What really happened to Shi Hou?
The memorial states that Shi Hou was sentenced to immediate strangulation for his crimes, but it also notes at one point that Shi Hou “died of illness” while in custody and awaiting sentencing, along with fourteen other unlucky prisoners. His sentence was posthumous.
Did the “real” Shi Hou die in jail?
Can we take the document at its word that the person the Qing officials arrested was indeed Shi Hou? Do we actually know that the person who was arrested under the name Shi Hou was the ringleader of the opium network? Was a person named Shi Hou really in charge of the Shi lineage smuggling operations at Yakou?
These questions are worth asking. I believe that there was an actual person who at some point went by the name Shi Hou. Here are two plausible stories about him:
- Shi Hou was a minor figure in the opium ring.The Yakou Shi lineage was large enough that it contained internal class differences, between wealthy elites and the laboring poor. Perhaps Shi Hou was employed by someone from the top of the lineage hierarchy, and the Qing state's decision to charge him as ringleader was a compromise, a clear and symbolic punishment of the lineage as a whole, sacrificing an expendable member of the lower stratum of the lineage.
If this were the case, the suspect’s decision to confess makes sense. By claiming that he had been the head criminal, and it had been his idea to bring Big and Little Li to Fujian, he acknowledged his grim fate and studiously implicated nobody else in the lineage. Such loyalty was the kind of thing that might ensure financial compensation for his family.
- Shi Hou was the name of an important figure in the opium trade. Perhaps he was actually an instrumental figure in helping Jardine-Matheson establish themselves in Shenhu Bay. It is true that his name appears across a number of years and sources in Qing archives. Different people within the coastal administration knew this person’s name.
If Shi Hou had been a high-level figure in the trade, with the requisite connections and finances, it would be reasonable to suspect that the prisoner “Shi Hou” who died in jail was a stand-in, a lower strata lineage member whose family would have been paid for his service as a substitute prisoner. This practice was not uncommon in late Qing Fujian.
Is Shi Hou in the Jardine-Matheson Archive?
I have found reference to the names of just four people in the Jardine-Matheson archive that can be reliably connected to the Shi lineage.
The first three names come from a letter in Chinese that the brokers at Yakou Village sent to Captain Rees, who they refer to as “Captain Li” (李船主). The letter is signed by three people, offering only given names and no surname: Yayang (亞樣), Yabo (亞伯) and Yazhen (亞朕). The second one, Yabo, is almost certainly the “Mr. Yabe” that appears throughout the Jardine-Matheson materials as a middleman between the ship and local brokerage firms. I was unable to find any of these three names (or indeed any of the names in the memorial) in unpublished Shi lineage genealogies.
The other reference is more intriguing: a man named Shik Po who spent a lot of time aboard the Jardine-Matheson receiving ships. One representative example of Shik Po's appearance in the sources is when Captain Forbes, visiting Shenhu bay in 1839 (two years after the arrest of Shi Hou), remarked that “Shik Po the Yakow man who took refuge with us last year has again come off and is now living on board.”* Could this not be the “real” Shi Hou? Based on local pronunciation it seems more plausible that Shik Po could have been Shi Shubao, the kinsman of Shi Hou who had learned English and was never captured.
The realms of possibility
The value in this kind of speculation is thinking through the webs of different structures that a man like Shi Hou would have been enmeshed with. The lineage structure of coastal Fujianese society would have been the most dominant structure in his life. But his illegal activity also placed him in the grasp of the political-military structures of the Qing state in his region. Qing officials like the Jinjiang magistrate and the Quanzhou prefect were outsiders—people who grew up in other provinces and were appointed to Fujian from Beijing. Meanwhile, the Fujian navy was a far more local institution, as the Manchu rulers from the northeast Asian hinterland were forced to rely on locals who knew how to sail and navigate the difficult Fujian coast.
New structures with new spatialities had also advanced into the world of Shi Hou. The rising tide of British imperialism undergirded an institution like Jardine-Matheson and enabled people like William Jardine and James Matheson to source their opium and hire labor for their ships and factories. By entering into a relationship with the Rees brothers, Shi Hou and his lineage members were thus also drawn into the rapidly transforming structures of the British empire. But Rees and his employers in Guangzhou did not see themselves as empire-builders: these men were engaged in the single-minded pursuit of profit. They were pioneers in one of the formative moments and contexts for the rise of global capitalism. This too structured the possibilities for a man like Shi Hou.
*JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 247, Forbes to Jardine, 24 February 1839