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Stories from the Scotsman
The Opium Traders


Jardine Matheson & Co

ONE of the most influential trading companies in the Far East was co-founded by William Jardine and James Matheson.

William Jardine was hired in 1802 by the legendary East India Company as an 18-year-old straight out of Edinburgh Medical School to be a surgeon on an eight-month voyage from London to Canton. The crews were allowed cargo for their own private trading and Jardine did so well that he set up on his own in 1817.

Jardine Matheson was founded 15 years later after a meeting with another Scots trader, James Matheson from Sutherland.

In 1834 the pair sent the first private shipments of China tea to England. Another big export to the UK was silk. In return they traded opium, widely used in China and at that time legal in Britain .

Jardine Mathesonís early profits were based on the enforced importation of Indian opium into China. When the Chinese emperor tried to ban the trade, the company called on Britain to compel China to accept the drug, leading in 1840 to two Opium Wars.

Jardine Matheson became the first foreign trading house in Japan, expanding its trade to coal, metals and machinery.

Taking advantage of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 which made Hong Kong a British colony, Jardine Matheson expanded into Shanghai, Canton, Amoy and Fuzhou, and invested in land in the rising commercial centre of Hong Kong.

Sir Alexander Matheson, James Mathesonís nephew, also made his fortune in China. Some of the profits were to build the baronial west Highland Duncraig Castle in Plockton, later bequeathed to the public.

Today Jardine Matheson is a vast commercial empire encompassing financial services, supermarkets, engineering, consumer marketing, construction, motor trading, property and hotels, with offices across Asia and the UK, Australia and America.

Thursday, 13th September 2001
The Scotsman

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