Delano’s Dealings: The opium trade and the making of a Presidential legacy
Delano’s Dealings: The Opium Trade and the Making of a Presidential Legacy
The “Mr. Dillino” Cornelius Gold refers to in the “Saturday, June 7” entry of his Journal was not called Dillino at all (Gold 39-40). The man who invited Gold to “dinner at the Hermitage of Mess. Russell + Co,” was Warren Delano II, grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Ibid.). Thanks to the spoils he amassed in the opium trade, Delano earned the beginnings of an immense family fortune.
Warren Delano II was born in 1809 in New Bedford, MA to one of America’s oldest families (Ward 66). His ancestor, French Huguenot Philippe de la Noye, arrived at Plymouth Colony in 1621 (Ward 66). Once settled, the Delanos prospered as sea captains, whalers and shipbuilders; thus “it was probably inevitable that Warren II would first seek to make his fortune from the sea” (Ward 66-67). In 1833, young Warren sailed to Canton, where he became junior partner in Russell, Sturgis & Co. of Boston & Manila (Ward 67). By 1840 he was senior partner at America’s largest firm in China, Russell & Co., where he rose among Canton’s foreign traders from the 1830s through 1860s (Ward 67).
Upon returning to New England in January 1843, Warren married Catherine Lyman of Massachusetts (Ward 78). The newlyweds sailed to Canton, where they stayed for three years before returning to the United States, which they thought of as a safer place for their ten children, the most notable of whom was their fifth child Sara, FDR’s mother.
The family legacy is indebted to Warren’s business success in nineteenth-century Canton, which relied on opium. While the Opium War raged, Delano’s American firm continued trading the potent drug, which did not seem to weigh heavily on its traders’ conscience (Ward 74); Delano, too, saw no reason not to profit (Ward 71). Under his and Robert Forbes’s leadership, Russell and Co. “became the third-most important single firm in the opium trade, British or American” (Ward 71). Opium enabled Delano’s wealth; a fact which his family does not support (Ward 77).
According to descendant Frederic Delano Grant Jr., it is unclear how much FDR knew of his grandfather’s China business ventures (Grant, “A Fair, Honorable, and Legitimate Trade”). FDR’s wife Eleanor was troubled by accusations that Warren Delano was “an old buccaneer” who ran “a slave traffic as horrible and degrading as prostitution” (Grant, “A Fair…”). She eventually supposed “the Delanos and the Forbeses, like everybody else, had to include a limited amount of opium in their cargoes to do any trading at all” (Grant, “A Fair…”).
However, her admission may exaggerate American merchants’ “need” to trade opium. Grant holds that mid-nineteenth century China was “tense but profitable … for American traders,” as New Englanders built up staggering fortunes (“A Fair…”). One might even say Warren Delano II, far from being a “self-made man,” was made by the nineteenth-century China trade, and the Delano/Roosevelt family owed its later prominence to Warren’s opium and tea profits (Downs and Grant 183). Having been shaped by China, Warren and other Delanos felt they could claim knowledge of the Middle Kingdom:
FDR received a great deal of information about the Far East from a variety of sources, but underlying his knowledge of East Asia was his perception of a ‘China’ he thought he knew best. His lack of on-the-ground exposure … did not inhibit him at all. His Grandfather Warren had lived for years on the China coast; his Grandmother Catherine and her children, including his own mother, had all been there, too— some of them for significant periods of time. (Butow 177)
It is impossible to say that Warren Delano II’s trading/smuggling legacy directly influenced FDR’s foreign policy. Regardless, this epoch of tantalizing profits and illegal exploits carried symbolic and economic heft, launching Warren’s descendants into a prosperous, powerful future.
- Claire Lingham and Helen Rolfe
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