META-MUSEUM: OPIUM: THE DRUG 鸦片:药物 SILVER: THE SILENT OBEDIENT PRODIGY 中国出口银:沈默服从的奇迹

18th and 19th century trade with, to and in China was convoluted, to say the least. China was a stage where two highly different cultures met. Mostly they clashed, sometimes disastrously, but despite this chaotic melange, some found a common ground – even a fertile ground where equally convoluted trade was carried out; trade that proved to be highly lucrative, trade that was driven by a combination of greed and ingenuity. The two cultures were Chinese and the so-called West. By “West” we should read Great Britain and America, yet there were agents of commerce from other cultures that felt comfortable in that convolution; Jews and Indians – to be more precise, Indian Jews.

 The trades that ruled the waves and proved irresistible were tea, silk and ceramics from China and furs, wool, cotton and ginseng to China. Opium, however, was the cunningly cruel solution to stem the ever increasing trade imbalance Britain and America suffered. The currency was almost always silver; by Imperial decree, trade with China could only be done by payment in silver. For the Chinese, silver was a 1200 year obsession. Also by Imperial decree was the setting up of Cohongs, essentially a guild of Chinese merchants authorized by the central government to trade with Western merchants at Canton prior to the first Opium War [1839–42]. Such firms often were called “foreign-trade firms” [yanghang] and the merchants who directed them “hong merchants” [hangshang]. The Cohongs were supposed to protect the Imperial need to remain introspective and insular.

 In 1672, the English East India Company finally secured a trading post in Taiwan – ten years after the Dutch East India Company had been expelled from the island by the Chinese. The Company was soon engaged in direct and regular trade with the Chinese from that base and was permitted to make regular voyages to Amoy, Chusan and Canton. By the turn of the century, the Company’s base for the China trade was transferred from Taiwan to its “factory” at Canton. With its Royal Charter, the Company was granted the privilege of monopoly of trade in the East Indies until 1833.

East India Company London

East India House in London, 1817

In 1793, the British East India Company, with the support of the British government sent a delegation to China under Lord George Macartney in order to change the nature of trade between the two countries in a direction which they naively believed was more befitting for a country of Britain’s status. All Western powers were forced, up until now, to trade only at one port (at Canton) and traded very much on the Chinese system. This was formed around a fundamental disdain for both Western merchants and their goods. The Chinese Imperial Court and government viewed trade as unimportant. For the British, however, maritime trade and the goods traded were vital keys to sustaining their economy.

While the main initial purpose of the East India Company was to ensure acquisition of sufficient quantities of tea and silk from China to satiate the frenzied hunger for them by the British and its colonies, it could not have been successful in doing so without the intermediary agents that lived and operated firstly in Canton and then later in Hong Kong and the other Treaty Ports that were created as a result of the so-called Opium Wars. These intermediaries were vital; they all, in hindsight, could be called Sinophiles and in being so were able to do that rare thing – to operate in business using the same mindset as the Chinese. Most of the agents were close family members of powerful merchant families; many were Massachusetts Bay merchants, many were Scottish and many were Jewish Indians. They were powerful because they were all traders of opium and be successful and powerful in China, one had to understand and equal the complex mentality  of the Chinese Cohong as well as their often convoluted business mindset.

Jardine Matheson 1832

Jardine, Matheson and Russell & Company led the British and American, while David Sassoon, Sons & Company led the Indian initiatives, for after all opium came from India, was controlled by the British East India Company and then auctioned to the Calcutta traders, almost all of whom were formerly Baghdadi Jews [Bnei Yisrael] and most of whom were intermarried. Russell & Company, the largest American company concerned with the Opium and Tea Trades, had their own family representative in Canton, John Pershing Cushing, embraced the Chinese way and even had a Chinese name bestowed upon him, Ku Shing. Several Calcutta Jewish merchants did the same, Nissim Gubbay, for example, adopting the name Sung Kung Ni and living a total Chinese lifestyle in Victorian Happy Valley. But it was these family representatives who were the real

David Sassoon & Russell 1824

king-pins; their understanding of the Chinese way and their acceptance by the Chinese Cohong that allowed them to act as effective intermediary Cohong. It is how the Western mind successfully met the Eastern mind, and many were to enter into lucrative businesses with the Cohong, further feathering their nests even more handsomely.

Howqua

But what has all this to do with Chinese Export Silver? Plenty, is the answer! The unique dynamic of vast quantities of silver pouring into China and immense quantities of opium too created almost by default a frenetic business fervour that had to find more and more ways of creating more wealth. It is here that Chinese Export Silver was truly born and was allowed to flourish. Many of the Cohong created silver manufactories. Some of the “intermediary Cohong” went into partnership with the Cohong – it was a marriage made in heaven. Silver was relatively cheap within China, much of it was controlled and horded by the Cohong, while the artisanship was of extremely high quality and, again, much cheaper than in the West.

John Pershing Cushing partnered the most powerful of the Cohong, Howqua, to form the silver manufactory Cutshing – a maker that created essentially high quality Georgian copies to be shipped to England and Boston. Since almost all the Chinese Export Silver makers worked under a fictitious maker’s name, given the circumstances on the ground in Canton it is reasonable to assume other partnerships lay behind the fictitious names.

Cutshing Teaset

A circa 1850 Cutshing teaset in the high Georgian style, reminiscent and comparable to Paul Revere and Paul Storr – a result of copies made in Canton of silver brought from Boston or London for the specific purpose of being faithfully copied

Cutshing Tankards

SESSN maker mark

There is one school of thought that a rather obscure early Chinese Export Silver maker’s mark, SESSN, was actually the mark of a partnership between a Sassoon and a Cohong – not such an outlandish theory as it may seem, given the vast quantities of payment in silver that were involved in the opium trade.

 Chinese Export Silver in the latter half of the 19th century was shipped in significantly large quantities that it had to have an already arranged designation. The was no “marketing” per se but high quality silver at the “right price” had obvious advantages and the growing affluence in Great Britain and America presented to demand. So yet again, it was Eastern minds meeting Western minds that realised a massive potential to make yet more money and, more importantly, a way for the Cohong to get some of their accrued wealth out of China and out of sight of the Emperor. Highly sophisticated and devious minds employing street market trading mentality to tap yet another lucrative market!

Jardine, Matheson still exists today and, among other companies, control the Mandarin Hotel Group. The Sassoon family were among the original founders of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Silas Hardoon settled in Shanghai, married a Eurasian Chinese woman Luo Jialing [whose father was a French Jew] and was the most successful dealer of “tu” [opium and land]. He eventually left Sassoon & Co, carried on trading in opium, land and cotton and died leaving an estate of $265 million. The Hardoons were one of the largest landowners in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The Kadoories, also related by marriage to the Sassoons began the company China Light & Power. The Kadoories are still one of the wealthiest property owners in Hong Kong and still control The Peninsula Hotel Group. The banking house the Sassoons eventually established in Hong Kong became the Standard Chartered Bank. Rachel Sassoon Be’er was the first woman editor and proprietor of British newspapers – The Sunday Times and The Observer.

Many of the Massachusetts Bay merchants returned to America and ploughed their new-found wealth into building the railroads.

 So without opium, Chinese Export Silver would probably never have materialised. Evil can produce good, it seems!

Victoria andf the Emperor

© 2013, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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