The High Seas: Baltimore’s narcotic history dates back to the 19th-century shipping-driven boom, quietly aided by bringing Turkish opium to China

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 21, 2014


With its longstanding reputation as a high-volume heroin town, Baltimore’s modern black-market economy is openly opiated, driving sizeable budgets for maintaining the criminal-justice apparatus to combat it. Far less appreciated, and only opaquely understood, is the role another poppy-derived narcotic—opium—had in forming Baltimore’s 19th-century fortunes, when trade with China helped fuel the city’s shipping boom.  In fact, merchant John O’Donnell was the first to bring goods from the Chinese city Canton to Baltimore and it was such a boon that he named his waterfront plantation Canton, and the name for the area persists today (along with its O’Donnell Square).

Despite Baltimore ships being central to several historic events in America’s opium trade to China, Baltimore merchants’ overall piece of the trade seems to have paled in comparison to the quick fortunes made by famous merchant families from Philadelphia to New England. So, when historians eventually pieced together what such towering American capitalist families as the Astors, Forbes, Perkins, Delanos, Peabodys, and Girards had actually been up to in China—selling Turkish opium, competing with the enormous British supplies brought there from India—Baltimore’s role got little attention.

At the time, “all of this was able to occur really under the radar,” says Towson University history professor Elizabeth Kelly Gray, “because there were no reporters, and if someone came back with a huge fortune and said, ‘Oh, I was in the China trade,’ people wouldn’t necessarily assume that opium was involved. People seem to have kind of kept their mouths shut about what they did, and even though I found a couple of published comments where someone would say, ‘Don’t you know that Americans are involved?’ it didn’t seem to catch anyone’s attention. We can dig back and find it now, but it wasn’t known then.

“There was a recognition that this was disreputable, this was smuggling,” Gray continues, since China outlawed opium in 1799. So merchants tended to justify it by saying “‘we couldn’t make a profit if they wouldn’t buy it,’ or ‘if we don’t do it someone else would,’” while arguing that “we’re not actually breaking the law because the opium we’re bringing is 12 miles” away from the Chinese port of Canton, in ships anchored in Whampoa Reach or Macoa Roads, “and then it’s brought in by others.” Given the controversial nature of the trade, she adds, “some of the merchants were able to cover their tracks,” since “they’re thousands of miles from home, everyone that they’re hanging out with is fine with this, and they’re making lots of money. So we don’t have the smoking gun with some of them that we have with others.”

The secrecy surrounding America’s China opium trade came out when the first Opium War between Britain and China broke out in 1839, after China, dismayed at the damage addiction was causing among its people, started to seriously enforce its opium ban and seized sizeable British cargoes. The war prompted Congress to get interested in the American involvement, and “then you have this sort of sheepish admission to Congress that, well, we are involved in the opium trade,” Gray says, “which some of the congressmen already knew, but it wasn’t public.

“We definitely know that Baltimore was involved,” Gray adds, but details are elusive, and more northern American cities appear to have been more deeply entrenched. While “the British were earning tens of millions of dollars” from opium in China, historian Eric Jay Dolin told China Business Review last year, “the Americans were earning millions of dollars,” and the late historian Kenneth LaTourrette concluded that, “although she began early,” Baltimore “was never as actively engaged in the trade as were the more northern ports.” Historian Dael Norwood of Yale University, sums it up in an email to City Paper: While “the New Englanders and New Yorkers were (for the most part) running the show alongside the Brits, “you might say that the Baltimore money was keeping its hand in.”

One smoking gun linking Baltimore to the China opium trade is the Eutaw, a Baltimore ship owned by John Worthington and captained by Christopher Gantt. The history books credit the Eutaw with bringing the very first delivery of Turkish opium by an American ship to China. It left Smyrna, Turkey (pictured above), in November 1805 with several tons of opium, and arrived in Canton in 1806. Sussing out Worthington’s significance in Maryland society has proven elusive, but Gantt later became a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and served as a customs clerk in Baltimore for the U.S. Department of Treasury.

A second smoking gun is the Wabash, another Baltimore ship captained by Gantt, which in 1817 suffered an attack that became known as “the Wabash incident.” While anchored in the Macao Roads near Canton, Chinese pirates boarded the ship, murdered some of its crew, and took its cargo, including opium. The American consul at Canton—Benjamin Wilcocks, himself an opium smuggler—wrote to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams about the incident, explaining that he’d reported it to the Chinese authorities, but “was careful not to mention the opium.” The Chinese, after they later found the pirates with a large quantity of opium, expressed “not a little disgust” over the contraband, Wilcocks explained, and shortly thereafter announced a crackdown on Americans trying to bring opium into China.

In 1821, the Terranova incident involved a Baltimore opium ship at Canton, and produced “lingering bad memories” which, the late Sino-American historian Jacques Downs wrote, “would help shape the first U.S. treaty with China” in the 1840s. It involved an Italian sailor, Francis Terranova, on the Baltimore ship Emily, owned by John Donnell and captained by William Cowpland. The Emily was “anchored peacefully in Whampoa Reach,” Downs recounted, “gradually selling off its cargo of opium,” when Terranova somehow caused a woman who’d approached the Emily to fall into the water and drown—and for this, China convicted and sentenced the sailor to execution, which shocked the community of Western traders there.


Downs described Donnell as “the great Baltimore China merchant” who was “among the largest shippers of the drug” in the period after the War of 1812. After the Bostonians led by the Perkins family, Donnell was “probably the most important of all” the “very substantial merchants who sent opium cargoes to Canton.” After Donnell’s death in 1827, his nephew Griffin Stith—who had served as agent for the Emily—formed another American firm in the China opium trade, Issaverdes, Stith & Co., a partnership  of Stith and John B. and George Issaverdes. Stith’s papers, describing his experiences in the opium trade in China and Jakarta, are held in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society.

Donnell in 1800 purchased Willow Brook, an estate where West Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood now stands that was built by his wife’s uncle, Thorowgood Smith, who served as Baltimore’s mayor from 1804 to 1808. Today, a complete replica of Brook’s Oval Room is on permanent display at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Another famous Baltimore-China trade merchant, Isaac McKim, served in the Maryland Senate and served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and also was a director of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. His part in the American opium trade is described in “Tidewater Triumphs,” a book by naval historian Geoffrey Footner. “McKim developed an ingenuous plan which began with the purchase of Turkish opium for resale to other traders, mostly Baltimore merchants,” Footner wrote, “then used the proceeds to buy copper and other products.” In 1816, McKim’s ship the Plattsburgh left Fells Point with cargo bound for Smyrna, where the captain was instructed to “sell the cargo and use the proceeds to buy opium,” but the crew mutinied, and the resulting legal wrangling “revealed Isaac McKim’s plan for broadening his narrow export base.” While there is “no record of any McKim ships sailing in the China trade,” Footner explained, “there is circumstantial evidence that McKim resold opium acquired in Turkey to other Baltimore and Philadelphia merchants doing business in China.”

Evidence of Baltimore ships being involved with shipments of Turkish opium also come from the U.S. Senate, which in 1838, on the eve of the First Opium War, made records of American ships entering and leaving Smyrna over the years, including McKim’s schooner, the Yellat, picking up 45 cases of opium and Donnell’s brig, Midas, taking on 111 cases of opium in 1824, part of their proceedings. Another entry mentions the brig Torpedo, owned by William Patterson (one of the founders of the B&O Railroad) and his son George Patterson.  Finally, an English translation of the geneology of a prominent Dutch family says that Jacob van Lennep & Co., based in Smyrna, made “large shipments of opium” to “a company in Baltimore for onward shipment” to China. And, last year at the Smithsonian Institutions, an intern uncovered historical documents of a shipment of 10 tons of opium arriving in Canton in 1821 on the Baltimore brig Ea.

While Baltimore’s role in Smyrna-to-Canton opium smuggling may have been less robust than those of more northern American cities, it made a mark because its opium-laden ships, explains Norwood, “attracted the harsh attention of Chinese authorities” thanks to the sacking of the Wabash and the Terranova affair. Still, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the drug trade quietly drove significant creation of wealth in Mobtown’s early economy—as it still does today.

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