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U.S. Involvement in Opium Trade With China

Concept Paper: U.S. Involvement in Opium Trade With China

Generally, the opium trade which so negatively affected China is recalled as a British outrage. Historians Geoffrey Ward and Fredric D. Grant (1986) pointed out however, that American mercantile interests also benefited significantly from the opium trade, including a young man named Warren Delano, whose grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would ultimately become president of the United States. It is the purpose of this concept paper to identify, somewhat broadly, American involvement in the Indo-China opium trade and to consider the relative extent of American activity vis-a-vis that of the more dominant British. It will be argued that whereas individual American businessmen and traders profited significantly from this trade and while the United States government participated in protecting those interests to some degree, American involvement in the opium trade was far less significant than that of the British.

Historian Jonathan D. Spence (1990) offered an excellent overview of the Indo-China opium trade and stated that in the nineteenth century, the British were the dominant beneficiaries of this trade which moved opium grown in India (controlled by the British (to consumers in China via the East India Company. This British mercantile group established a monopoly for the purchase of Indian opium and then sold licenses to trade in opium to selected Western merchants known as "country traders" who sold opium in China and used the silver received in payment to buy tea, porcelain, and other Chinese goods for sale in Britain. As Spence (1990) points out, this established a triangular trade from which high profits could be made.

As described by M.E. Haq (2003), two types of arguments tend to be presented about the Indo-Chinese opium trade. On the one hand, colonialist writers that an opium culture had long been established in traditional China and on the other h...

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