John Jacob Astor I: The World’s First Big Time Drug Dealer

From the seedy backstreets of London and opium-ridden Canton in the 19th century right to the modern day, drug dealing has always been big business. But who was the world's first drug dealer? The answer may surprise you...
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Tony Montana, George Jung, Pablo Escobar, Stringer Bell, Walter White. No, not the world’s most unlikely One Direction tribute band. Either real or fictional, these five guys are mean, ruthless, bad ass drug lords, who share a common fondness for (a) truckloads of money and (b) slaughtering any poor bugger who gets in their way. At the less glamorous end, it’s easy to associate the concept of drug dealing with dank bedsits, stairway hovels and crazy-eyed customers clothed only in bin bags and a month old layer of B.O.

People have been doing drugs for centuries. Scrap that, millennia, since the dawn of our species. If it wasn’t for killing and shagging, getting high as a kite would be humanity’s favourite hobby. From the ancient Sumerians who had ‘plants of joy’ to Homer’s The Odyssey, where Helen of Troy gave an alcoholic medicine laced with raw opium to Telemachus, almost every single society in history has used recreational drugs at some point.

But who was the world’s first, proper drug dealer? Who was the first individual since the dawn of time to actually organise and profit to a gigantic extent from the drug trade? Surely it must be a proper wrong’un, someone notorious for being a dirtbag.

Except it wasn’t. The world’s first bonafide drug dealer was, at the time of his death in 1848, the wealthiest American alive and his descendants would go on, along with the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers et al. to become the American equivalent of royalty in the 19th and 20th centuries. John Jacob Astor I, the paterfamilias of the Astor family, was the first man to grow filthy rich off opium, helping to get a vast swathe of the Chinese population of the time perilously addicted to the stuff in the guarantee of making a ton of cash.

Astor was born just outside of Heidelberg, Germany into a lower middle class family with a butchers shop. Neither auspicious or dirt poor, his beginnings provided no clue of the ruthless, expert businessman that would one day establish such a vast fortune. After emigrating to London at the tender age of 16, working with his brother manufacturing musical instruments, Astor moved to the States in 1784 with barely a penny to his name but eager to gain a slice of the American Dream. In the end, old Johnny surpassed a slice, or even the whole pie, and bought up the entire fucking bakery.


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It was the fur trade that Astor amassed his original fortune with, trading pelts with Native Americans and gaining $5 million in the process. The wily German-American demonstrated his business acumen to take advantage of the Jay Treaty between America and Great Britain, which helped to promote business interests between the two (by now separate) nations after several years of continuing tension following American Independence. Astor began to import furs primarily from Canada and found a hungry market in far distant China. This relationship would prove to be useful in other, more lurid ways as in 1816 Astor took the bold step of purchasing ten tons of pure grade Turkish opium and illegally exporting it to Canton – all great businessmen take risks, of course, but this... This was an almighty fucking risk. Right up there with King Cnut sitting in his chair ready to stop the tides coming in, although naturally this was infinitely more successful. Astor made a fortune on the deal, with hundreds of thousands of Cantonese addicts eager to snap up his product. The British government had already intentionally disseminated opium to the Chinese masses so that they could trade the drug in exchange for tea (after all, as a country we are mental for a cuppa). The Astor family coffers grew even fatter as a result.

However, like all astute traders, Astor knew when not to get too greedy; after making his money he decided to reduce his risk and export solely to Victorian era London, downsizing the operation. Eventually, he’d withdraw from the opium trade altogether, creating the property empire which sustains his vast family tree to this day.

Even now, New York is a city which provides testament to the immense success of John Jacob Astor I. From Astor Place in Manhattan to Astor Row in Harlem and even FC Astoria Walldorf, a German football team named after the family patriarch, the influence of this remarkable man continues to this day. Is he a ‘great’ man? Well, he made a hell of a lot of money and established a dynasty so in that sense, yes he is. But the only thing that’s definite, I would argue, is that John Jacob Astor I was the world’s original drug dealer.