By: Marc Immanuel

Published on: 25 June 2017
Last updated on: 30 September 2017

From the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, the major commodity of the East Asian trade was opium (a highly addictive and toxic narcotic). Opium became the single most valuable commodity exported by Western (European) merchants into the territory of the Empire of China. Opium also flowed into all the ports and states of Southeast Asia. (source, pg 167)

The British East India Company (BEIC)

On 31 December 1600, the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) [a.k.a. British East India Company (BEIC)], a private corporation, was granted a royal charter by England’s Queen (1558-1603) Elizabeth I and given a monopoly on all trade with East-Southeast Asia (then referred to as “East Indies”). The BEIC retained the privilege of monopoly until 1833. (source, British Library)

By about 1670, England’s King (1660-1685) Charles II had granted the BEIC the rights to issue its own currency, employ an army, make war, form treaties, possess autonomous territorial acquisition, and exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction over those areas. The BEIC developed its own private army and became an autonomous corporation-state under the sovereignty of the British Monarchy.

The Beginning of the Mass Export of Opium by the BEIC

In 1757, following the Battle of Plassey, the BEIC established dominion over the eastern portion of the Indian subcontinent (ruled by the BEIC from 1757 to 1858). This was the region which contained the opium-growing districts of India.

The BEIC soon initiated the mass illegal export of Indian-produced opium into the populous Chinese market through the Chinese port of Guangzhou (which the Europeans called “Canton”). Guangzhou was the only Chinese port open to foreign trade until the First Opium War forced the “opening of China” in 1842.

During the period of its opium monopoly (1757-1833), the BEIC funded an aggressive opium marketing campaign in China. As a result, by 1839, the export of Indian opium into China had increased to about 40,000 chests (about 2,600 long tons) annually. That amount was about 200 times the amount exported from India about a century earlier in 1729 (then approximately 13 tons annually).

Millions of Opium Addicts in China:
Great Profits for the Opium Industry

In 1839, Chinese Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu estimated the number of opium-addicted persons in China to about 4 million.

The habit of smoking opium had begun spreading from the idle rich to the majority of young Chinese males under the age of 40 in China’s coastal region. (source, part 1, The Victorian Web)

Through the Opium Wars (period 1839-1860) and through imperialist military occupation (1839-1949), the Western imperialist powers (primarily the British and US Governments and the British-US extended opium syndicate they served) forced mass opium addiction on the Chinese Nation for over 100 years.

The opium trade hit its peak in 1906.

“By 1906, China had 13.5 million addicts consuming some 39,000 tons of opium. With bountiful supplies and legal retail sales, China had 27 percent of its adult males addicted to opium — a level of mass addiction never equalled by any nation before or since.” (source, ”Opium History“, Alfred W. McCoy)

By the time the Communist Party came to power in 1949, about 20 million Chinese were addicted. By the 1990s, that number had dropped to about 70,000. (source, Al Jazeera)

More information of the history of the opium trade in China:

(1) “Opium History“, Alfred W. McCoy
(2) ”Rise and Fall of the Canton Trade System — III Canton and Hong Kong”,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, essay (historical, with paintings),
by Peter C. Perdue, 2009
(3) “How China Got Rid of Opium“,
Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU), article (historical),
2006 (reprinted from a 1977 article)
(4) “How the Maoist Revolution Wiped Out Drug Addiction in China“,
Revolutionary Worker Online (RW Online), article (historical), by C. Clark Kissinger

Jardine-Matheson & Co.

In the 1830s, the East-Southeast Asia opium trade came under the control of certain British and US private corporations, which became inter-associated as a large British-US opium trade syndicate, originally having its trading center at Guangzhou.

That opium trade syndicate was headed by former BEID employee (1802-1817) and independent opium trader William Jardine (1784-1843). In 1832, Jardine and his trade partner James Matheson (1796-1878) co-founded Jardine, Matheson, and Company. Following the abolition of the BEIC monopoly in 1833,  Jardine Matheson & Co replaced the BEIC as the leading opium trade company.

Following the Opium Wars (which took place during period 1839-1860), Jardine-Matheson & Co become the largest corporation in East Asia [based in British-occupied Hong Kong (which was occupied by the British Military during the First Opium War and remained occupied until 1997)].

Jardine became the ”big boss” of the “big bosses” of the illegal opium business at Guangzhou. (He was referred to by Lin Zexu as ”the sly and cunning ring-leader of the opium smugglers”)]. He became one of the richest and most influential men in Great Britain and was elected to the British Parliament in 1841.

The Early US Government’s Establishment of a Consulate at Guangzhou
For the Purpose of Opening A Direct US Trade with China

Less than six months following the official end of the US Revolutionary War (1775-1783) at the Treaty of Paris on 3 September 1783, the first US merchant ship to China, the Empress of China, set off from New York harbor for China’s port of Guangzhou on 22 February 1785 [the 52nd birthday of US Revolutionary Army (1775-1783) Commander-in-Chief George Washington, who five years later would become 1st US President (1789-1797)].

The voyage was organized and financed by US Superintendent of Finance, and Secretary of the Continental Navy, (1781-1784), Robert Morris (1734-1806). Morris was the second most powerful man in the US Continental Congress following George Washington. Morris, a free trade advocate who owned one of the most prosperous mercantile companies in Pennsylvania and was one of the richest men in the new nation, had been the major financier of the US Revolution.

The voyage of the Empress of China was a national mission as well as the initiation of private US citizen merchants’ direct trade with China. The purpose of the voyage was to make the initial effort for the establishment of a direct US trade with China.

Crowds at New York harbor cheered the Empress of China on its way. The ship, carrying the original USA flag, set off down the East River, past a 13-gun salute (symbolizing the Thirteen Colonies that had just recently gained independence as the United States of America).

The captain of the ship was Captain John Green (1736-1796), a former US naval officer.

Sailing on the Empress of China as business managers were Samuel Shaw (1754-1794) and Thomas Randall (1723-1797). Both were former US Revolutionary officers in the Continental Army.

During the US Revolutionary War, Shaw had served as aide-de-camp (1779-1789) (chief assistant) to General Henry Knox, chief of the Continental Artillery and close friend of George Washington.

Following the Revolution, the US Congress appointed Knox as US Secretary at War (head of the US Military) in 1785. Following the establishment of the US Federal Government in 1789, Knox held office as 1st US Secretary of War (1789-1794). Shaw briefly held office as Assistant Secretary in the War Department during Knox’s first year in office in 1785. The next year, Shaw was appointed by the US Congress as 1st US Consul to Guangzhou.

The Empress of China arrived at Guangzhou six months after it set off, and it returned to New York on 11 May 1785 after a voyage of nearly 15 months.

About one week after the Empress of China returned from Guangzhou, Samuel Shaw sent a report about the voyage, by letter, to US Secretary of Foreign Affairs (1784-1789) John Jay. [Letter of Samuel Shaw to John Jay, 19 May 1785 (PDF)] [John Jay, one of the US Founding Fathers, later held office as 1st US Secretary of State (1789-1790) and 1st US Chief Justice (1789-1785).]

The US Consulate at Guangzhou (1786-1949, reopened in 1979) was first established in 1786. That year, the US Congress appointed Samuel Shaw as 1st US Consul and Thomas Randall as 1st US Vice Consul at Guangzhou. Shaw held the office of US Consul to Guangzhou for a first term during 1786-1789 and, after being reappointed by George Washington, a second term during 1789-1794.

Informational resource at: “The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw” (PDF)

The US Consulate at Guangzhou Becomes Heavily Involved in the US Opium Trade
(Beginning Early 19th Century)

Samuel Shaw was succeeded by 2nd US Consul to Guangzhou, Samuel Snow. It is said that Snow arranged through his political connections to be appointed to the position. He first arrived at Guangzhou in 1798. He became involved in the opium trade. (source, “Opium Traders and Their Worlds…”)

Samuel Snow was succeeded by 3rd US Consul to Guangzhou (from 1806 to about 1813), his close friend Edward Carrington (1775-1843). Carrington was appointed by US Founding Father and 3rd US President (1801-1809) Thomas Jefferson]. (source, ”The Golden Getto“, pgs 146-148)

Benjamin C. Wilcocks (1776-1845) was US Consul to Guangzhou from about 1813 to about 1822.

Samuel Snow’s son’s Peter W. Snow was appointed US Consul at Guangzhou in 1835. During his term as consul, Peter Snow was simultaneously employed by major US opium trader Russell & Co. (source, segment 77)

Beginning in the early 19th century, the US Consulate at Guanzhou became heavily involved in the US mercantile opium trade. The aforementioned consuls (Samuel Snow and son Peter W. Snow, Carrington, and Wilcocks) were all heavily involved in that trade.

A Brief History of the Old US-China Trade

“Between 1784 and 1833, there were to be at least 1,352 officially acknowledged visits by [US] American ships to China. Trade with China became a national priority and Chinese products became common in [US] American society. Tea had been a [US] American obsession since the 1740s; Washington ordered his first set of Chinese porcelain from his London agent in 1755; and fashionable [US] Americans coveted all things Chinese.” (source, Post Magazine)

”’The trade, though minuscule by modern standards, made merchants millionaires almost overnight and their surplus capital was invested in the nation’s infrastructure, including banks and railroads. Ports such as New York, Salem, and Boston thrived on the China trade and founded on it were wealthy dynasties such as the Astors and the Forbes, who built expansive mansions and whose descendants are still represented among the elite of US society.” (source, Post Magazine)

”The fortunes that East Coast merchants amassed in the China trade were vital to the United States’ evolution from seafaring nation to factory of the world. The Astors, Greens, Russells, Delanos, Lows, and Forbeses plowed the proceeds earned in China into New England textile mills, Philadelphia banks and insurance companies, New York real estate, and railroads that laid the foundations for [US] American power.” (source, “The American Empire Project“)

The US trade companies’ export of tea from Guangzhou to the territory of the United States increased from about 880,100 pounds in 1785 to 3,093,200 pounds in 1790 and 5,665,067 pounds in 1800. [source, “America’s China Trade in Historical Perspective” (pg 13)]

”Taxes on the commerce bolstered the fortunes of the US Treasury. ‘Our trade to the East Indies flourishes,’ wrote President George Washington to his old comrade-in-arms, the Marquis de Lafayette, on June 3, 1790. ‘The profits to individuals are so considerable as to induce more persons to engage in it continually.'” (source, “The American Empire Project“)

In 1803, the first US Consul to Smyrna, William Stewart, urged US shipowners to buy Turkish opium. [source, “Opium, Empire, and the Global Political Economy…” (pg 76)]

“The first [US] American ships to carry opium to China brought it from Turkey in 1804 courtesy of two Philadelphians, Benjamin C. Wilcocks [1776-1845, US Consul at Guangzhou from about 1813 to about 1822], the gourmand consul with the love child from Macao, and his brother, James. Chinese smugglers were happy to cut the more potent British product from India with what became known as ‘turkey’. From the end of the War of 1812 to the mid-1830s, [US] Americans bought more Turkish opium than any other nation. One Boston firm alone, Perkins & Company, regularly shipped one-half to three-quarters of Turkey’s entire yearly crop of 150,000 pounds to China. By 1818, the [US] Americans were buying opium in India as well, challenging the East India Company’s monopoly on the drug traffic there.” (source, “The American Empire Project“)

Only one of all the large foreign companies in the China trade, Olyphant & Company, refused to carry the narcotic out of religious conviction.

Perkins & Co. and Russell & Co.

US private merchants with strong connections to and influence on the US Government began to join the China opium trade on a large scale during the early years of the 19th century . The major US opium companies which emerged at Guangzhou were the following two companies:

● Perkins and Company [co-founded in 1803 in Guangzhou by Perkings brothers James Perkins II (1761-1822) and Thomas H. Perkins I (1764-1854) (a.k.a. T. H. Perkins, who became one of the richest persons in the USA due primarily to opium business in China)] [The Perkins brothers were involved in the Africa-Caribbean slave trade prior to their involvement in the China opium trade.]

Russell and Company [co-founded in 1823 in Guangzhou by Samuel W. Russell (1789-1862) and Philip Ammidon (1778-1837)]

More information on Russell & Co.

Samuel W. Russell was a second cousin of William H. Russell (1809-1885) — co-founder, with Alphonso Taft (1810-1891), of Yale University’s secret society The Order of Skull and Bones (S&B) (founded in 1832).

Some sources for information on Skull and Bones: S&B1, S&B2, S&B3 (pgs 449-456)

[Alphonso Taft held office as 34th US Attorney General for one year in 1876-1877 and as 31st US Secretary of War for nearly three months in 1876. His son William H. Taft (1857-1930) held office as Governor-General of the Philippines (1901-1903) during the US military occupation of the Philippines, 1st Provisional Governor of Cuba (for two weeks in 1906, during the US military occupation of Cuba), 42nd US Secretary of War (1904-1908), 10th US Chief Justice (1921-1930), and 27th US President (1909-1913).]

Samuel W. Russell went to Guangzhou in 1819 “under arrangements made by Edward Carrington [3rd US Consul to Guangzhou (a. 1806 — a. 1813)] and several leading merchants of Providence [Rhode Island].” [source, ”Samuel Wadsworth Russell House”, US National Park Service (pg 11)]

Major Providence China trade merchants of that period included: John Brown (1736-1803) [involved in slave trade prior to China trade; one of the founders and the first president of Providence Bank; US Congressman during 1799-1801], Nicholas Brown II (1769-1841) [nephew of John Brown; for whom Brown University is named; co-founder of Brown & Ives with Thomas P. Ives], Thomas P. Ives (1769-1835), Welcome Arnold (1745-1798) [elected Chairman of Providence Bank in 1791], Joseph Russell (1742-1788 ?), William Russell (1739-1825), Samuel Snow, Sullivan Dorr (1778-1858), and Edward Carrington (1775-1843). The last three of these merchants actually spent time in China. [source, “Rhode Island History”, Rhode Island Historical Society (pgs 38-39)]

The companies Perkins & Co. and Russell & Co. were merged in about 1829 under the title of Russell & Co. Following the First Opium War (1839-1843), Russell & Co became the third largest trader of opium in the world (following British companies Jardine Matheson & Co. and Dent & Co.). Russell & Co. kept its dominance in the China opium trade until its closing in 1891.

“Some of the China traders developed close ties with the hong merchants, who themselves were tremendously wealthy. For example, when one hong merchant, Howqua, wanted to invest some of his $50 million fortune in the United States, he turned to the Forbes brothers. They managed his investments through their positions with a leading US firm, Russell & Co., and paid dividends of $40,000 a year to Howqua and his descendants for decades.” (source, “History of the US and China”, US Department of State)

[The hong were a small group of Chinese firms which were responsible for the housing and behavior of the foreigners with whom they traded. Howqua, one of the hong merchants, became the richest man in China and one of the richest in the world (primarily through his dividends in the illegal opium trade with British and US merchants).]

Some of the Major Families Which Profited Off the US Opium Trade

Prominent families of New England — primarily from Massachusetts (families which were part of the so-called “Boston Brahmin“, a.k.a. the “first families of Boston”) — were involved in the US side of the British-US opium trade syndicate. These families included the following families, as well as several others:

● Perkings Family [lineage of James Perkins I (c. 1733-1773)]
Forbes Family [lineage of Scottish immigrant to Massachusetts, John Forbes (1740-1783), through his son Ralph Bennet Forbes (1773-1824)]
Cabbot Family [lineage of English immigrant to Massachusetts, John Cabbot (c. 1670-1742), through his great-grandson Samuel Cabot II (1784-1863]
Sturgis Family [lineage of Russell Sturgis I (1750-1826)]
● Cushing Family [lineage of Robert Cushing (1755-1790s)]
Russell Family [lineage of English immigrant to Connecticut, William Russell I (1612-1665) through his son Noadiah Russell I (1659-1713) [one of the 10 founders of Yale College in 1701) and Noadiah’s son William H. Russell (William Russell II) (1690-1761), and lineage of English immigrant to Massachusetts, Samuel Russell I (1612-1676), through great-grandson Thomas Russell I (1705-1760), and primarily through Thomas’ grandson Jonathan Russell II (1771-1832)]

The aforementioned family lineages all became interrelated through intermarriages as one great extended family network, which collectively amassed a tremendous amount of  capital in the United States  during the 19th century. The capital was amassed  primarily by means of great profit generated through the extended family’s ownership of the US opium trade syndicate operating primarily in China, compiled by further great  profit generated by reinvestments of opium trade profit.

More information:
Five Elite Families Who Made Their Fortunes in the Opium Trade“,
AlterNet, article (historic), by Philip Smith, 4 June 2015

The “Combination” Between Jardine-Matheson & Co and Russell & Co

The US opium syndicate which owned and headed Russell & Co. was closely associated with the British opium syndicate which owned and headed Jardine Matheson & Co. They were both in support of the Opium Wars (1839-1860), through which their continued and expanding opium business was forced on the Chinese Nation through war of aggression.

Following the First Opium War, the two top opium syndicates which owned and headed Jardine-Matheson & Co. and Russell & Co. together developed a new trade up and down the China coast and helped to spread the use of opium further into the territory of China. They called their combined operation, ”The Combination”. (source, RA Kris Millegan)

Over 13 Million Addicts Consuming Nearly 40,000 Tons of Opium
(China, 1906)

“By 1906, China had 13.5 million addicts consuming some 39,000 tons of opium. With bountiful supplies and legal retail sales, China had 27 percent of its adult males addicted to opium — a level of mass addiction never equalled by any nation before or since.” (source, ”Opium History“, Alfred W. McCoy)


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