When researching my book, I found no evidence of Duncan Dunbar trading in opium. The ship Red Rover that was re-rigged in his shipyard in Moulmein, Burma, however, became the fastest and most famous opium runner on the China Coast. She could outrun all of the Chinese customs and navy ships, and delivered East India Company and Jardine Matheson opium from Malwa in India to Canton and Shanghai.
The Chinese community around Limehouse in London was certainly notorious for its opium dens, however Dunbar and his captains not only never traded in opium but they never employed opium addicts either.
No captain would knowingly take an addict to sea and run the risk of finding them unconscious in an emergency, unable to attend to their duties, or causing problems as a ‘berserker’ with a meat cleaver!
The Cantonese got preference as crew on Dunbar vessels, the privilege being a free trip home to Canton. In response there was complete loyalty and never one desertion from a ship, even at the height of the Australian, California and New Zealand gold rushes.
The closest brush with drug running was thanks to Captain James Molison, who married Duncan’s first cousin. Captain Molison left Dunbar’s employ and migrated to Sydney, New South Wales and became actively involved as an opium trader.
Molison traded up and down the East Coast of Australia but had to to file for bankruptcy in 1867 due to a trade slump. His accounts, pictured here, show the extent of opium use in Australia. The pages are difficult to read but the entries are as follows:
• Kong Yee – Gladstone
• Ah Sing – Sydney
• Ah Cheong – Sofala (255 km north west of Sydney)
• San Shin – Peak Downs, Central Queensland
• Sin Mong Long – Sydney
• Si Won – Bathurst, £77/4/4d, £90/4/3d, £35/19/-d
• Ying Sing – Rockhampton (15 Mile Rush)
• Ku Ki – £150, and £69/16/6d, £168/8/-d
Loyalty came through again for this ex-Dunbar captain however, as the final accounts showed every Chinese opium dealer paid their account in full to Molison, thus assisting his discharge from Bankruptcy within 3 months. How’s that for dodging a financial bullet! If you love a great story set in the Age of Sail, this one’s all true, and its characters come to life in my biography “Lion Rampart: Duncan Dunbar and the Age of Sail” available now at Amazon. https://amzn.to/3WbKqma