The Brig Ea: Smuggling Opium
In my first weeks as an intern at the American History Museum, my supervisor, Maritime Curator Paul Johnston, asked me to research the logbook of the brig Ea since the vessel may have been involved in the opium trade. The ship’s worn and weathered logbook began on February 24, 1821 when the ship departed from Baltimore, Maryland on a trading voyage to Canton, China. According to the log keeper, William Sanford, the ship reached Canton in August 1821, and left Canton on November 28, 1821 heading for Amsterdam. The brig Ea had a length of 75 feet, depth of 17 feet, 244 tons, with two decks and three masts, and was built in Baltimore circa 1815 as a merchant vessel during one of America’s busiest trading eras.
By 1793 the British East India Co. had a monopoly on the opium trade from India to China; around this time the number of Chinese and British recreationally smoking opium reached an all time high (no pun intended). The Chinese Emperor banned opium in 1799, making trade illegal. In the early 1800s, American traders realized the high profits involved and began to smuggle opium from Turkey into China. The commodity passed primarily through the complicated port of Canton, where it was bought by shady merchants on islands in the bay.
Perkins & Company of Boston, Massachusetts was a major American trading company with a firm in Canton; in fact, the company would use rice cargoes to cover up opium transactions. John Perkins Cushing recorded the arrival and departure of trading ships, including the Ea. Finally, I found a single sentence in an obscure book, citing Perkins & Company records: “…The Ea, Captain Alexander Clark, [arrived] with between 140 and 160 piculs of the drug [opium].” A picul is an ancient Asian standard of weight and is approximately 133.3 lbs.; thus the Ea was smuggling an astonishing 20,000 lbs. of opium. I planned to track the Perkins lead further when I found Perkins’ original copies of the Canton trade records at the Baker Library at Harvard; unfortunately, after four months of waiting for an interlibrary loan, my internship ended.
Nevertheless, digging deeper I found a report of the United States Secretary of State regarding an international issue involving the Ea and Captain Clark. On September 25, 1821, while the Ea was anchored at Canton, an Italian crewman on board an American merchant vessel was accused of killing a Chinese woman. Captain Clark signed, with multiple other ship captains, as a witness of the event. Political relations between China and the U.S. tensed as the Chinese wanted to execute the Italian sailor and the U.S. stalled for a fair trial. Unfortunately, the Italian was executed.
Many more hours could still be spent unraveling the complicated mystery of the Ea. The opium trade was an early example of international drug smuggling and exemplifies the repercussions of a quick profit fueled by addiction; the Ea sparked my fascination for the dark undercurrents of this chapter in American history. After all, there is something fascinating about the stories found in an old ship’s logbook, and something enticing about a smuggling brig setting sail for the far ports of Canton.