Vincent Blake (1773-1822): A English Opium Courier in China

freire_karen_finalThe role of narcotics as a lucrative market cannot be ignored when studying the history of China. It was around 1772 that the British had discovered the opium trade, and that same year they became the leading supplier in the Chinese market, transforming the future of international trade.[1] The English East India Company established a monopoly over opium cultivation in the Indian province of Bengal, where they developed a method of growing poppies cheaply and abundantly. It is in this same time and setting that one of the greatest opium traders, Vincent Blake, was born. His life’s story reveals the intricacy of dealing opium at the time and the beginning of the downward spiral for the Qing dynasty and the autonomy of China in general.

Vincent Blake was born in 1773 in Calcutta, Bengal. His father was a high-ranking employee of the English East India Company and he personally owned the highest shares of the company’s poppy cultivation in Bengal. Vincent’s mother died at an early age; this resulted in his father focusing on his business all the energy that would otherwise have been used for mourning. As a young man, Vincent was often perceived by his father as being lazy due to lack of interest in his father’s business. Instead, Vincent was fond of going out with friends and frivolous sailing throughout the coast of Calcutta. When Vincent was eleven, his father sent him to England to live with his relatives with the hopes of inspiring diligence in his son. But his efforts ultimately failed and Vincent was back in Bengal by his seventeenth birthday. All Vincent learned from his motherland was impish behavior and persuasive communication skills, which would not become very useful until later on in his life.

In 1792 the British king sent the fifty-five year-old Irish official, Lord George Macartney, on a mission to China to request permission to build an embassy in Beijing and to change the system of foreign trade. Since 1757 the Chinese government only permitted foreigners to conduct business at the port in Guangzhou, where a small number of merchants had monopolized foreign trade.[2] Given the influential nature of Vincent’s father’s high position in the English East Indian Co., his father was requested to join this delegation of 700 people to the emperor’s palace. Vincent’s father, who was never particularly fond of travel anyway, saw this as the perfect opportunity to spark interest of business and foreign commerce in his indolent son.

Indeed, after much coercion, nineteen year-old Vincent Blake took part in the delegation on behalf of his father. He became rather close to one particular member of the delegation, who later became Vincent’s first-man in business. This was a brilliant twelve year-old son of a minister who was a prodigy in languages and was able to become fluent in Chinese in just the year it took for the fleet to arrive at Beijing.[3] It was thanks to this boy that General Macartney was able to communicate with the Qianlong Emperor. Though the British gifts offered by the general fascinated the emperor, particularly a model of a steamship that had 110 guns on it[4], it was not enough to influence his decision and the Qianlong Emperor refused the British request for increased access to trade.

The China that Vincent witnessed upon the delegation’s arrival in 1793 was not any less developed than Britain at the time. People in both places ate roughly the same number of calories and had disposable incomes[5], so Vincent was content with the lifestyle. New crops from the Americas transformed Chinese cuisine into the intricate dishes that we can taste today. Cooks added chili peppers, sweet peppers, and peanuts to blend flavors[6]. Aside from the exquisite foods, tobacco was another American crop that was popular, though not for its nutritional value. Tobacco began to be mixed with opium, which was used for centuries in China due to its medicinal purposes.[7] The absorption of opium through the lungs resulted in the recreational and addictive use. Also, a pure extract was vaporized and inhaled through a small pipe. Opium addiction spread among Chinese transport workers, government clerks, underemployed scholars, and even into the Manchu garrisons.[8] It was not until the 1800s that the living standards began to comparatively deteriorate, having reached its peak in terms of cultural accomplishment and wealth. However, even by the time Vincent arrived, there was beginning to be evidence of the problems caused by over-population.

The empire’s prosperity contributed to population growth, reaching four hundred million people by the year 1800[9]. As a result, there were few available jobs. Dangerous angry beggars and many prostitutes could be found in streets. Notwithstanding, unemployment also affected the upper strata of society, creating a sizeable “leisure class”.[10] As demonstrated through the famous literary novel, The Story of the Stone, it was clear that for many of the upper class there was not much to do but to entertain themselves. Before 1830, opium use was recreational because it was scarce and expensive so only the wealthy could afford it. Though in 1796 the Jiaqing emperor outlawed opium importation and cultivation[11], the opium trade continued to flourish because several government officials consumed the drug, meaning that the bribery necessary to keep the illegal trade moving became a factor in the general cynicism and fragility of order and morale, which in turn increased the demand for opium and other forms of escape.[12] It was in this environment that Vincent found inspiration and he decided to pursue a career in the illegal opium trade. Perhaps it was the thrill of taking part in illicit activities, but more than likely, it was his father’s approval of the feat. Because of his father’s business with the East India Company in monopolizing poppy cultivation, Vincent demonstrated expertise in the subject of opium. Not knowing the complexities of the job, instead thinking it would be a good life to the deal what he loved to consume, he consulted his father about possibly becoming one of the “country men” he had often heard his father speak of.

The East India Company did not carry the opium itself due to the Chinese ban of the drug and the company’s linkage to the English government. So instead, the East India Company farmed it out to “country traders” who were then able to deal goods that were inconvenient for the company or else illegal.[13] These private traders were licensed by the company to take the goods from India to China, so far as the trade with China was concerned, the most important function was the opium trade. They sold the opium to smugglers along the Chinese coast. The gold and silver received from those sales were then turned over to the East India Company.

His father, ever the business tycoon, was proud and encouraged Vincent in pursuing a career as a “country man”. Clearly he did not worry much for his son’s safety and just focused on the increase in revenue and possible cornering of the opium market that having a “country trader” son could bring for his legacy, already a poppy cultivator for the English East India Company in Calcutta, Bengal.

As previously mentioned, since it was common for Chinese officials to be bribed, trade in China was possible albeit secretly. Vincent’s opium ships from Calcutta to Guangzhou really pioneered the trade in China. These were voyages of high risk and high profit, and were often viewed as “mere buccaneering”.[14] Vincent bought the drug from his father who sold it at auctions in Calcutta, acting on behalf of the East India Company. The company was thus able to dissociate itself from the drug and disclaim all responsibility for the manner and places in which it was marketed. Country ships delivered a total of £943,000 worth of goods, both legal and illegal. The illegal trade included 2,500 chests of opium valued at £250,000 (the price was then $400 a chest, or about £100). The bulk of the legal trade was made up of cottons, which totaled about £571, 464 by both country and company ships.[15]

Some of the particular customers Vincent Blake dealt with can reveal much about the society under the Qing dynasty. Though he never directly dealt with most of the people that would consume the drug, Vincent, ever the social butterfly, would often ask the servants and deliverymen about who was going to consume the substance so he could prescribe some advice for their particular usage. Almost all of Vincent’s customers came from high-class families. Alarmingly, a substantial amount of opium went to the women of these families to relief the pain that foot binding would cause upon them.[16] Aside from the pain-killing effects, opium also offered escapism for those disillusioned with their lives. Notably, this refers to the unemployed scholars of the time. Because of the rising population and the failure of the government to expand and add new posts for officials, there was heightened competition among those taking the civil service examination[17]. The stress and the cynicism of the time thus resulted in the mass consumption of opium.

Though the lucrative nature of the opium market was beneficial for Englishmen such as Vincent and his father, it resulted in currency deficit of silver for the Qing dynasty. By 1800 a substantial share of English tea exports were paid for by imports of opium, smuggled along the coast in channels deliberately kept separate from the legal tea trade[18], Vincent was an expert charted of these hidden channels and created several himself. Aware of both the currency problems and the severe social and moral consequences of the spread of opium addiction, the Qing authorities stepped up their enforcement of the laws against the trade and use of opium, but were unable to cut off its flow into the country.[19] The amount of opium imported into China increased from about 1,000 chests annually in the end of the 18th century to roughly 10,000 chests per year between 1820-1830.[20] Evidentially, even ever since the beginning of his career, Vincent’s profits were large. Because opium was packed in little chests it was easy to handle and small ships could be used, requiring a relatively small capital outlay, which Vincent’s father was more than happy to invest in. Regrettably, it was during the peak of Vincent’s career that he passed away.

Vincent’s life ended suddenly and uneventfully. In 1822 he died from an opium overdose. Because Vincent was young when he entered the opium market and he fully received his father’s support, he was never morally opposed to the consequences of smoking opium and even formed an addiction himself. But eventually, his paled skin and troubled breathing reached the point of scarring his lungs and he would often even cough blood. By the time he was physically aware of opium’s consequences it was too late for recovery so he indulged even more in it to relieve the pains in his chest and one day he took too large of a dose and died. The moral dilemma of selling opium was often a topic of discourse amongst the dealers. A heightened peak of argument once took place when Vincent was socially smoking with two other merchants: an Englishman much like himself and an American merchant that had lived in Canton for several years. For a while they were speaking about some particular trade routes, the audacity of the Chinese government in limiting foreign trade and the excitements they faced, when suddenly the conversation switched focus to the topic of whether or not it was ethical to sell opium. The American claimed that from his experience living in Canton and Macao, “the inhabitants of the city and suburbs at large were a healthy, active, hard-working, and industrious people, withal cheerful and frugal. They were intelligent in business, skillful in manufactures and handicrafts. There were inconsistent with habitual smoking but no one was injured by opium if it was used as a moderated habit.”[21] The American likened the consumption of opium to drinking alcoholic beverages in the United States and in England. To this, the old Englishman disagreed, stating “On what has the opium merchant to plume himself beyond his brother smuggler and law breaker, the gin-importer into Great Britain? The one risks his life- the other, shielding himself behind the corruption of local officers, or the weakness of the marine, carries on deeds of unlawfulness, without even the risk of excitement of personal danger; and coolly comments on the injustice of the Chinese government in refusing the practice of international law and reciprocity to countries. It is preposterous to compare to wine an act that results in the breaking of which affects the basis of all good government and the morals of the country.”[22] Vincent was calmly trying to change the focus of the heated conversation but the Englishman continued with his angry rant, “The trade may be a profitable one but to attempt a defense on the ground of it not having dangerous and pernicious influence on health and morals, is to say what cannot be borne out, by fact or by argument; and it is manifestly indefensible,”[23] upon finishing his speech, the Englishman struck the American with his own pipe and both passed out into sleep from the affects of the opium and their heightened tension. Vincent often heard these arguments, but personally did not become too involved in debate for as long as his father, the immoral business tycoon was proud, Vincent was content.

After his death, his first-man in business, the bilingual boy Vincent had met in Macartney’s delegation back in 1792, took control of Vincent’s business and was alive to experience some of the most important events in Chinese history including the First Opium War and the Taiping rebellions. In 1841, British gunboats defeated the Chinese army at Guangzhou, ending the First Opium War, the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing resulted in European merchants and missionaries flooding into China’s coastal cities, building both warehouses to hold their goods and churches for their countrymen and potential Chinese converts.[24] By the time the Taiping rebellion ended in 1865, China was so weak that the foreign powers took over certain port cities and created spheres of influence where they ran the police, railways, and customs while maintaining the fiction of Qing rule.[25] Thus it was the attempts to exclude foreign trade and the trade in opium that Vincent Blake participated which led China to impose such harsh restrictions on foreign entry, and that policy towards the West left them unprepared to meet the threats of Western imperialism that deeply altered China in the twentieth century.


[1] “Opium Trade,” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. <>
[2] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 411.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Hansen, 404.
[6] Hansen, 405.
[7] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 262.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Hansen, 405.
[10] Trocki, Carl A. Opium, Empire, and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade, 1750-1950. London: Routledge, 1999. Print. Page 90.
[11] “Opium Trade
[12] Wills, 262.
[13] Trocki, 49.
[14] Trocki, 51.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Trocki, 90.
[17] Hansen, 409.
[18] Wills, 262.
[19] Ibid.
[20]Opium Trade
[21] Hunter, William C. The “Fan Kwae” at Canton Before Treaty Days: 1825–1844. Shanghai: The Oriental Affairs, 1938. Page 79– 80.
[22] Hope et al, “A British Merchant’s Answer.” From The Chinese Repository, Vol. V.  Canton: Printed for the Proprietors, 1836-37. Page 407–412.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Hansen, 420–421.
[25] Hansen, 422.

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KAREN FREIRE is an International Relations major at the University of Rochester. She is from Miami, Florida. As hobbies she enjoys architecture and film. More by Karen