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Environment and Physical Geography
The role of environment and physical geography in opium profits
Chimmo (Shenhu) Bay
Peter D. Thilly
Environment and physical geography played key roles in how actors sought to maximize their opium profits. Below I discuss one aspect of this history that appears within the sources, and gesture towards another that is relevant to this story but not included in this module. Visitors to the module are encouraged to find additional ways that environment and physical geography might have affected the history of the opium trade, and to use this concept to link this module to the others.
Where mountains meet the sea
The Fujian littoral is a place of jagged coastline, small bays, scatterings of islands, winding peninsulas, and steep mountains that ascend from the shoreline. In short, it was and remains an extremely difficult place for states to keep watch over. The region's first foreign Commissioner of Customs, F. Nevill May, wrote in 1865 that Fujian’s mountains and rivers present “so many obstacles to the construction of canals and railways that they will probably never be introduced into this part of China.”* Fuzhou and Wenzhou—a large city in coastal Zhejiang only 207 miles north of Fuzhou—were only recently connected by rail, in 2003. The construction necessitated the excavation of no fewer than 53 tunnels.
The map below is geotagged to Xiamen, Shenhu Bay, Quanzhou, and Fuzhou in order to enable users to view the entirety of the Fujian coast from above (much like how the Japanese state sought to use airplanes to achieve a new view of Inner Asia). Zoom in and consider for yourself how difficult it must have been for the Qing state to try and keep powerful lineages like the Yakou Shi from breaking maritime laws.
The jagged and winding nature of the Fujian littoral was clearly an important part of the success of the Chinese and foreign network of opium traders discussed in this module. Because the opium trade was nominally illegal, the ideal scenario for people like Shi Hou and John Rees was to keep their dealings entirely invisible from the state. Arranging clandestine meetups offshore was clearly the way to go.
As the years went on, it became impossible for a trade of this volume to go on without any government awareness. Recall the video of Shenhu Bay: any person in any of the villages that overlook the bay and any person that travelled to the bay would have been able to see the British opium ships and the boats of their Chinese opium customers. It simply isn't that big of a place. Thus, as discussed more extensively elsewhere in this module, the opium smugglers of Yakou village and their British partners offshore arranged for systematic bribery of local officials to keep the trade going. At that point, the utility of a geographic location like Shenhu Bay was that it was not visible from other, more well-garrisoned parts of the coast. Officials who took bribes, it should be remembered, also needed to keep their secrets.
Environment, topography, and opium cultivation
The cultivation of opium poppies and production of opium is another side of the history of opium profits, which for the most part is not touched on within the sources included in this module. Historian Rolf Bauer's new book The Peasant Production of Opium in Nineteenth-Century India (Brill, 2019) is a fantastic place to start for anyone interested in this side of the story. Bauer's research into the production of Patna opium in India is exhaustive and wide-ranging, including detailed analyses of social formations, labor practices, and the changing interactions between peasant cultivators and the physical landscape over a century of opium production. Consider the following passage on irrigation in two environmentally very similar parts of India: Gaya, an opium producing region just south of the city of Patna, and Saran, just to the north of Patna. As Bauer shows us, there are rich possibilities for a spatial history of opium production, tracing out the interactions between human actors and the physical environment in the pursuit of opium profits:
Gaya's agriculturalists constructed irrigation facilities because the natural conditions basically forced them to. Saran's agriculturalists were less pressed to do so because the district's soil easily retained moisture… How can we explain this difference despite the similar conditions? Saran's relative progress was ascribed to the ambition of the local sub-deputy opium agent, then a Mr. Tytler, who was known for encouraging the construction of wells. On the one hand, this must be seen as a positive investment in Saran's infrastructure. On the other hand, the contracts for the construction of wells were a powerful tool to further press the cultivators.**
*Chinese Maritime Customs Microfilm, Reel 4, “Return on Trade at the Port of Foochow for the Year 1865.”
**Rolf Bauer, The Peasant Production of Opium in Nineteenth-Century India (Brill, 2019), p. 107.
Chimmo (Shenhu) Bay
An opium depot on the China coast located between Xiamen and Quanzhou.
Peter D. Thilly
I expect the coast will take off at least 5000 chests of the new Bengal drug, providing we are not interrupted by the Mandareens. Merchants from other ports make a point to come here for their opium.
John Rees in Chimmo Bay to William Jardine in Canton, 1.18.1836*
Shenhu Bay (深滬灣), known to the British opium merchants as Chimmo (also Chimo, Chimmoo), is an inlet approximately four miles across and strategically situated between the large ports of Xiamen and Quanzhou. The bay is big enough to provide shelter in rough seas, but small enough to defend effectively. It was also far enough away from seats of government power to avoid constant surveillance, but located along a major coastal shipping line between two large ports. With Xiamen twenty-five miles to the south and Quanzhou fifteen to the north, the bay was perfectly suited for Jardine-Matheson's purposes. Shenhu Bay remained an important opium smuggling depot all the way until 1860, when implementation of the 1858 the Treaty of Tianjin de facto legalized the importation of opium.
Though it was located out of the way from the two neighboring ports, the anchorage at Shenhu bay could not have been “secret” in any meaningful way. The area was densely populated, and no local residents would have missed the arrival of foreign opium ships. As the above photograph and this video both illustrate, anyone with access to the water would have seen the British opium ships, which were anchored in the bay every day between 1833 until 1860. Any boats from shore that visited the ships would also have not been able to do so in secret, unless at night. But the Jardine-Matheson archives record daytime sales in abundance. People for the most part felt safe and secure enough to paddle out to the ships in the middle of the day and purchase large quantities of opium. Perhaps they paid an attached fee that made them feel more confident in their security.
*Source: JM:B2 7 [R. 495, No. 74] Rees to Jardine, 1.18.1836
Discrete Physical Spaces
A list of some of the discrete physical spaces important to the spatial history of profit
Chimmo (Shenhu) Bay
Peter D. Thilly
People pursued opium profits within discrete physical spaces. These spaces shaped decision making, instilling confidence or exposing vulnerabilities, embodying opportunities to enhance profitability, decrease risk, or manipulate the competition. Below is a list of some of the spaces that I have identified as important to the spatial history of profit. Visitors to the module are encouraged to compile their own lists, and to connect the significance of some of these physical spaces to those occurring in other modules.
- The receiving ships at Lintin and in Shenhu Bay and along the coast. These were stationary vessels captained by British employees of Jardine-Matheson and their competitors, and crewed by sailors from all over the world. These ships rarely moved locations, and operated as floating warehouses. One of the fullest pictures of life on these receiving ships can be found in a travelogue by the American dentist, B.L. Bell (this account is from over a decade after the events of this module take place).
- Smaller, fast ships like the Fairy that made rapid and repeated voyages between the receiving ships anchored on the coast in places like Shenhu Bay and the company's central receiving ship at Lintin.
- Opium clippers like the Red Rover that voyaged between India (Calcutta or Bombay), Singapore, and the receiving ships at Lintin. Perhaps the most exciting examination of life aboard these opium clippers can be found in the Ibis Trilogy by author Amitav Ghosh.
Villages, Towns, and Cities:
- Yakou Village, a small coastal town dominated by the Shi lineage. This is where Shi Hou and his kinsmen operated a massive smuggling ring, positioning themselves as middlemen between Chinese buyers and British opium importers.
- Macao, a Portuguese colonial outpost in the Pearl River Delta near Lintin. One important function of Macao as a physical space was as a meeting place and job market for Chinese brokers to link up with British ship captains like the Rees Brothers to arrange trips up the coast.
- The Canton Factories, just outside of the Guangzhou city gates. This is where the leadership of the Jardine-Matheson company kept their offices, arranging deals with prominent Chinese merchants, interacting with the representatives of the Qing state, and overseeing the correspondence of the company's global network.
- Other cities like Calcutta, Singapore, Bombay, and London.
- Neither fully on shore, nor fully out at sea, anchorages like Shenhu Bay and Lintin were also important physical spaces in this story. As the video I took from the beach at Yakou demonstrates, the anchorages were in plain sight of the shore. In the 1830s, a veritable fleet of fishing and trading sailboats would have passed back and forth past them each day.