PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island merchants played a major role in the American slave trade, financing some 1,000 trips to Africa.
But Providence businessmen and slavers, including John Brown, also made money from another unsavory practice after the Revolution: the opium trade.
Although opium was used as both medicine and a drug elsewhere, it was illegal in China, where merchants from Philadelphia, New York and New England made money selling the banned drug.
Relying on their skills as coastal privateers, slave traders and even patriots, Americans “became masters of opium smuggling along the China coast,” said history professor Sucheta Mazumdar at Brown University on Monday.
The Duke University professor spoke as part of a yearlong symposium called “Asia-Pacific in the Making of the Americas: Toward a Global History.”
According to Mazumdar and other scholars, American merchants played a significant role in developing new sources of opium and expanding the market from the late 1700s to 1850.
Although Americans traded in other Chinese goods, including tea, silk and porcelain, “what made opium profitable was the fact that it was a smuggled item,” said Mazumdar in a speech titled “Slaves, Textiles and Opium: The Other Half of the Triangular Trade.”
Back in America, the profits from the trade generated money for mansions, banks, railroads and textile mills, she said.
The inclusion of the Far East in the history of early America is overdue, said lecturer Caroline Frank, who teaches a course at Brown called “Pirates to Poppies: America and the China Trades.”
Too often, the story of early America is told in a vacuum, she said. It revolves around an isolated group of Colonists who founded a “city upon a hill,” fought Indian wars and later won independence.
But the Colonists were worldly citizens, involved in cultures and trade outside New England, through the transatlantic slave trade first, and the China trade later, Frank said. “They didn’t think of themselves as being in a wilderness at all.”
In her talk, Mazumdar argued that Chinese silks were used to purchase African slaves as early as 1630, establishing a complex trade system that involved much of the world for the next two centuries.
China became an important port when New Englanders lost key British markets after the Revolutionary War. Restrictions by other countries ended their profitable West Indies trade.
The first American ship to reach China sailed from New York in 1784. It took six months.
Three years later, Providence merchant John Brown — the only local trader with enough capital and nerve to risk an oriental venture, said Frank — sent his ship General Washington to China. The two-year venture and other profitable trips enabled Brown to build new ships.
For the next six decades, Narragansett Bay became the departure point for more than 75 voyages to China.
Other Providence merchants joined Brown in the China trade, including Samuel Snow, Sullivan Dorr and Edward Carrington, who lived in Canton, China, from 1802 to 1810. He served as American consul, worked for other American merchants and amassed a fortune through the China trade.
Opium was used widely in Great Britain and other countries as a pain killer and a treatment for headaches and other ailments, Mazumdar said. “Ships had medicine chests with opium.”
But the Chinese government declared it illegal because of its addictive qualities. Foreign smugglers could be executed, she said.
The connections are important, say scholars pushing for a more global look at American history.
Often, said Frank, Americans look down at other nations as emerging or undeveloped, but the Chinese had an advanced culture in the 1800s. They exported tea, silk and china and had little interest in British trade goods like wool, she said.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
By Paul Davis
Journal Staff Writer