xi's moments
Home | Americas

Historic Boston mansion was built on China opium trade

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-02-23 11:41

Visitors explore artifacts displayed at the Forbes House Museum in Boston. Ellen Rogers Photography

A historic and grand mansion built in Boston in 1833 by a prominent local family has revealed its hidden history: It was built with profits from the China opium trade.

The little-known origins of the mansion at the top of Milton Hill owned by the Forbes family and now called the Forbes House Museum is explored in an exhibition called Opium: The Business of Addiction, which opened last year in Massachusetts and will run until March.

The exhibition charts how the early days of trading between the United States and China shaped relations and attitudes between the two nations for hundreds of years. In the 1800s, the US, the UK and other European countries smuggled illegal opium to China.

In New England, ambitious Boston families like Forbes and Perkins got in on the act after they swapped their business in the African slave trade for trading opium to China in exchange for tea, silk, porcelain and cloth.

The "China trade" spanned from 1784 to 1887, making the Forbes family fabulously rich as they made enormous profits from selling opium and other commodities.

Heidi Vaughan, executive director of the Forbes House Museum, told China Daily: "There were several reasons to develop an exhibition about the opium trade. As a general trend [from 2018], US museums were tackling hidden histories and telling stories that were not told.

"There was a wealth of primary sources regarding the Forbes family and their business of trading opium. People wanted to know more about the family in general."

The exhibition shows how the Forbes family was partners in the largest shipping company in the US, Perkins and Co, which merged with Russell and Co in 1827.

Thomas Perkins, the family's patriarch, employed his nephews Robert Bennet Forbes and John Murray Forbes in the family business, which enabled them to establish a network of trading outposts worldwide.

The money that they made enabled them to establish an insurance company to protect merchants and their goods from loss; lend money through Baring Brothers in London; and support civic and philanthropic endeavors in Boston, the rest of the US and in Ireland during the famine there.

To further toast their success, they built the Greek Revival-style mansion in 1833, initially for Margaret Perkins Forbes, a widow, and her four daughters. The house was a memorial to Thomas Tunno, the oldest Forbes brother, who drowned in a typhoon off the coast of China.

The two younger brothers, Robert Bennet Forbes and John Murray, traded opium to provide for the family. Four generations of the family lived in the house until 1962.

The family's profits from trading opium also crucially became part of the foundation used by the US to establish its financial base and launch capitalism. The Forbes family invested heavily in building US infrastructure like railroads and mines.

"The history of the opioid trade is part of the story of America's development, but in many cases, it is a little-known and poorly understood part of our past. Its legacy continues to impact our lives today," said Vaughan.

While the Forbes family prospered off opium, for China, the illegal drug trade was devastating and led to what some leaders have called the "century of humiliation''.

At least one-third of China's population became addicted to opium in 1838. By the middle of the century, drug usage had caused widespread social and economic problems.

The museum interviewed 40 people from a variety of backgrounds. More than one person said that generations of their families had been addicted to opium.

Vaughan said: "The exhibition is written in an absolutely neutral tone. But it presents the Chinese perspective on the trade, as viewed by native-born Chinese Americans and first-generation Chinese Americans."

Documenting this history highlighted how the early trade relations between China and the US led to the kind of racial stereotyping and anti-immigrant sentiments that resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1887, which limited immigration from China to the US.

It also showed how it sparked a long-standing mistrust of Western nations, fueling the first and second Opium Wars from 1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860.

Vaughan explained that the museum highlighted the "unfair treaties executed by the West and the general invasion of a peaceful people'' and spoke of the "stereotypes created by both the East and West about each other and how those stereotypes persist".

Old anti-Asian stereotypes have fueled hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islander people in the US in recent years. From March 2020 to December 2021, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, there were 10,905 incidents, the group Stop AAPI Hate reported.

"From coast to coast and points in between, violence and hate have shaken our communities," Thomas Yu, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality said at a recent vigil against hate in New York.

The museum explores how the Forbes family struggled with the "moral implications of their dealings in opium'', but later rationalized involvement.

It also shows how Ben Forbes filled the mansion with stunning Chinese silks, ceramics and carved tables and chairs. He even used an elegant chest of drawers to disguise balls of opium underneath rice.

Opium-related paraphernalia — such as pipes and a pillow — are on display as part of the exhibit. So is a "dotchin"' or hand scale that accurately measured small quantities of valuable items such as herbs, gems, gold, silver or opium.

Other artifacts including detailed maps show the routes that ships based in Boston; Salem, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and other East Coast ports took on two and three-year journeys to sell their wares.

The Forbes family was among several families in Boston whose wealth was generated from the opium trade. Their profits helped to establish Massachusetts General Hospital, railroads and mills, the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution.

"We know from visitor comments that most people, both Chinese Americans and those born in America, had no idea about the trade or the Chinese point of view," Vaughan said. She added that many Americans whom they surveyed wrongly believed that China had been the one to send opium to the US, not the other way around.

However, since the 1990s, in a reversal of fortunes, an opioid epidemic has gripped the US. More than 564,000 people died from an overdose involving an opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids from 1999 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vaughan said: "There is an opioid epidemic that is getting worse over time. History is often a way of presenting valuable information in a way that might be less threatening than current facts. Presenting the use of opium over time in both China and America is an important consideration, given the current epidemic."

Global Edition
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349