Trade Wars

Did you know that the Forbes built their wealth through the opium trade in China?

MILTON − The opium that flooded China in the 19th century destroyed lives and destroyed society in the Qing dynasty. At the same time, he built the fortunes and secured the legacies of prominent New England families while providing seed capital for the American Industrial Revolution, the railroad boom, and the expansion toward west.

An exhibit at the Forbes House Museum in Milton brings that story to life through an array of objects, artifacts and personal letters that once belonged to the wealthy and politically connected Forbes family, who dominated the US drug trade to China for half a century.

Heidi Vaughan, the museum’s executive director, said the exhibit was born out of a partnership with the Milton Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, which fights substance abuse and mental illness.

“It was the idea that opiate addiction is a serious problem that had been exacerbated by the pandemic. That was the main driver of exposure,” Vaughan said.

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Vaughan said that with the devastating effects of opiates better understood today than they were in early 19th century America, it was difficult to tell the story in its historical context. Opium was legal in the United States at the time, and laudanum, a solution of opium powder and alcohol, was frequently prescribed for insomnia, “hysteria” (a generic term for various disorders encountered largely by women) and colic in babies.

In the first gallery, a series of portraits presents the major actors. The Forbes brothers, Robert Bennet and John Murray, were introduced to trade with China by their maternal uncle, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, who traded in furs and slaves before setting his sights on China, Vaughan said.

The brothers, recent graduates of Milton Academy, were still in their early teens when they sailed for China. There is a model of the Canton Packet, a clipper that Robert Bennet first sailed in Canton (or Guangzhou in Chinese) when he was 13 years old.

A clipper of the type used by the Forbes family to transport goods, legal and illegal, to China in the 19th century.  Thursday, October 13, 2022.

In exchange for tea, china, and silk, Americans exported ginseng, which grew naturally in the United States, as well as sea otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest and sandalwood from Hawaii. But the merchants soon exhausted these goods and turned instead to opium. Because East India C. held a monopoly on Indian opium, American merchants bought a cheaper, lower-quality strain from Turkey, Vaughan said.

Different pipes are on display, as well as a “porcelain cushion”. In opium dens, smokers recline on these richly colored headrests, which secure their valuables inside during intoxication.

A variety of opium pipes and a

In the 1830s, the Forbes family controlled a dominant stake in Russel & Co., the largest American trading company in China at the time. As you walk through the museum, the wealth from the opium trade appears everywhere. The mansion itself was built with the product.

In the dining room, richly decorated blue and white porcelain is presented on the table and the sideboards. Chinese artists adapted traditional patterns to the tastes and needs of their new American customers. A plate is adorned with the American eagle, and cider pitchers and coffee mugs appear alongside native Chinese pottery shapes.

These luxuries were a symbol of prestige in 19th century New England.

“It was highly sought after,” Vaughan said. “It was much admired and respected. If you had money, you had Chinese items.”

The Forbes Chinese Salon, where a portrait of Houqua, a wealthy Chinese merchant assigned to American traders by the Emperor, is on display.

A Western-style portrait of Houqua, the Chinese official appointed to deal with American traders, hangs in the “Chinese drawing room”. Houqua and John Murray Forbes became friends and exchanged treasured gifts, exemplified by an intricately crafted cane with a bat carved into the handle. In Chinese, the words for bat and luck are almost homonyms.

Houqua participated in drug trafficking.

“There was a group of Chinese who were also getting rich, who were actively involved in opium smuggling,” Vaughan explained. When Houqua died in 1843, he was worth over a billion dollars in today’s money and was possibly the wealthiest merchant in the world.

In 1838, after the Emperor’s own son died of an overdose, Imperial Commissioner Lin Tse-Hsü arrived in Guangzhou to suppress the illegal trade. He forced foreign dealers to hand over their opium, which he quickly destroyed, Vaughan said. While the British suffered the heaviest casualties (and then sent warships, starting the First Opium War), Russel and Co. had 14,000 cases of opium confiscated.

The Forbes House Museum presents

Across the hall is the Robert Bennet Forbes writing table. While in China, the Captain maintained a correspondence with his wife, Rose, in which he expressed growing ambivalence about the trade that had made him wealthy. Reflecting on how he lost his fortune during the Financial Panic of 1837 (he quickly regained it on later trips to China), Forbes wrote, “Perhaps providence took my fortune because I made it from opium. to be free from sin.

“As to the effect on the people”, wrote Robert Bennet Forbes, “there is no doubt that it was demoralizing in some measure: no more, probably, than the use of fiery spirits.”

Forbes House Museum Executive Director Heidi Vaughan brings a little-known era of American history to life with a rich collection of artifacts.

Vaughan said another challenge was telling the story in a culturally sensitive way, given that the museum’s collections filter the story through Western elite perspectives.

“We worked with Chinese to make sure it was a balanced presentation. We worked with Quincy Asian Resources and Rockey Chan from that organization, and we have Gail Wong on our board, and she’s originally Chinese.”

The museum has also translated wall panels into Mandarin and plans to install QR codes to allow visitors to experience the exhibit in their native language.

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Vaughan said visitors, especially students, found the exhibit eye-opening. “We had PA students who saw the Opium Wars as something between Britain and China. So it’s so interesting that this part of history taught in our own schools doesn’t touch on not really our role in this one.”

The museum provides resources for teachers who plan to visit the museum on their website.

The exhibition runs until February 2023.

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