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The Points Interview: Richard Grace

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s interviewee, Dr. Richard J. Grace, is Professor Emeritus of History at Providence College. His book, Opium and Empire: The Lives and Careers of William Jardine and James Mathseon (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014; paperback edition, 2015) will soon be available in Chinese from Beijing United Publishing Co.


Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. And what do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about it?

Opium and Empire explores the lives and careers of two of the most influential British merchants  in East Asia in the first half of the nineteenth century. These Scots, William Jardine (1784-1843) and James Matheson (1796-1878), operated a partnership at Canton (now Guangzhou), trading in various commodities,  and engaging in insurance, shipping, and finance. Their most important commodity was opium, which was illegal in China. For the most part they served as agents for investors far afield, especially in India, by marketing their opium for a fee, to buyers in the Gulf of Canton. The Chinese buyers would smuggle the cargoes of opium ashore, sometimes with the connivance of local government authorities.

In terms of business probity, Jardine and Matheson were basically honest men; they would not cheat a client (whether an English textile manufacturer trying to market goods in China, or a Parsi merchant in Bombay investing in opium sales through Jardine Matheson & Co.).  When asked about investing by a young man, Jardine described the opium commerce as a “most gentlemanlike speculation.” But the partners knew very well how to manipulate the China market so as to maximize profit for their clients and themselves. They became very wealthy, returned home to hold seats in Parliament, and to exercise significant “elder statesmen” influence within London business circles.

As the leading voices of the British merchant community at Canton, Jardine and Matheson campaigned for better treatment by the Chinese government, which restricted their transactions to a group of financially unstable Chinese merchants known as the Hong, at Canton. Foreign merchants were confined to a narrow stretch of the riverbank at Canton, and could not communicate directly with the viceroy of the province. The imperial government declined to stabilize commercial relations with the British community by agreeing to a treaty with Britain which would regulate trade. As a result, numerous flashpoints occurred in the relationship between the British community  — engaged in legally buying tea for shipment home and selling opium for illegal traffic into China, via the rivers and creeks – and the Chinese authorities who proscribed the drug trade but only sporadically enforced the ban. Jardine and his partner maintained that opium was the best ready-money article in the China trade, and that through the opium trade they could obtain the silver necessary to purchase the large quantities of tea which they shipped home after the East India Company’s monopoly was terminated.

When Peking (Beijing)  determined on a forceful suppression of the opium trade in 1839, a special commissioner was sent to Canton. Jardine had retired from China just prior to Commissioner Lin  Zexu’s arrival. Lin set about confining the foreign merchants under house arrest (Matheson among them) and demanded the surrender and destruction of  all British stocks of the drug, which amounted to nearly 2,400 chests of opium, with an estimated value of £2,400,000. He also sent an extraordinary letter to Queen Victoria, urging her to ban the drug trade by British merchants.

In response to the destruction of British goods and the detention of British nationals, Her Majesty’s Government undertook a military expedition to China which came to be known as the Opium War (1840-42).

Matheson, banished from Canton, eventually established the company’s new headquarters at Hong Kong (which was acquired outright as part of the settlement in 1842), while Jardine, at home in London, campaigned in Parliament for compensation for the merchants who had been forced to surrender their opium supplies. Jardine, who had returned home to be treated as a hero by the East India merchants in London, died in 1843, from complications associated with cancer of the bowel. His partner returned home to Britain while the war was in its last stages and succeeded Jardine as M.P. for Ashburton, Devon. His remained active in business and real estate for many years, having purchased large stretches of land in northwest Scotland, including the Isle of Lewis.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book? Also, every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon? Apart from the fascinating story of their business successes, the most engaging part of my study was the examination of their character traits and the challenge of discovering what they actually thought of the morality of their commercial lives. Jardine maintained that the actual use of the drug was a matter for the buyers to determine. (He was actually a doctor, having trained in medicine at Edinburgh and served as medical officer aboard East India Company ships before settling in China for nearly twenty years. So he was aware of the legitimate medical uses of the drug.) Matheson asserted that he had never seen a Chinese bestialized by the drug (though he was well acquainted with the preparation of opium for smoking). They tended to be “quiet” about their inner thoughts regarding their moral responsibilities and the spiritual dimensions of their lives. However, they were well aware that numerous voices at home and even some among the British in south China, were frank in their condemnation of the drug trade. If I could pry deeper into their personal reflections on their acquisition of wealth principally through this controversial trade, that would be the area that I would like to know more about. It was the most elusive aspect of my research.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

If Opium and Empire were to be prepared as an audio book, I would like to think that David McCullough or James Earl Jones might be the narrator, because of the gravitas in their voices. They have the skill to speak with the seriousness the subject demands but without a heavy solemnity that would undercut the drama in the text. And they both have voices that sound like organ pipes!


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