yakou Village to keep abreast of the price at Lintin limited Rees' ability to sell at inflated prices. For both parties, buying and selling opium was a constant race against time for the latest and best information.

The British East India Company opium auctions in Calcutta were another place where Jardine-Matheson and their competitors had to engage in complex calculations about time. The company's purchasing agents in Calcutta, like Rees in his station on the China coast, were under constant pressure from William Jardine in Guangzhou to make advantageous purchasing decisions, a calculation that could change unpredictably based on the activities of Chinese purchasers and government officials thousands of miles away. In the quote that headlines the Calcutta page of this module, we see Jardine complaining to Rees about the company agent in Calcutta's lack of awareness in failing to ship enough Patna and Benares opium to Lintin. On other occasions, Jardine became furious when the Calcutta agent sent too much opium to China and brought down prices.

It is easy to imagine an organization like the Shi lineage engaging in a similar range of time and price calculation. Like Jardine-Matheson, the Yakou Shi were a diversified and complex business organization, purchasing opium in Shenhu Bay for shipment to places like Taiwan, Ningbo, and ports in North China. A full range of sources do not exist to demonstrate the point, though the combination of materials in the British and Chinese archives do enough to give a clear sense of the size and scope of the Shi lineage's opium operations.

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