British Characters

  • Lord Napier
  • William Jardine
  • Sir James Matteson
  • George Chinnery
  • Captain Charles Elliot
  • Karl Gutzlaff

Sir James Matteson

Jardine’s partner and his successor, he was the charming front man but he had a tart tongue. Later he was knighted for his philanthropy.

Sir James Nicolas Sutherland Matheson, 1st Baronet (17 October 1796 – 31 December 1878), born in Shiness, Lairg Sutherland, Scotland, was the son of Captain Donald Matheson, a Scottish trader in India. He attended Edinburgh’s Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh.

After leaving university, Matheson spent two years in a London agency house before departing for Calcutta, India and a position in his uncle’s trading firm, Mackintosh & Co.

Matheson first met William Jardine in Canton in 1818. The two men later formed a partnership which also included Hollingworth Magniac and Daniel Beale. At first the new firm dealt only with trade between Canton, Bombay and Calcutta, at that time called the "country trade" but later extended their business to London.

On 1 July 1832, Jardine, Matheson and Company, a partnership, between William Jardine, James Matheson as senior partners and took the Chinese name "Ewo" (Yi He , literally Happy Harmony). The name was taken from the earlier Ewo Hong founded by Howqua which had an honest and upright reputation.

In 1834, Parliament ended the monopoly of the British East India Company on trade between Britain and China. Jardine, Matheson and Company took this opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the East India Company. With its first voyage carrying tea, the Jardine clipper ship Sarah left for England. Jardine Matheson began its transformation from a major commercial agent of the East India Company into the largest British trading hong, or firm, in Asia from its base in Hong Kong.

Jardine wanted the opium trade to expand in China and dispatched Matheson to England to lobby the Government to press the Qing government to further open up trade. Matheson’s mission proved unsuccessful and he was rebuked by the then British Foreign Secretary The Duke of Wellington. In a report, he complained to Jardine over being insulted by an "arrogant and stupid man". Matheson returned to Asia in 1838 and the following year Jardine left for England to continue lobbying.

Jardine’s lobbying efforts proved more effective than his partner’s and he succeeded in persuading the new British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston to wage war on Qing China. The subsequent First Opium War led to the Treaty of Nanking which allowed Jardine to expand from Canton to Hong Kong and Mainland China.

After Jardine died a bachelor in 1843, his nephews David and Andrew Jardine assisted James Matheson in running the Hong as Tai-Pan. Matheson retired as Tai-Pan during the early 1840s and handed over to David Jardine, another nephew of Jardine.

Matheson married Mary Jane Percival on 9 November 1843. He bought the Scottish Isle of Lewis in 1844 for over half a million pounds and built Lews Castle, near Stornoway. In 1845, he began an improvements program on the island, including drainage schemes and road construction. He increased the program during the Highland Potato Famine and by 1850 had spent some £329,000 on the island. Between 1851 and 1855 he assisted 1,771 people to emigrate. As a result of his actions during the famine, Matheson was rewarded with a baronetcy in 1851.