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Book details
  • Genre:HISTORY
  • SubGenre:Asia / China
  • Language:English
  • Pages:316
  • Paperback ISBN:9781667826653

Merchants of Deceit: Opium, American Fortune & the China Trade

by Richard J. Friswell

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In the early 19th century, Connecticut resident, Samuel Russell set out for Canton, China to sell American made goods in this remote Asian nation. He was one of several Western businessmen who made the dangerous months' long journey halfway around the world in search of fortune. Once there, he discovered that opium sales was in high demand, and far more lucrative. In this little known chapter in American history the dangers and opportunities Russell faced there, as an opium importer are revealed; the many facets of feudal Chinese culture under the control of an ancient imperial dynasty are explored; and the difficult choices needed to traffic opium over the objections and under the nose of the emperor and his minions are described in vivid detail.
THE NEW WORLD Samuel Russell entered in 1819 was one cloaked in mystery for centuries. A restless and ambitious man of thirty, this New England mill-goods agent had just arrived in Canton, China, following a tempestuous months'-long sea passage. His hope: that here, in this far-flung destination on the other side of the world, he might make a name—and fortune—for himself. He climbed the well-worn steps at Canton's so-called, Jackass Point, merging into a throng of humanity, a gritty waterfront setting crammed with sampans and street vendors—yet another day in this ancient city on the banks of southeast China's, Pearl River. Beyond the waterfront's tumult, Russell recognized a well-ordered row of neo-classical structures known as the Thirteen Factories, including one designated by an American flag. Here he was destined to live and work for the next twelve years. It is in Canton, and in the nearby Portuguese coastal trading outpost of Macao, where he wins friends and allies; attracts enemies and adversaries; succumbs to love's temptation and comes to know devastating loss; strikes a bargain-or-two with the devil; saves lives, even as he puts millions more at risk. And while he places his trust in only a handful of men, he is often plagued by doubt and self-recrimination, isolation, fitful dream-addled sleep, and profound loneliness. In the end, he comes to know tragedy and betrayal, as a series of events forces him to flee China for his very life. 'Merchants of Deceit' is a work of early 19th century historical fiction—told in the first person—faithfully draws on original logs and records of the day. It reveals a little-known chapter in American history and the role Samuel Russell, a native of Middletown, Connecticut, played in shaping international events, as he and others amassed their fortunes in an unfolding confrontation with China's imperial throne, an elusive game that would alter the course of world history.
About the author
Richard J. Friswell, is a cultural historian and Wesleyan University Visiting Scholar. There, he co-directs the Wesleyan Institute for Lifelong Learning, an adult education program. He is publisher and managing editor of ARTES, a fine arts online magazine ( and an elected member of the International Association of Art Critics, as well as an award-winning writer in the field of art journalism, with over 400 published articles. In 2016, Hammonasset House Books published a collection of his essays, "Balancing Act: Postcards from the Edge of Risk and Reward." In 2018, a work of historical fiction about the Hudson River School of painting founder, Thomas Cole, entitled, "Hudson River Chronicles: In Search of the Splendid & Sublime on America's 'Frist' River." He lives in southern Connecticut, where he lectures widely on topics related to the visual arts and cultural history in the modern era.
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