In the early 19th century, Middletown, Connecticut's waterfront was a busy, international shipping port, rivaling New York, Providence and Newport. It was ideally located twenty-six miles upriver from danger-prone Atlantic waters, and central to the port's principal function: shipping much needed goods to-and-from destinations in the West Indies, home of large White-owned sugar plantations and their enslaved workers. Into this burgeoning New England waterfront scene, Samuel Russell was born, in 1789. Purportedly the son and grandson of ship captains, Russell lived with his extended family just blocks from the riverfront.
Russell's father died in 1811, when he was just twelve, leaving him, as the eldest boy, to fend for himself and his family on the streets and docks of this town of 5400 residents. Most men in those days were destined for a life of farming. But, for Sam Russell, 'modern' times and unique circumstances of his coming-of-age in this riverfront community took a very different—and life-changing—turn. The bridge between the 18th and 19th centuries marked the corresponding birth of a new American nation and emergence of the Industrial Age. Ideally, the nascent United States, emboldened by a credo of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,' had the resources and desire to benefit from the riches of European markets. Living and working in this busy riverfront community, and with a family's sea-going legacy, together with personal qualities, later documented by a peer, of "honesty, integrity, and reliability," soon earned Russell (in his twenties) a European-bound trading assignment.
In 1819, after two successful European trips, his employer directed him, as an agent, to repeat the European venture, then sail directly to Canton, China, at the head of the Pearl River, using sales proceeds to set up a trading company. Following a three-month voyage, he would join other Western interests, principally the English, in a location there called, the Thirteen Factories. The objective: selling New England-made goods and produce to the Chinese, in exchange for tea, silks and porcelain.
The problem was, the Chinese—long an isolated and self-sufficient nation—weren't interested. After a concerted effort, spanning several months, Russell eventual chose a more controversial, but highly profitable route for his new entity, Russell & Co. Writing to his partners in Providence, noting the success of the British East India Company in their wealth-building dealings with local merchants and Cantonese brokers, he notified them of his decision to also deal in opium. The change in strategy was straight forward. First, sail to Turkey or India, where cotton goods were in demand. Trade for local opium and proceed to China, where there was a limitless and eager clientele for opium. Use the proceeds to purchase silks, tea, and porcelain, then head home to place those goods on sale, sometimes right at dockside. Then repeat.
This work of historical fiction explores the moral and ethical choices made in a place and time when opium was not illegal but regarded as damaging to a nation's productivity and well-being. Colonialism, racial and ethnic bias, and the absence of international regulations had opened many doors for Western businessmen. 'Merchants of Deceit' explores many of these themes, as told through the first-hand perspective of Samuel Russell, rising to prominence in Canton, China, as he unwittingly redirected the course of world history.