Friday, July 01, 2005

July 1 in Hong Kong History

Most of us in Hong Kong are made aware of the significance July 1st in the city's history by the public holiday we get today. It is of course the anniversary of the day Britain returned the city to China in 1997 after 156 years of rule. Now, unquestionably, this was an important and significant day. But we at Walk the Talk would argue that while an interesting date, it is the anniversary of perhaps a more interesting event that had a far greater impact on the course of history.

On July 1, 1832, a new limited partnership company was created - and its name was Jardine, Matheson. You'll find George Chinnery's excellent renditions of the two most important Europeans on the China Coast on this page - William Jardine to the left, and James Matheson below. No other company has ever had as great an impact on Hong Kong as Jardines, "the Princely Hong", as it was called for much of its history. It was not an entirely new company - it had previously been known as Cox and Beale (then an importer of cuckoo clocks and furs), then later in the 1820s, as Magniac and Company. It had been in the early '20s that the Magniac brothers had invited William Jardine, a Scotsman from Dumfries previously a surgeon in the employ of the British East India Company to join their firm as a junior partner. They saw him for what he was - an extraordinary talent in trade, particularly in the increasingly popular line of opium. As Jardine had once said himself of opium, "a more gentlemanlike speculation, I do not know of." He not only had a brilliant sense of timing, but had the determination to follow his business through, and additionally had excellent contacts with the Parsee traders in Bombay and Bengal (he had met Cowasjee as a young man while both were shipwrecked by the French navy during the Napoleonic Wars).

Soon after, the eldest Magniac brother, Charles, died in Paris. The next in line, Daniel Magniac, was forced to resign from the firm following his marriage, scandalous at the time, to his Indian Eurasian mistress. The sole remaining Magniac, Hollingworth, realized that Jardine had the better head for business and opted to become a silent partner. The firm by the mid1820s had become renamed as Magniac, Jardine and Company. As head partner of the firm, he invited another Scotsman to join his firm - James Matheson, the son of a baronet with keen business skills but frustrated by his previous partnerships with unreliable merchants. On July 1, 1832, this partnership between just the two men (Hollingworth was bought out) was born, creating the world's most powerful company of that day.

It controlled one-third of all seaborne trade to China - all trade. Their dominance of the opium business in particular made them extremely wealthy men. But their power was only fully demonstrated after Lin Zexu seized 20,000 chests of opium from foreign firms in Canton. Jardine's ability to influence Parliament, in particular having the ear of Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston - enabled him to convince Britain to go to war with China. Under the auspices of the "Jardine" plan, as it was called, warships were dispatched to China. The conclusion of that war of course brought about the cession of the island of Hong Kong and the beginning of our city.

There is a marvellous symmetry to today's two anniversaries - one being creation of a drg-trading firm (to be fair they got out of the opium business in the 1870s) that would prompt Britain to secure its own deep-water harbour in Hong Kong, and the other being Britain handing back its spoils from the Opium Wars. They are bookends to a history that saw the elevation of our megapolis from dubious, insalubrious beginnings on a "barren rock".

We discuss these issues in both our Central and Tsim Sha Tsui audio walks, and pose the question: Hong Kong was founded by drug dealers and yet today is a wealthy, safe and modern city; do the ends justify the means? And does this Machiavellian spirit continue to linger on in the city today?

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