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Conclusion: Space as Process
Breakdown, Transformation, Constitution, and Reconstitution
Chimmo (Shenhu) Bay
Peter D. Thilly
The history of the opium trade in coastal Fujian shows how discrete physical spaces unfold into “space as process.” Discrete physical spaces and locales constitute, transform, break down, and reconstitute distinct spatialities through the movements, actions, and decisions of people.
The Jardine-Matheson Company’s global network was a collection of ports and sailboats between Great Britain, India, and China. The geospatial location of the ports can be mapped with numerical precision, lending these ports the aura of transcendental place. The assumption of the absolute-ness of location shapes how we see the visual media that represent these sailboats: not as wayfaring vessels seeking out moving locales in the shifting media of the ocean (wind, waves, etc.) but as objects in transit between two fixed points in the network. But the points were not so fixed as we might assume. The meaning, function, and distance between—and therefore, the location of—the Jardine-Matheson company's network of ports and sailboats between India and China changed appreciably over the course of the early nineteenth century. Clipper ships like the Red Rover fundamentally changed the nature of the spatialities of profit and information management for Jardine-Matheson. The actions of people like William Jardine, James Matheson, and their partners and employees transformed the possibilities of the technology into new patterns of trade, investment, and profit. The island of Lintin did not move locations, and neither did the ground upon which people built the cities of Singapore and Calcutta. But the work that these ports did to generate profits for Jardine-Matheson, and the distance between them, changed, bringing Lintin, Singapore, and Calcutta closer to each other and closer to London. These efforts worked in parallel with the efforts of the British Empire to produce new geopolitical frameworks for profit. The Treaty of Nanjing (1843), which concluded the Opium War, further changed the place of ports in the Jardine-Matheson network. Lintin lost its significance, replaced (in part) with the new British colony of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the opening of two treaty ports in Fujian (Xiamen and Fuzhou) meant that people living in the coastal hinterland in places like Shenhu Bay had to create ways of trading, investing, and profiting from opium.
Space as process reveals the dynamic nature of narratives of place and personhood. The evolving commercial network between people like Shi Hou and John Rees precipitated the emergence of shadow or echo spatialities within the politics and worldviews of Qing administrators and patriotic Han Chinese onlookers from outside of the region. Coastal Fujian had long possessed the reputation of a place with outsized (and dangerous) lineages, along with illegal (and dangerous) commercial and migratory connections to various parts of Southeast Asia. But beginning in the 1830s, the connotations of coastal Fujian's connections and interactions with the outside world began to change. The actions of these people and the networks they operated came to represent the core essence of treason as China entered the modern era. Coastal Fujianese opium traders like Shi Hou came to personify treason during the rise of modern Chinese nationalism. The sources of the documents in this module underscore this. I found Shi Hou in a Chinese archive devoted to Qing history—an example of many legal cases the Qing administration brought against coastal residents who participated in the opium trade. In contrast, John and Thomas Rees and the Jardine-Matheson Company live on in modern glory—a dedicated archive at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, named buildings that continue to mark the coastline of the People’s Republic of China and Wales, and dozens of monographs devoted to understanding and analyzing their empire.
Manipulating Space and Time
The intersection of technology, time, and profit
Peter D. Thilly
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.
Calcutta was the site of auction for Bengal opium from the Patna and Benares regions.
Peter D. Thilly
The Red Rover has not yet returned from Calcutta. Our friends on that side of India appear to have taken leave of their senses, and are keeping our opium back, while we are obliged to buy for the coast.
William Jardine to John Rees, August 19th, 1837*
Calcutta occupied a critical place in the Jardine-Matheson global network, as the site of auction for opium grown on British East India Company plantations in the Patna and Benares regions, inland from the port of Calcutta.
As the quote above illustrates, a delicate financial calculus was required to achieve the highest profits. In this quote, William Jardine is complaining that his agent in Calcutta has been too slow in purchasing and sending Bengal opium to Lintin, and as a consequence the firm is now purchasing Bengal opium from its competitors in Lintin to take up the coast to Rees and the other opium captains. On other occasions, Jardine was known to complain that his agents in Calcutta were sending too much opium, over-saturating the market and driving prices down.
*Source: MS.JM:C4–6, Priv. Letters from Jardine, 1837-38, p. 81.