The Forbes mansion was built with opium money. Now an Exhibit Reflects Boston’s Lesser-Known History

Forbes Mansion, now called Forbes House Museum, was built in 1833 with profits from the opium trade in China. Now, for the first time, the museum is focusing on this past. His new exhibition,Opium: The Addiction Trade“, is part of a slow calculation of this dark and little-known piece of Boston heritage.

“We hope this exhibition will shed new light on a period in history that is often misunderstood or overlooked,” said Heidi Vaughan, executive director of Forbes House Museum in a statement.

The exhibit features members of the Forbes and Perkins families. Thomas Handasyd Perkins and his brother James Perkins began shifting their maritime empire from the slave trade to trading with China in the early 1800s.

American traders delivered large amounts of illegal opium to China, smuggled it into the country through a network of bribery and deception, and used the profits to buy tea, china , silk and other fabrics. The sale of these properties in Boston and beyond enriched the Perkins brothers and their nephews – Robert Bennet Forbes and John Murray Forbes.

The exhibit explores the early relationship between China and the United States which began with the opium trade and introduced what Chinese leaders called a century of humiliation.

“In this exhibition, the museum recognizes the evil that persists to this day because of the opium trade. Generations of Chinese families have suffered,” Vaughan said. “We hope to provide a transparent and balanced account of history, but it’s very complicated.”

Ben Forbes, as he was known, built Milton Manor in 1833. He filled it with sets of porcelain dishes, vases, intricately carved tables and chairs, and lots of silk. The exhibit includes chests in which Forbes hid hardened cakes or opium balls under rice to evade detection. There are maps of the routes ships based in Boston, Salem, Providence and other East Coast ports would take on voyages that could last two or three years.

Members of the Forbes family worked in the largest American trading house in China until 1891. On the desk are displayed records detailing silk and opium transactions. (Courtesy of Ellen Rogers Photography)

The Forbes were among the many Brahmin families in Boston whose wealth can be attributed to this trade. Profits helped establish the Perkins School for the Blind, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Athenaeum, and the factories and railroads that launched the country’s Industrial Revolution.

There are signs that the opium trade also fueled an addiction problem in mid-19th century Boston, which historians are scrambling to uncover. The Forbes House Museum partners with the Milton Public Library to provide resources and discussion on the current opioid crisis.

The exhibit also raises questions about the opium trade and its effect on US-China relations, current anti-Asian sentiment, and the role of philanthropy in addressing wrongs.

“There are a lot of interesting topics that are very relevant to our lives today,” Vaughan said. “We hope a lot of people will think about it and discuss it long after they leave our exhibit.”

“Opium: The Business of Addiction,” runs through March 2023.

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