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

The Rees Brothers: Big and Little Li

“We transshipped to the Col Young some opium and then proceeded to Chinchew bay to sell. Had been there about a week when Rees came up and requested me to go to Chimmo bay as he found it unpleasant to be near to his brother who he was very sorry to inform me was not a man of his word, that he had arranged prices with him and then undersold him.”

Captain Mackay to William Jardine, January 21st, 1836.*

The two men referred to in the Case against Shi Hou as “Macao-born foreigners Big and Little Li” were John and Thomas Rees, estranged brothers who were captains in the opium fleets of the rival firms Jardine-Matheson (John) and Dent & Co. (Thomas). Thomas, the elder brother, had been the captain of the “Lord Amherst” voyage of 1832, a trip organized by a coalition of British opium merchants to scout and map the Chinese coast for the purposes of commercial expansion.

During the mid-1830s, the two brothers were frequently stationed at the Shenhu Bay anchorage at the same time, competing with each other for the business of the brokers on shore. In the above quote, Jardine-Matheson's Captain Mackay discusses the tense relationship between the two Rees brothers, who were constantly feuding with one another over opium pricing in Shenhu Bay.

In the summer of 1836, the Rees brothers had become fed up with each other. There had been a constant string of lies and broken promises between the two men, and they decided to draw up a written contract to equalize sales and prices in Shenhu Bay. As noted in the text of the contract, the agreement accounts for “Manderrine fees of $10 per chest. (sic)”

John Rees erected Lexden Terrace in Tenby, Wales, upon his return from China. It remains today as a visible legacy of the Rees brothers' opium fortunes.

*Source: JM:B2 7 [R. 495, No. 76] MacKay to Jardine, 1.21.1836

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