John Perkins Cushing

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John Perkins Cushing (April 22, 1787 – 1862), called "Ku-Shing" by the Chinese, was a wealthy Boston sea merchant, opium smuggler, and philanthropist. His sixty-foot pilot schooner, the Sylph, won the first recorded American yacht race in 1832, and the town of Belmont, Massachusetts is named after his estate.

Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Robert and Ann Perkins (Maynard) Cushing. His father's Cushing ancestor had emigrated to Hingham, Massachusetts, during the early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Cushing's sister Nancy later married Henry Higginson. When his mother died of smallpox, Cushing was raised by his uncle, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, and in 1803 at age 16 sailed for China to become clerk in his uncle's counting house. The head of the firm in China soon fell ill and died at sea. Cushing thus arrived in China to find himself Perkins & Company's sole agent. There he remained for nearly 30 years.

Cushing managed the affairs of the firm skillfully and was soon taken into partnership. Under Cushing, the firm of Perkins & Company was formally established in Canton in 1806. At one point he made a good profit during a famine in China by importing rice. During the War of 1812, the family loaned their money out--at 18 percent interest--to other merchants in Canton. But the fur trade paled and when hard cash grew harder to come by, a search began for a substitute for the furs and specie that had been foundations of Boston's China trade. Opium seemed the ideal commodity. By the 1820s Cushing was known as the most influential of all the foreigners in Canton, and had struck up a close relationship with the hong merchant Houqua, who at his death in 1843 was said to be the richest man in the world.

In 1820 Cushing brought on his cousin Thomas Tunno Forbes to train for the business. Forbes, however, died in 1827 before assuming control of the firm. Cushing, eager for retirement and lacking a suitable replacement, made arrangements to dissolve Perkins & Company by an 1827 consolidation with Russell & Co (created by China trader Samuel Russell in 1823).

He returned to Boston in 1830 with Eastern manners and manservants, and soon married the only daughter of the Rev. John Sylvester John Gardiner of Trinity Church, Boston. It was rumored at the time that there was much disappointment among the young ladies of Boston, who, as some one expressed it, "beset him like bumblebees about a lump of sugar."

Cushing built himself a handsome mansion on Summer Street, acquired a splendid 200-acre (0.81 km2) estate in Watertown named "Bellmont" (now part of Belmont, Massachusetts which is named after his estate), and erected one of the finest conservatories in New England. His house was one of the finest and most comfortable of any in or near Boston. It was a double one-—a house within a house-—and thus warm in winter and cool in summer. Its spacious grounds and beautiful gardens were open to the public, and thousands of visitors went out there each year. Once when the assessors called upon him to question him as to his taxes, he asked, "What is the entire amount to be raised?" The sum was named by the assessors, whereupon Mr. Cushing said, "You can charge the whole amount to me."

Cushing was very fond of the Perkins family, and often brought to the house presents of large boxes of the finest white sugar. He spent much time at their house, and when one heard "deuce, ace, tray", it was safe to assume that either William Appleton or Cushing was engaged in a backgammon contest with Colonel Perkins.

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  • Other Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston, State Street Trust Company, Boston, Mass., 1919.