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.