‘Whom shall I trust?’: Commercial Relationships in the Sino-British Tea Trade in the Early Nineteenth Century

April 29, 2022 | Blog
Home > ‘Whom shall I trust?’: Commercial Relationships in the Sino-British Tea Trade in the Early Nineteenth Century

by Le Tian (University of Bristol)

This blog is based on research made possible by the Research Fund for Graduate Students, funded by the Economic History Society.


On 9 May 1759, the English East India Company (EIC) ship Success, captained by James Flint, headed for Ningbo, in an attempt to develop trade at this northern Chinese port.  It was not Flint’s first attempt.  After objections from local authorities,  Flint decided to head north to Tianjin, a port close to the capital Beijing, rather than return to Canton, which was then the only port open to foreign trade in the Qing empire.  Flint petitioned the Chinese emperor Qianlong about the debts owed by a Chinese merchant, the heavy extortions of local officials, and he requested that northern Chinese ports be opened up to the East India Company.  The result of the petition was partly satisfactory because the Superintendent of the Canton Maritime Customs was punished; however, thereafter an even stricter regulation was issued to reinforce the one-port system (the Canton System).  Thus, the Canton system through which Sino-foreign trade was conducted, remained until after 1840, when trade was more widely opened up following the first ‘Opium War’.


The Flint affair revealed official Chinese attitudes toward foreign merchants and foreign countries — they were regarded as tributaries of the Chinese empire under the control of Chinese rulers.  Despite the fact that the Qing state confined its foreign trade to a single port, and notwithstanding Flint’s complaints about debt and extortion, Canton remained one of the most important and convenient global trading ports in eighteenth to nineteenth century.  Although there is considerable scholarship on Flint’s activities, and the development of Chinese trade, there remain substantial gaps in our understanding of how and why the trade at Canton worked so well for such a long period (Figure 1).


Figure 1.           Foreign Factories and Chinese Hongs at Canton, ca 1810

Source: Peabody Essex Museum 2007 Mark Sexton Photo; obtained from MIT Visualizing Cultures.


Contemporaneously, the British Empire was expanding its geographical reach through the EIC which adopted the system of factorage to effect its commercial and political strategies.  As the British economy became enmeshed in international trade domestic consumption of certain imported commodities increased. For example, the volume of tea imported to Britain increased from one million pounds in 1721, to thirty million pounds in 1820.  The Commutation Act of 1784 marked the dominance of the EIC in the Sino-British tea trade, and the cultivation of tea-drinking was the driving force for Britain’s ever-growing import of tea (Figure 2).


Figure 2.         Tea Warehouse, 1820-1840, Canton

Source: Peabody Essex Museum 2007 Photo Jeffrey R. Dykes; obtained from MIT Visualizing Cultures.


My project examines the practices of merchants in the Sino-British tea trade around the hub of Canton.  I focus on the practices and beliefs that underpinned the ‘trust system’  that evolved among merchants engaged in Sino-English trade.  Differences between British and Chinese merchants in their approach to trade were obvious, and included cultural and ethical norms, institutions, law, and language.  Nonetheless, Chinese and British merchants developed ways of trusting each other, and maintained for decades a mutually beneficial relationship.  My research focuses on the tea trade to study the importance of trust and culture between various actors, including upcountry planters and tea brokers in inland China, Hong Kong merchants (the government-licensed Chinese merchants in foreign trade) in Canton, EIC merchants, and Jardine Matheson & Co, tea brokers and wholesalers (Figure 3).


Figure 3.        Howqua, a leading Hong merchant in Canton in the early nineteenth century

Source: Painting by George Chinnery, Metropolitan Museum of Art; obtained from MIT Visualizing Cultures.


A systematic study of trust will provide new perspectives on commercial relationships in the Canton trade. My research will assess  how cultural norms, laws, social networks and socio-economic institutions, structured and affected trust systems in cross-cultural trade.


My research employs a variety of primary sources, including local gazetteers and tea contracts in Fujian, family genealogies and business records  of local tea merchants and Chinese merchants, the East India Company, and Jardine Matheson & Co, as well as  British Parliamentary Papers and newspapers. As the commerce in Canton was exceptional in Qing China, Chinese official documents will also be consulted to reveal the relationship between politics and economics.



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