Early U.S. China Trade
Silk – According to Chinese legend, China’s first ruler was the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, who ruled around 3,000 B.C. His wife, Empress Hsi-Ling-Shih, was said to have introduced sericulture (the growing of silkworms for silk production) and invented the loom on which silk fabric is woven. Almost immediately silk became a precious and luxury item, and by the Han Dynasty (206 B.C to 220 A.D) sericulture and silk weaving had become a major industry. Silk was soon exported to Europe along the caravan routes across Central Asia and became such a popular commodity that the caravan route became known as the Silk Road.
During the Age of Exploration/Discovery (1400 to1600 A.D.) European countries, first led by Spain and Portugal, sent out expeditions by sea to discover new alternate trade routes to China and other Asian countries, by rounding either the southern tips of Africa or South America. Ships that were successful began to bring back silk, spices, tea, and porcelain in far larger quantities than were possible along the Silk Road. These items became very popular in Europe, particularly in Britain where tea and porcelain were soon in huge demand. Unfortunately for Britain and other European countries, the Chinese Emperor demanded payment for these goods only in silver, citing the fact that China had no need of anything from Europe. A huge trade imbalance, in favor of China, soon developed.
Opium – Opium was first imported into China from Arab countries around the 6th century A.D., and, for the next ten centuries, its use had been primarily medicinal and strictly regulated. During the 17th century Portuguese traders began importing more opium from India into China, and concomitant with the spread of tobacco smoking from North America, recreational smoking of opium in China became popular rapidly. British traders, always on the look out for ways to reduce their chronic trade imbalance with China, saw an opportunity. They figured out how to grow opium cheaply and abundantly and began mass growing in the Indian province of Bengal. Through a network of private traders and smugglers, they began to import huge quantities of opium into China.
Around the same time Boston traders, led by Thomas Perkins, began to join in the transportation of opium to China and succeeded in establishing a permanent trading office in Guangzhou, China. Other now-familiar names in Boston, such as Cabot, Cushing, Weld, Delano (the grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Forbes, soon joined. In 1805 they shipped their first load of Turkish opium around the southern tip of Africa to China. At the time, opium remained illegal in China, but was still legal in the U.S. The prevailing view among the Boston traders about the Chinese at the time was they were “heathen, crafty, dishonest and marginal members of the human race,” and in need of being saved by Christian missionaries.
When the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in the U.S. in 1808, these traders shifted their business expertise acquired from slave trading to growing the opium trade in China. By 1840 they were shipping 1428 chests to China, a quarter of the 5672 chests that the British were shipping from Bengal.
These traders found this shipping venture to be enormously profitable, and argued that opium was no worse than alcohol, even though it was a debilitating drug that “ruined lives.” As their wealth grew, these traders began to fund many public institutions/civic projects in Boston such as Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital and the Boston Athenæum. They became pillars in their communities and were eventually known as the Boston Brahmins. “The amount of opium imported into China increased fivefold from about 200 chests annually in 1729 to roughly 1,000 chests in 1767, and then tenfold to about 10,000 per year between 1820 and 1830. The weight of each chest varied somewhat—depending on point of origin—but averaged approximately 140 pounds. By 1838 the amount had grown to some 40,000 chests, roughly 5.6 million pounds, imported into China annually.”1
Throughout this period the Chinese government made several valiant attempts to stem the opium trade, but failed. By 1796 when Chinese Emperor Jiaqing issued an edict to outlaw the importation and cultivation of opium, it was too late.
By 1840, there were an estimated 10 million opium addicts in China, and included soldiers and government officials. Government efforts to stem this tide, culminating in the order issued by Governor General Lin Zexu to destroy and sink 2.6 million pounds of opium, gave the British government the excuse, in the name of free trade, to launch the first of two Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60) against China. The U.S. participated in the Second Opium War, and a member from the Boston Cabot family served on the diplomatic team to negotiate the subsequent peace treaty with China. The defeated Chinese government was forced to legalize the opium trade; open ports in Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo and Shanghai; cede territories to the victorious foreign countries as sovereign foreign concessions; and open the interior to international trade and Christian missionaries.
In the subsequent decades the number of opium addicts in China continued to grow. By 1905 there were an estimated “13.5 million opium addicts in China, or 27% of its adult male population – a level of mass addiction never equaled by any other nation.”2
2. From Free Trade to Prohibition: A Critical History of the Modern Asian Opium Trade by Alfred W. McCoy, Fordham Urban Las Journal, Vol. 28, number 1, Article 4
5. The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee, Simon & Schuster, 2015
6. Modern China and the legacy of the Opium Wars, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-02/modern-china-and-the-legacy-of-the-opium-wars/10172386