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The Coastal Opium Trade in 1830s Fujian
Peter D. Thilly
Yakou Village, Shenhu Bay
Peter D. Thilly
This module tells the story of how a transnational coalition of maritime traders came together to operate one of the largest illicit drug markets in history. The importation of opium into China prior to 1832 occurred exclusively in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province, where Fujianese and Cantonese ships would load up on the drug for delivery to other parts of the empire.
By the late 1830s, a huge portion of the import trade had migrated north into Fujian province. Every day after 1834 or so there were around a dozen British ships permanently anchored in strategic bays along the Fujian coast, importing tens of thousands of chests of opium directly into Fujian and exporting jaw-dropping quantities of treasure.
This module allows users to explore this dramatic explosion in the Fujianese opium trade, by focusing on the local story of Shenhu Bay in Jinjiang County, and the interactions between the Shi Lineage of Yakou Village and the Rees brothers of Jardine-Matheson and Dent & Co.
- Navigating Sources and Mapping the Opium Trade. Introduces the goals of the module, provides necessary background information, and summarizes my interpretation of the archival sources that make up the two main body paths of the module.
- The Case Against Shi Hou: A Qing Document. Constructed out of a primary source from the Qing territorial administration, a criminal case against a man called Shi Hou for escorting British opium ships to his hometown of Yakou Village.
- The Jardine-Matheson Global Network. A re-creation of the largest and most influential British opium-trading firm, divided up conceptually and geographically, interspersed with images, videos, and primary source text from the Jardine-Matheson archive.
- A Spatial History of Profit. Three short essays on a spatial history of profit and corruption on the Qing maritime frontier.
- Conclusion: Space as Process. The concluding page to the module.
Link: Jardine-Matheson Archives Catalog (holdings are at the Cambridge University Library)
Link: First Historical Archives in Beijing
Click here for a list of references for this module, which is also available from the module's Conclusion page.
Archival Discoveries (1)
Quantifying and Mapping the Opium Trade
Peter D. Thilly
This page and the next page summarize what I learned about the opium trade in 1830s Fujian when I first read the materials from the Chinese and British archives.
Quantifying the Opium Trade
Part of figuring out the opium business involves quantifying the trade. How much opium did these people sell? One conclusion I quickly reached from reading the British and Chinese sources together is that the scope of the opium trade described by the Fujian Governor in The Case Against Shi Hou is severely underplayed. In contrast to the Qing memorial, which claims that foreign opium traders “Big and Little Li” sold just twenty-seven chests of opium total in their stay in Shenhu Bay, we have evidence from the Jardine-Matheson archive that “Big and Little Li,” also known as Thomas and John Rees, could sell twenty-seven chests of opium in Shenhu Bay on a slow afternoon. One clear example of this is a report from Captain Jauncey of the Jardine-Matheson barque Austen about selling 320 chests of Malwa opium at $610/chest in just one day while stationed in Shenhu Bay during August of 1835, several months before Shi Hou supposedly lured Big and Little Li up from Macao.*
I subsequently compiled the Jardine-Matheson reports about their sales along with reports on the opium sales of their chief competitor Dent & Company, and found that these two firms sold between 1,400–2,000 chests of opium per month in Fujian for $840,000–$1,600,000. All told, the total imports into Fujian by these two firms during the years 1835–1838 ranged between 16,800–24,000 chests per year for an annual sum of $10,080,000–19,200,000. More than half of the opium that was shipped from India to China during the years prior to the Opium War was bought and sold through the Fujian receiving ship network.
Mapping the Coastal Opium Network
Reading the Qing memorial and the British sources together also helped me to understand the network of people that operated the opium trade in coastal Fujian. Qing sources indicate clearly that the Yakou Shi were ultimately just one of many coastal lineages involved in the trade, and Jardine-Matheson materials show that Shenhu Bay was but one of several important anchorages for the British opium traders. Dozens of coastal lineages along the Zhangzhou-Quanzhou coastline in southern Fujian during the 1830s were able to marshal the boats, people, and money necessary to make it big in the opium trade. Indeed, the region became China’s second most important opium market during the 1830s.
The above map is based on a 1840 investigation by two high officials sent down to Fujian from Beijing to investigate opium crimes, and it indicates the location of large lineages (including the Yakou Shi) who were known to collude with foreigners in the smuggling of opium in Jinjiang County. Each X on the map indicates a location that Jardine-Matheson commonly anchored their receiving ships. This small slice is indicative of a much larger reality: the map does not include the anchorages of Jardine's competition, and on shore the other counties (such as Tongan, Huian, etc.) each had their own cadre of lineages, ship-owners, and smugglers.**
*JM B2.7, Reel 496, No. 56, 12 August 1835.
**Peter Thilly, “Opium and the Origins of Treason: The View from Fujian,” Late Imperial China 38, No. 1, 2017, (155-197) 175-176.
The Receiving Ship System
The Receiving Ship System
Peter D. Thilly
The receiving ship system refers to the network of ships employed by firms like Jardine-Matheson, wherein larger vessels would station themselves offshore from key marketing areas and serve as floating warehouses for opium and silver, with faster ships moving between the anchorages carrying the drugs and money. The practice was modeled after how the opium trade had operated at Lintin in the preceding decades, where opium traders stationed huge ships permanently as warehouses for the opium coming from India and the silver coming from their Chinese purchasers. The map above compiles the locations all of the receiving ship anchorages I have been able to confirm through the Jardine-Matheson archive.
The expansion of the system
In July of 1832, Jardine dispatched John Rees in the brig Dansbourg up the coast towards Xiamen to try and sell opium directly to Chinese purchasers in Fujian. Rees left Lintin with 467 chests of opium, most of which belonged to Jardine and his partner Magniac, though 174 of the chests belonged to a Chinese broker known as Ahant. After a six-week coasting tour, selling modest consignments averaging ten chests per sale over to local smugglers, Rees returned with $131,750. The sales records do not account for the opium delivered on behalf of Ahant, who presumably payed Jardine for delivery of his 174 chests of opium to partners in Fujian. All in all it was a promising start for the new firm.*
Following the initial voyage of the Dansbourg, William Jardine sent John Rees, William MacKay, and James Innes north on the Colonel Young, John Biggar, and Jamesina, all large and well-armed ships. Within months of these exploratory voyages, Jardine had set up what was called the “receiving ship” system, which would remain in place for over two decades. Faster ships like the Sylph would transport opium up from Lintin to larger, often older and not terribly sea-worthy vessels, which would remain at the main anchorages in and around Xiamen and Quanzhou.
The Quanzhou Prefect Shen Ruhan knew all of the pertinent details:
Two smaller lorchas built in a similar way to the big ships and capable of carrying one thousand catties often bring up opium from Guangdong, transfer it to the big ships, and carry the silver from the big ships back down without waiting around.**
By 1837, there was an average of 15 foreign receiving ships (owned by Jardine, Dent, as well as a collection of American and Parsee merchants) regularly anchored off the Fujian coast at any given moment.*** The map of anchorages and lineages referenced in this module's introduction offers a sense of where these anchorages were located along the southern Fujian coastline.
*JM A7.346, 1832-1833.
**Yapian zhanzheng zai min tai shiliao xuanbian (Fujian-Taiwan Opium War Materials). Fuzhou: Fujian renmin chuban she, 1982. 291-295.
***China Trade and Empire: Jardine, Matheson & Co. And the Origins of British Rule in Hong Kong 1827-1843, ed. Alain le Pichon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 312.
- 1 2019-11-18T17:22:58-05:00 Lineage Villages and Opium Anchorages 1 Map of lineages and villages known to traffic in opium, and anchorages used by the British image_header 2019-11-18T17:22:58-05:00 Peter Thilly