Drugs

5 Elite Families Who Made Their Fortunes in the Opium Trade

There's dirty money buried in the basement of some of America's wealthiest and most powerful families.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / Alena Brozova

There's a lot of money in the dope business, and there always has been. Prohibit something people want--sometimes very desperately--and someone will find a way to get it to them anyway--at a price. That's a lesson in futility, as some American politicians seem to be finally figuring out with our current drug prohibition, and as China's emperors found out when they attempted to ban the importation of opium into the Middle Kingdom in the early 19th Century. 

Backed by their own governments, Western traders ignored Chinese concerns and demands, flooding the country with opium. When necessary, they enlisted their governments to back them up with military force, humiliating and humbling the empire, and getting rich in the process. Most of these traders were British, but a significant number were American, and the profits they made were the cornerstone of some of 19th Century America's greatest fortunes.

Right now, other merchants are making fortunes in the same business. If they get caught, they lose everything. But if they don't, there's nothing like time and money to wash the dirt off their fortunes. 

Here are five prominent American families that got rich in the Chinese opium trade:

1 .The Astor Family. America's first multimillionaire, John Jacobs Astor, joined the opium smuggling trade in 1816 when his American Fur Company bought 10 tons of Turkish opium and smuggled it into Canton. Seeking other sources of profit while faced with woes in the fur trade, he became the first American known to have entered the contraband Chinese opium trade and made a nice profit before abruptly exiting the business three years later. 

2. The Forbes Family. John Murray Forbes and Robert Bennet Forbes worked for Perkins & Co. in its China trade. While the former's main job was to secure quality tea for export, that latter was more intimately involved in the importing size of the business and had more of a direct role in the opium trade. Their father, Ralph Forbes, had married into the Perkins family. It was the brothers' activities in the 1830s and 1840s that led to the Forbes family's accumulated wealth. The most notable family member on the contemporary scene is US Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry. The Forbes legacy in the China opium trade lived on in the Museum of the American China Trade in Milton, Massachusetts, which was housed in Robert Bennet Forbes' 1883 Greek Revival-style home. That museum merged with the Peabody Essex Museum in 1984, leaving what is now known as the Captain Forbes House Museum. 

3. The Russell Family. Samuel Wadsworth Russell started as an orphaned apprentice to a maritime trade merchant, made his initial investment capital on trading commissions while working for other traders, and eventually founded Russell and Co., the most powerful American merchant house in China for most of the second half of the 19th Century. He landed in Canton in 1819 and quickly amassed a fortune in the opium trade. His mansion, now known as the Samuel Wadsworth Russell House, still stands in Middletown, Connecticut. Russell's cousin and fellow opium trader, William Huntington Russell, was a co-founder and funder of Yale University's Skull and Bones Society.

4. The Delano Family.Warren Delano, Jr., the grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was chief of operations for Russell & Co., another Boston trading firm which did big business in the China opium trade in Canton. He first went to China at age 24 and spent a decade dealing dope on the Pearl River before returning to New York as a newly wealthy and very eligible bachelor. He admitted in letters home that opium had an "unhappy effect" on its users, but argued that its sale was "fair, honorable, and legitimate," akin to importing wine and spirits to America. Delano lost his fortune in the Great Panic of 1857, but returned to China and rebuilt it in part by supplying the US military with opium to treat Union soldiers in the Civil War. The Delanos don't like to talk about the opium connection much. As FDR biographer Geoffrey C. Ward noted, "In a family fond of retelling and embellishing even the mildest sort of ancestral adventuresno stories seem to have been handed down concerning Warren Delano’s genuinely adventurous career in the opium business."

5. The Perkins Family. Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a wealthy merchant and Boston Brahmin par excellance, made his bones as a young man trading slaves in Haiti, then peddled furs to China from the American Northwest before amassing a huge fortune smuggling Turkish opium into China. Although he got rich off the trade, he avoided mentioning it, and his official biography, written by his son-in-law, never mentions the word "opium." Perkins assuaged himself through philanthropy, supporting the Boston Atheneum and the New England Institute for the Blind, which was renamed for him. The town of Belmont, Massachusetts, is named after the estate of nephew, John Perkins Cushing, who was active in the trade himself.

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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