This page was created by Peter Thilly.  The last update was by Kate McDonald.

Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Archival Discoveries (1)

This page and the next page summarize what I learned about the opium trade in 1830s Fujian when I first read the materials from the Chinese and British archives.

Quantifying the Opium Trade

Part of figuring out the opium business involves quantifying the trade. How much opium did these people sell? One conclusion I quickly reached from reading the British and Chinese sources together is that the scope of the opium trade described by the Fujian Governor in The Case Against Shi Hou is severely underplayed. In contrast to the Qing memorial, which claims that foreign opium traders “Big and Little Li” sold just twenty-seven chests of opium total in their stay in Shenhu Bay, we have evidence from the Jardine-Matheson archive that “Big and Little Li,” also known as Thomas and John Rees, could sell twenty-seven chests of opium in Shenhu Bay on a slow afternoon. One clear example of this is a report from Captain Jauncey of the Jardine-Matheson barque Austen about selling 320 chests of Malwa opium at $610/chest in just one day while stationed in Shenhu Bay during August of 1835, several months before Shi Hou supposedly lured Big and Little Li up from Macao.*

I subsequently compiled the Jardine-Matheson reports about their sales along with reports on the opium sales of their chief competitor Dent & Company, and found that these two firms sold between 1,400–2,000 chests of opium per month in Fujian for $840,000–$1,600,000. All told, the total imports into Fujian by these two firms during the years 1835–1838 ranged between 16,800–24,000 chests per year for an annual sum of $10,080,000–19,200,000. More than half of the opium that was shipped from India to China during the years prior to the Opium War was bought and sold through the Fujian receiving ship network.

Mapping the Coastal Opium Network

Reading the Qing memorial and the British sources together also helped me to understand the network of people that operated the opium trade in coastal Fujian. Qing sources indicate clearly that the Yakou Shi were ultimately just one of many coastal lineages involved in the trade, and Jardine-Matheson materials show that Shenhu Bay was but one of several important anchorages for the British opium traders. Dozens of coastal lineages along the Zhangzhou-Quanzhou coastline in southern Fujian during the 1830s were able to marshal the boats, people, and money necessary to make it big in the opium trade. Indeed, the region became China’s second most important opium market during the 1830s.

The above map is based on a 1840 investigation by two high officials sent down to Fujian from Beijing to investigate opium crimes, and it indicates the location of large lineages (including the Yakou Shi) who were known to collude with foreigners in the smuggling of opium in Jinjiang County. Each X on the map indicates a location that Jardine-Matheson commonly anchored their receiving ships. This small slice is indicative of a much larger reality: the map does not include the anchorages of Jardine's competition, and on shore the other counties (such as Tongan, Huian, etc.) each had their own cadre of lineages, ship-owners, and smugglers.**

*JM B2.7, Reel 496, No. 56, 12 August 1835.

**Peter Thilly, “Opium and the Origins of Treason: The View from Fujian,” Late Imperial China 38, No. 1, 2017, (155-197) 175-176.

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