Opium Smugglers: Boston's Merchants and the China Trade, 1790-1850

 In collaboration with the Forbes House Museum


Inquiry Question: How did New England merchants engage in trade with China in the decades immediately following the founding of the United States?

Inquiry Question: What was traded and how?

In this set, you will analyze a variety of primary sources to explore the trading activities of two prominent Massachusetts families -- the Forbes and Perkins -- with China in the early 19th century including the ethics of American and British merchants smuggling opium into China.

    Source Set

    Download source set

    Read bios of the people who appear in this set


    Opium: An addictive drug derived from the opium poppy which contains medicinal chemicals effective for relieving pain but also used for recreational purposes. China banned the importation of opium in 1729, but large quantities were smuggled into the country throughout the 18th and 19th centuries by British and American traders in collaboration with corrupt Chinese officials. The British sourced opium from their colonies in India; Americans sourced opium from Smyrna, Turkey

    Tea: Grown in China for thousands of years, tea was first imported to Europe in the early 1600s. Demand for the tasty, caffeinated beverage exploded, giving China a significant trade advantage and allowing them to require silver as the primary means of exchange

    Nankeen: A durable, yellow cloth made in Nanking, China from a yellow variety of cotton. Used by Americans and Europeans in the 19th century for men’s trousers and other fashionable items of clothing

    Trade: The exchange of goods and services

    Smuggle: To import a good into a country illegally and without paying taxes on it

    Mercantilism: A form of economic nationalism that sought to increase the prosperity and power of a nation through restrictive trade practices. Its goal was to increase the supply of a state's gold and silver with exports rather than to deplete it through imports. It also sought to support domestic employment

    Free trade: Policies that permit inexpensive imports and exports, without tariffs or other trade barriers. In a free trade agreement, a group of countries agrees to lower their tariffs or other barriers to facilitate more exchanges with their trading partners

    Analyzing point of view

    As you look at these sources, consider:

    Who created this source?

    • What do you know about the creator?

    Who is the audience for this source? 

    • Was it meant to be public or private?

    Whose perspective is missing or not shown?

    What is the purpose of this source?

    What questions do you have about this source?


    This source set was created by Elisabeth Nevins, Karl Neumann and MHS staff in collaboration with the Forbes House Museum.

    Before 1840, all international trade with China was conducted through a single port at Canton (now called Guangzhou) on the Pearl River. Foreign traders were required to observe a complex series of customs and formalities as their ships entered and left the port. The Grand Chop, or permit, shown here, was issued to the ship Astrea of Salem, Massachusetts in 1790 and was required in order for the ship and its cargo to leave Canton. The document was retained by the ship’s supercargo, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, who, upon his return to Boston, grew his business into one of the most successful merchant companies of the early 19th century, trading extensively with China and around the globe.


    Citation: Grand Chop of the Ship Astrea, January 1790, Removed from the T.H. Perkins Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/database/2519.

    This watercolor by Chinese artist Sunqua shows the Steamer Queen on the Pearl River, in the Thirteen Factories quarter of Canton (now Guangzhou) circa 1855. The "factory" district referred to the small area on the waterfront in southwestern Canton where the Chinese permitted foreign merchants to establish their warehouses, offices, and living quarters. In the painting, one can see the flags marking the factories of the United States, France, and other nations. As agents for Perkins & Co., John Cushing and the Forbes brothers lived and worked in the American “factory” and were forbidden to leave the district, relying on Houqua, one of a handful of hong merchants, and other Chinese intermediaries to facilitate their business dealings.


    Citation: U. S. Chartered Steamer Queen in Canton, China, watercolor on paper by Sunqua, [1855], Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/database/4124.

    In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Chinese government sought to limit interaction between foreign merchants and Chinese citizens, resulting in a carefully regulated trading process managed by a series of Chinese intermediaries. Every Western merchant was assigned a linguist whose job was to handle dealings with local officials and ensure that all formalities were followed, payments made, and paperwork completed. Interaction between the Chinese and foreigners was so minimal that rather than learn the other’s language, a hybrid dialect developed—Cantonese Pidgin English—for business communication. This document is a Linguist's Report for one of the Russell and Co. ships leaving Canton (now called Guangzhou) with a cargo of goods bound for New York. It is a printed form listing goods commonly exported and filled in with the specific amounts of each included aboard the U.S. bound ship.


    Citation: Linguist’s Report of the Export Cargo of the Ship Liberty, McDowell Commander, bound for New York to sail March 26, 1838, From the Forbes family papers, Robert Bennet Forbes papers, Accounts of Robert Bennet Forbes with Russell and Company, 1824-1839, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/database/6617.

    John Perkins Cushing was the first of the Forbes extended family to work in China. Raised by his uncle, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Cushing was sent to China at age 16 to open a branch of the Perkins & Co. firm in Canton (now Guangzhou). He remained in China for almost 30 years, and initiated the firm’s and family’s relationship with the powerful hong merchant, Houqua. Cushing wrote this memo to Thomas Tunno Forbes, the eldest of the Forbes brothers, in 1828. Thomas was scheduled to replace him as head of the firm in Canton and the memo outlines the firm’s business plan for the China Trade. The plan explicitly describes the smuggling of opium into China as a fundamental part of their trading strategy.


    Citation: Memorandum on Guangzhou Affairs, 21 March 1828, by John P Cushing, From the Forbes family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/database/6618.

    Forced to leave school due to his father’s financial struggles, Robert Bennet Forbes was taken into the Perkins firm at a young age by his uncle, Thomas Handasyd Perkins. Drawn to the sea, he was sent on his first voyage at age 13, sailing to China as the cabin boy on his uncle’s ship Canton Packet. In 1825, at age 21, he was made a full captain and spent the next five years sailing the globe and conducting trade on behalf of Perkins & Co. This 1828 letter from the Perkins firm to Captain Forbes contains detailed instructions for a voyage he commanded of their ship the Danube. The purpose of this trade mission from New York to Smyrna, a Mediterranean port city in present day Turkey, was to buy opium to be smuggled into China.


    Citation: Orders from Perkins & Co. to Captain Robert B. Forbes of the Brig. Danube, 28 February 1828, From the Forbes family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/database/6621.

    Having managed Russell & Co.’s opium smuggling operation in China from 1830-32, Robert Bennet Forbes returned to Boston. During those two years overseas he had made his laq, the amount of money Boston traders believed was needed to lead a comfortable life, at the time around $100,000. He established himself as a merchant then married Rose Greene Smith in 1834. They settled in nearby Milton, MA. Never a savvy money manager, Forbes lost most of his fortune in the Panic of 1837. He headed back to Canton in late 1838 to run Russell & Co.’s operation and earn back his laq. In these letters to Rose written in 1839, Robert reports that opium smuggling is no longer tolerated by the Chinese government, with the ban being enforced through harsh punishment and the collection and destruction of opium. He also reflects on his own role in the illicit trade and its impact on the people of China.


    Citation: Letter from Robert Bennet Forbes to Rose Smith Forbes (letterbook copy), 27 February 1839, From the Forbes family papers, Robert Bennet Forbes letterbooks, Letters from Robert Bennet Forbes to Rose Smith Forbes about life in Canton, Macao, Hong Kong, and aboard the bark Trenton, written in the form of a journal, 1839, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/database/6622.




    T.H. Perkins, John Cushing, Robert Bennet Forbes, and John Murray Forbes (Robert’s younger brother) all amassed huge fortunes through trade—both legitimate and illegal—with China. With this wealth they built gracious and luxuriously decorated homes in Boston and surrounding towns. They invested their earnings, as well as those of Houqua, their agent and partner in China, into railroads and other 19th century infrastructure projects essential to America’s “westward expansion.” Closer to home, they supported numerous philanthropic endeavors including the Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Bunker Hill Monument, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and Sailors’ Snug Harbor. This magazine article from the 1830s reports on T.H. Perkins’ support of the New England Institute for the Education of the Blind, which was later renamed the Perkins School for the Blind in his honor.


    Citation: "View of the Late Mansion of Hon. T.H. Perkins, Presented to the Institution," Engraving, Removed from an unknown issue of the Penny Magazine of Useful Knowledge, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/database/6503
    For Teachers

    Background Reading

    Overview: Opium and U.S. Trade with China, 1790-1850s

    The United States Enters the China Trade

    With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States officially established itself as an independent nation, joining the global economy and diplomatic arena. Less than six months later, the ship Empress of China left New York harbor on the United States’ first trading voyage to China carrying a cargo of ginseng, fine cloth, animal skins, and pepper. The ship returned 14 months later filled with tea, nankeen (a cotton fabric), tableware, silk, and spices which were sold on the American market for a significant profit. By the end of the 18th century, American merchants had established a robust trade with China, however the market for Western goods was often unpredictable.   

    An initial challenge for American traders involved navigating not the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, but complex Chinese trade regulations and bureaucracy under the Canton System (1757–1842). Westerners, whom the Chinese called fan qui (foreign devils), were governed by restrictive imperial regulations forbidding year-round residence in Canton (now called Guangzhou), riding in sedan chairs, owning firearms, employing Chinese servants, loaning money to Chinese merchants, or having their families join them in Canton. They were not allowed to learn any of the Chinese dialects or to teach Western languages to native inhabitants. They were to be closely supervised by the co-hong, a small group of Chinese merchants who purchased exclusive licenses from the government to trade with foreigners. The hong merchants served as intermediaries for all communication between the fan qui and the imperial government and enjoyed considerable power and financial benefit.    

    Until 1842, Canton was the only place in China where Westerners could trade. Wholesale trading took place across several islands in the harbor, and the small foreign district at the western end of Canton itself. This quarter, known as the “thirteen factories,” served as both home, office, and warehouse for Western merchants. Samuel Snow, a merchant from Rhode Island and the second U.S. Consul to Canton, built the American factory in 1798. Foreign trading ships and their crews remained 13 miles south of Canton at the anchorage known as Whampoa Island. Operations in the harbor were strictly regulated by bureaucrats (Qing imperial officials) and the Hoppo (custom officers) and required the coordination of different ships, people, payments, and products. A detailed description of the required customs and formalities can be found in this description of the Grand Chop for the ship Astrea, 1790 (Source 1).

    A Trade Imbalance

    In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Chinese goods, particularly tea, were in high demand in America and Europe but Western traders struggled to identify commodities similarly appealing to Chinese consumers. The Chinese Empire was a vast territory with a large population and diverse natural resources and largely could provide for its people’s basic needs without foreign trade. The government preferred payment for their goods in specie, or silver coins, which had more stable value than commodities sold on the market. However, purchasing Chinese tea and other goods with silver, which was hard to come by, limited the potential for American traders to make sizable profits.

    In many ways Chinese tea was an ideal trade commodity; it was highly valued but affordable, a renewable resource, and, due to its caffeine content, habit-forming. Foreign merchants searched for a similarly ideal commodity that would attract Chinese consumers and make trade between the two countries more balanced. Initially, ginseng, which grew in the wild in the United States, proved popular due to recent ginseng crop failures in China. But the market was quickly glutted, significantly lowering its trade value. Other goods American trading ships sourced for the Chinese market during the long journey to Canton included animal furs from the Pacific Northwest, seal skins harvested from the coast of South America, and sandalwood and edible delicacies like sea cucumbers and bird’s nests from the Pacific islands. Gathering these goods, whose market value fluctuated widely, was difficult, often dangerous work and resulted in devastating environmental destruction. (5)

    Ultimately, the British and Americans found their ideal trade commodity in opium. Like tea in the West, there was great demand for the substance amongst the Chinese and it was a renewable crop. And it was more than merely habit-forming; opium is a highly addictive narcotic. As such, its importation had been banned by the Chinese Emperor in 1729. The opium “trade” Westerners undertook, therefore, was actually illegal smuggling. The illicit 19th century opium trade proved incredibly profitable to American merchants and incredibly devastating to the Chinese people and economy. 

    Opium Smuggling

    Opium, a narcotic extracted from the poppy plant, has been used by humans for millennia for both pain management and pleasure and was used by the Chinese long before Western traders began smuggling the substance into the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its popularity grew in China in the 16th century with the introduction of New World tobacco, which was mixed with opium and smoked. Opium is addictive, but particularly so when smoked. Concerned by rising addiction rates, the Chinese Emperor banned the importation of opium in 1729 but enforcement fell off later in the 18th century just as the British began building their opium-growing infrastructure in their Indian colonies and smuggling the drug into China in larger quantities. American traders quickly followed suit, though on a smaller scale, primarily sourcing their opium from Turkey.

    With large quantities of opium flooding into the country, the Imperial government again outlawed the importation of opium in 1800, even though its initial ban was still in effect. With huge profits to be made–by both Western traders and corrupt Chinese officials working within the complex and bureaucratic Hong Merchant System—the ban was essentially ignored and a regulated, efficient smuggling operation evolved. Ships carrying opium would arrive at Lintin Island, located downriver from Canton and just outside the jurisdiction of local officials, where chests of the drug weighing about 140 pounds each were transferred to anchored storage ships operated by Western trading houses. The chests were then handed over to smaller, quicker Chinese ships—junks, “fast crabs”, and “scrambling dragons”—to be transported discreetly through narrow estuaries to interior ports.

    Rising Tensions Lead to War Between China and Britain

    Between 1810 and 1839, illegal imports of opium had grown from 450 chests per year to 40,000. The balance of trade had shifted soundly to the advantage of Western traders and the Chinese increasingly used silver to pay for trade goods. Perhaps more devastating, huge numbers of Chinese citizens found themselves addicted to the drug—including members of the military, government, and imperial family. In the mid-1830s, the Emperor and government leaders finally recognized the need to take action, debating whether to crack down on use of the drug or on international smuggling activity.

    The latter course was decided upon and Lin Zexu, a brilliant and moral government official, was tasked with stopping the flow of opium into the country. Arriving in Canton in 1839, Commissioner Lin acted quickly and decisively, arresting hundreds of opium dealers, confiscating tens of thousands of opium pipes, and demanding that foreign traders turn over their opium supplies to the Chinese government. After weeks of tense negotiations, the British forfeited 2.2 million pounds of the drug which the Chinese government quickly destroyed. In the fall of 1839, following years of building tensions over trade access, the First Opium War (1839-1842) broke out between China and Great Britain. The Second Opium War (1856-1860) followed a few years later. The United States was not involved in either war, but American traders benefitted from the treaties the victorious British imposed on the Chinese, which gave all Westerners access to ports along the eastern coast of China. The Chinese viewed the treaties as unfairly aggressive and invasive.

    The Impact and Legacy of the Opium Trade in Massachusetts

    Many New England merchants made their fortunes trading with China, including some of Massachusetts’ most prominent families—the Cabots, Lowells, Perkins, Forbes, Cushings, and Delanos. This trade often involved both the legitimate exchange of goods as well as the smuggling of opium. The resources in this set highlight the legal and illegal business dealings of Thomas Handasyd (T.H.) Perkins and his nephews—John Perkins Cushing and Robert Bennet Forbes.

    T.H. Perkins began his international business endeavors in the Atlantic slave trade and fur trading in the Pacific Northwest. He shifted his attention to China in the late 1780s and established a lucrative global trade network operated by members of his extended family. Perkins & Company was absorbed in 1827 by Russell & Company, which together became the largest American trading house in China until the firm dissolved in 1891.

    John Cushing was raised by T.H. Perkins, who sent him to China at age 16 to open a branch of Perkins & Company in Canton. Cushing initiated the firm’s relationship with the hong merchant Houqua (also known as Wu Bingjian) and developed their business plan which included opium as a commodity.

    Robert Forbes first went to work for his uncle at age 13 as a cabin boy aboard a China-bound trading ship. By age 21 he was made full captain, sailing around the globe to procure and trade goods—including Turkish opium—for Perkins & Company. In 1830, he was given command of the Levant, the company’s opium storage ship anchored off Lintin Island, managing their smuggling operations for 18 months and making his fortune. He returned to Canton from 1838-40 as head of Russell & Company, participating in the events leading up to the First Opium War, and again from 1849-51. (15)

    All three men made (and, in the case of Robert, lost and then made again) huge fortunes through their legitimate and illicit trade in China. This wealth, and that of their peers, helped build the American economy by providing the capital for the expansion of American industry, territory, and infrastructure. John Murray Forbes, Robert’s younger brother, formed a very close relationship with Houqua during his time in Canton and was entrusted with investing the hong merchant’s money in American railroads and mines. Profits from the China Trade not only were re-invested into factories and railroads but also in schools, hospitals, and cultural organizations that continue to educate and serve the Boston community today. For example, in 1833, T.H. Perkins donated his Boston mansion to the New England Institute for the Blind, which is known today as the Perkins School of the Blind (Source 8).

    The Impact and Legacy of the Opium Trade in China

    Modern China grew out of 19th-century trade with Western merchants like the Perkins and Forbes families. The rapid and extensive damage done to the Chinese economy during the Opium Wars (1839-1860) weakened imperial powers and laid the foundation for its continued resentment of the West. This “Century of Humiliation” —as it is taught in Chinese schools—underlies many of China’s diplomatic and trade policies today, revealing deep distrust of capitalism and colonialism throughout the world.

    The ethnocentrism practiced by Chinese officials and American travelers fostered racist stereotypes and “othering'' that prevented true cultural exchange and understanding. This separation can be seen in the limited contact that of Western merchants were allowed to have with Chinese citizens—like the hong merchants and linguists (source 3)—under the Canton System. Meanwhile, Americans coveted Chinese goods like tea and dinnerware yet simultaneously perpetuated distrustful and disparaging stereotypes of the Chinese people, ultimately leading to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

    Consequently the growth of the China Trade was accompanied by exploitation that depended on keeping foreigners and Chinese separated. Chinese and American merchants like Houqua, T.H. Perkins, John Cushing, and Robert Forbes gained wealth even as they ignored the harm that the opium trade caused. The scale of the trade and the reach of opium into Chinese society meant nearly all Chinese were affected directly or indirectly—and the effects are still felt.. The illicit opium trade of the 19th century continues to shape trade relationships and cultural understanding between the Chinese and Americans today.

    Bios and Timeline

    Read short biographies of the main people involved in this document set.

    See a timeline related to the Perkins and Forbes families, who made their wealth in the China trade and became philanthropists in the U.S.


    Close Reading Questions

    Source 1: Grand Chop permits U.S. ship Astrea to leave Canton, China, and return to Salem, MA, 1790

    View chop with English annotations.

    1. Look at this document closely. What do you notice? What questions do you have? The title of the document is Grand chop of the ship Astrea, January 1790. Does this give you any ideas about what this document might be used for?
    2. How big is this document? See if you can find information about its size. Was it what you expected?
    3. After reading the background information about the document and the annotation, what have you learned? What was the purpose of this document? What kind of information does it record? Why do you think the Chinese officials included a list of the weapons and munitions on board the ship? T.H. Perkins and the other men aboard the Astrea did not speak Cantonese or understand Chinese characters. What do you think they would make of the Grand Chop and the steps necessary to enter and leave Canton?
    4. Why do you think Perkins saved a document he couldn’t read in his business papers?
    Source 2: Sunqua depicts U.S. steamship in front of 13 Factories district of Canton, China, 1855 

    Learn more about this painting, and the artist Sunqua, at this MHS 'object of the month' post.

    1. Examine the image closely. What do you notice that is familiar to you? What is unfamiliar? What questions do you have?
    2. What part of the world do you think this image depicts? What time period? What do you see that makes you say that?
    3. What do you know about the artist of the painting? Who do you think his audience was? 
    Source 3: Linguist's Report shows goods American trading ship imported to U.S. from China, 1838
    1. What is the date of this report and about how long have American merchants been trading goods with China at this time?
    2. In the early years of the trade, export lists were made by hand. What does the fact that this Linguists Report is a printed form written in English suggest about the economic relationship between the two countries in the late 1820s?
    3. In examining the document, what is the Liberty ship bringing back from China to New York? What two categories of goods are most commonly exported to the United States? Can you guess what the third category heading, CHOW-CHOW, might mean?


    Chow-Chow: a slang term from Cantonese Pidgin English describing a mixture or random assortment of items. The origin of the term may be from a Chinese pickled or preserved condiment made of a mixture of ingredients, likely whatever was on hand or readily available, that was eaten with rice.

    Source 4: John Perkins Cushing outlines Perkins and Co's business plan for China trade, 1828
    1. What does John Cushing tell Thomas Forbes to buy when he has money that he can’t invest profitably in goods?
    2. Why do you think he differentiates opium from other goods? What is different about opium as a commodity?
    3. Does Cushing indicate in any way that opium is illegal and that Perkins & Co. are smuggling the drug into the country? (Have evidence to support your answer.) Does this surprise you?
    4. What is the name of the ship mentioned in the second excerpt of Cushing’s letter? What do you know about Houqua? What is his relationship with Perkins & Co.? Why might they have named one of their ships after him? What kinds of goods are on the ship?
    5. What does Cushing tell Thomas Forbes to do with the opium?
    6. What do you know about what happens at Lintin Island?
    Source 5: R.B. Forbes receives instructions to buy opium to smuggle into China, 1828
    1. How is opium described in this document? What is it, and what function did it serve for the writer and the recipient of this letter? 
    2. Where was the opium purchased? What was going to be traded in order to obtain the opium? Where did those trade goods come from?
    Source 6: R.B. Forbes expresses regret over smuggling opium into China, 1839 and 1882

    Read excerpts of all three of Forbes' reminiscences.

    February 27 letter to his wife

    1. According to Forbes, what was the response of the Chinese government to the trade of opium? What are Forbes’ thoughts about his family’s involvement in trading opium in China?

    October 18 letter to his wife

    1. What does Forbes believe to be the reason for why he has had struggles with his business endeavors?


    Forbes' 1882 memoir

    1. According to the author, how did the Chinese government respond, in 1839, to the opium trade? What was Forbes’ assessment of the social impact of opium on people in China?
    2. What moral/ethical assessment does Forbes have of Americans and other foreigners trading opium in China? How does Forbes support his assessment? 


    Source 7: T.H. Perkins gives a mansion to the Institute for the Education of the Blind 
    1. What does T.H. Perkins donate to the New England Institute for the Education of the Blind in 1833? What is the stipulation he makes? Why do you think he does this?
    2. How does the article justify this condition of the donation? According to the article, how much was Perkins’ mansion worth in 1833? Do a quick Google search to find out about how much the house would be worth in today’s dollars. What does a donation of such value tell you about Perkins?
    3. What do you know about Perkins’ business dealings and how he made his fortune? How did Perkins & Co. involvement in opium smuggling impact the Chinese people? How can we reconcile his generosity at home in Boston with the suffering that opium addiction caused in China?


    Suggested Activities, Grades 6-12

    Hook Activity: Where does our 'stuff' come from?

    Overview: This activity asks students to reflect on the origin of the material goods in the classroom and in their possession as well as how those goods were manufactured and shipped. By focusing on current geography and material culture, students will be encouraged to see the possible connections between their lives and the historical people and trade goods presented in the documents.  


    • Project a blank world political map (link) along with the following questions to be asked in sequence, with responding actions in parentheses. Students will be supplied with personal copies of the map (digital or print) to record information from the discussion.
    • Where are we in the world? (Label on the map) Where does our “stuff” come from? Who made it? (Students select one personal item of their choice and search for a product label that identifies its origin.  Students can also use the internet to search for clues for the company / factory where their personal item was manufactured.
    • Write the students’ findings on the class map, students on their personal maps.)
    • How did our stuff get here? (Using the class map, students will be encouraged to hypothesize about the different modes of transportation, the spatial dimension of their personal items’ origins, as well the temporal dimensions of shipping their items across the world.)
    Analyzing what made successful trade voyages to China in the early United States


    Historical Context: After the Revolution, establishing new trade routes independent of connections to the British Empire was a priority for American merchants. As early as 1784, vessels from various East Coast ports sailed to the East Indies and China in search of profits from tea, silk, porcelain, and spices. One of the earliest vessels to sail from Salem, Massachusetts was a ship called Astrea, captained by James Magee.  The ship’s supercargo was Thomas Handasyd Perkins, who went on to develop a successful Boston-based business focusing on trade with China.  As supercargo, Perkins would have been second in rank to the captain, and in charge of managing the ship’s cargo both in Canton, China and upon return to Salem.  Perkins might have come into contact with both of the customs documents used in this activity.  The “Great Chop” represents the Qing government’s efforts to monitor foreign merchants’ presence and limit the trade of illegal goods like opium. The Manifest is evidence of the U.S. Government’s efforts to assess the value of Astrea’s imports for taxation purposes; custom duties were a primary source of revenue for the government in the early Republic.

    Activity Overview: In this role-playing exercise, students assume the persona of the supercargo of the ship Astrea. A supercargo is an officer on board a merchant ship who is in charge of the voyage's commercial interests. From this point of view students will have to evaluate the priorities of both the Qing Dynasty and U.S. governments as represented by customs documents from both countries. (Conclude with students writing a letter to the home office in Boston about negotiating customs in both countries?)

    Supplemental Resource:  This webpage from the Boston branch of the US National Archives does a wonderful job explaining the customs process (and related documents) from the U.S. side of the trade.

    Visual Analysis: Using a Painting to Unpack Historical Context


    Context: This painting can serve as an introduction to the history of early American trade and political relations with China.

    Activity Overview: Students will be introduced to the early China trade through an 1855 painting of the waterfront of the city of Canton (today Guangzhou).  In small groups, students analyze portions of the painting, report on their findings, and in the process develop a foundational knowledge of early American economic and diplomatic ties with China.

    Exploring Point of View: U.S. Merchants' Motivations for and Perspectives on Smuggling Opium


    Note: This activity uses the document descriptions for each source in order to help students better analyze the texts and complete the associated activities. 

    Activity Overview: Students read and analyze a chronologically ordered set of documents to develop an understanding of how and why American merchants engaged in the trade of opium. The activity culminates with students developing a museum exhibit placard based on their findings.

    Modification: This lesson could be turned into a jigsaw so that students work in small groups in which each student is assigned one document to read, all group members then share their findings with each other, and then students craft individual exhibit placards as a summative exercise.

    Analyzing Multiple Perspectives: Qing China, western merchants, and the consequences of the First Opium War


    Note: The primary sources used in this activity are excerpted from:

    Context: Part 1 of the activity handout is designed to introduce students to the historical context of the three primary sources. The first four sections of the historical context essay (“The United States Enters the Opium Trade” up to and including “Rising Tensions…”) will help students acquire the background necessary for completing Parts 2 and 3.  The teacher should supplement the reading for Part 1 with additional background information on Robert Bennet Forbes and Houqua from the section “The Impact and Legacy of the Opium Trade in Massachusetts” when introducing the Part 2 document excerpts in order to identify their connections to the trade of opium in Qing Dynasty China. 

    Activity Overview:  After reading the historical context essay, students will examine the impacts of the foreign trade of opium in Qing China and the consequences of the First Opium War from a variety of perspectives. After analyzing three primary sources, students will write a short newspaper article that reflects on the various points of view represented in those documents.



    Applicable Standards

    MA History/Social Science and ELA Frameworks

    H/SS Skill Standards

    • Demonstrate civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

    • Organize information and data from multiple primary and secondary sources.

    • Analyze the purpose and point of view of each source; distinguish opinion from fact.

    • Argue or explain conclusions, using valid reasoning and evidence. 

    • Develop focused questions or problem statements and conduct inquiries

    ELA Anchor Standards


    • Read closely to determine what a text states explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from a text.
    • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas 


    • Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
    • Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

    H/SS Content Standards

    US History 1 Topic 3, Economic Growth in North, South, and West

    2. Analyze the effects of industrial growth throughout antebellum America, and in New England, the growth of the textile and machinery industries and maritime commerce.

    • a. the technological improvements and inventions that contributed to industrial growth and maritime commerce
    • d. the rise of a business class of merchants and manufacturers

    World History II Topic 3, The global effects of 19th century imperialism

    3. Analyze the impact of Western imperialism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America

    • China
      • a. the spheres of influence and extraterritorial rights for European nations
      • b. the role of the British East India Company in controlling the opium trade between India and China and the impact of the opium trade on Chinese society and politics


    4. Analyze the cultural impact of colonial encounters and trade on people in Western nations, drawing on examples such as

    • a. Asian furniture, porcelain, and cloth made for export


    C3 Frameworks
    • D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
    • D2.Eco.1.9-12. Analyze how incentives influence choices that may result in policies with a range of costs and benefits for different groups.
    • D2.Geo.2.9-12. Use maps, satellite images, photographs, and other representations to explain relationships between the locations of places and regions and their political, cultural, and economic dynamics.
    • D2.Geo.4.9-12. Analyze relationships and interactions within and between human and physical systems to explain reciprocal influences that occur among them.


    Additional Resources

    Additional Resources

    For further exploration into the 19th century U.S.-China trade


    Additional information about MHS primary sources found in this set

    A very thorough explanation of the “customs and formalities” of trade with China can be found on the MHS Witness to America’s Past project webpage featuring this Grand Chop of the ship Astrea.

    Further exploration of Sunqua's "U.S. Chartered Steamer Queen in Canton, China" (1855) painting.

    Learn more about the role of linguists in the U.S. - China trade in this MHS blog post.

    The header image in this set comes from a 1796 drawing of the snow George by the American captain John Boit.

    The Perkins and Forbes families and other New England merchants

    Opium: The Business of Addiction Virtual Exhibit | Forbes House Museum

    A digital version of the museum’s exhibit which explores the Forbes family’s involvement in the 19th century opium trade, its links to the current opioid epidemic, and its lasting impact on US-Sino relations. The physical exhibit was on view at the museum from April 2022–March 2023. 

    A Chronicle of the China Trade: The Records of Augustine Heard & Co., 1840-1877 | Harvard Business School Baker Library Historical Collections Exhibit

    A digital exhibit about Heard & Co.’s business dealings in China, organized by Harvard Business School’s Baker Library which holds the Heard papers, one of the largest collections of business records relating to the nineteenth-century China trade. Augustine Heard & Co. was a family-run trading firm based in Massachusetts and one of the largest operating in China in the mid-19th century.

    New England’s Opium Overloads | Tablet (Secondary)

    Very concise and pithy overview of the Forbes and Perkins families’ involvement in opium smuggling in China in the early 1800s written by historian John Haddad. The article does not include citations but is a condensed version of a chapter from Haddad’s book America's First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation, which was published by Temple University Press in 2013.

    Chinese and American cultural interaction

    Ties that Bind: U.S. and China | Five College Center for East Asian Studies History Pin Collection

    This History Pin collection was created by the Five College Center for East Asian Studies and brings together historical resources, each pinned to a geographic location, that explore the evolving relationship between the United States and China.


    The English in China, 1715-1842 – Part I: The Canton Linguists | Looking for Interpreter Zero: The Stories of Early Interpreters

    Useful and annotated resource on the role of Chinese linguists in Western trade as well as the development of pidgin English. 

    Images and objects of the 19th century China trade

    Rare Photos Capture China's 19th Century Tea Trade | Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

    A blog post from 2002 featuring a series of rare photographs from the collection of Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. The photos were taken in an unknown location in China in the late 19th century and document the steps in processing raw tea leaves for export.


    Rise and Fall of the Canton Trade System I-IV | MIT Visualizing Cultures

    Launched in 2002, the MIT Visualizing Cultures website seeks to pair images and scholarly commentary to illuminate social and cultural history. This unit explains and illustrates how the Canton Trade System functioned in the years leading up to the Opium Wars and includes essays and a gallery of images.


    Dotchin or "opium scale"—What's in a name? | National Museum of American History

    The Forbes House Museum’s Opium: The Business of Addiction exhibit featured a set of hand scales, or dotchin, that belonged to T.H. Perkins and which are now in the collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society. This blog post from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History discusses the history and use of this type of scale and their connection to the opium trade and anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States in the late 19th century.

    Slim ivory stick with pointed ends two suspension threads with red silk tassels attached near one end, through which black silk cords attach the turned-brass weighing pan. A two-piece bamboo case in the shape of a guitar with a long arm and two Chinese characters inlaid in silver points on the lid lies partially open revealing a s a hand-carved cavity to fit the scale.
    The scale is shown at top, with the bamboo case in which it was stored depicted below.