British Characters

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

William Jardine

The original Tai-Pan was the leader and master mind of the pro war party in order to open more ports to the opium trade. Nicknamed the "The Hard Headed Rat" by the Chinese, Jardine became fabulously wealthy from the trade.

William Jardine (24 February 1784 – 27 February 1843) was a Scottish physician and merchant who co-founded the Hong Kong based conglomerate Jardine, Matheson and Company.

Educated in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, in 1802 Jardine obtained a diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. In the same year he became a surgeon’s mate aboard the Brunswick belonging to the East India Company, and set sail for India.

Jardine was a resident in China from 1820 to 1839. His early success in Canton as a commercial agent for opium merchants in India led to his admission in 1825 as a partner in Magniac & Co., and by 1826 he controlled that firm’s Canton operations. James Matheson joined him shortly afterwards with Magniac & Co. reconstituted as Jardine, Matheson & Co in 1832. After Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu confiscated 20,000 cases of British-owned opium in 1839, Jardine arrived in London that September to press Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston with detailed plan for a forceful response.

Jardine had chosen to join the service of the British East India Company and in 1802 at the age of 18 boarded the East Indiaman Brunswick. One advantage of service with the East India Company was that employees were allowed to trade in goods on their own account. Each employee was allowed cargo space equivalent to two chests or about a hundred pounds of cargo. Jardine engaged in this trade with exceptional dexterity, even leasing the apportioned cargo space of other crew members who did not have interest in using the space, and was able to save quite an amount of money.

On leaving the East India Company in 1817, Jardine became an independent trader and entered into partnership with Thomas Weeding and Framjee Cowasjee. The firm did well in the domain of private traders and established Jardine’s reputation as an able, steady and experienced private trader. One of Jardine’s agents in Bombay, who would become his lifelong friend, was Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy , the first Parsee merchant to be created a baronet by Queen Victoria, who would become fabulously wealthy in the years to come.

In 1824, a very important opportunity arose for Jardine. The house of Magniac, the largest and most prominent of all China trading houses fell into disarray. Hollingworth Magniac was searching for competent partners to join his firm as he was intent on leaving Asia. He was also forced to have his brother, Daniel, resign from the firm after he married his Chinese mistress. Hollingworth, after an extensive search for a senior partner, settled with Jardine, whose business reputation was already well known throughout Asia. Both Jardine and Magniac also invited James Matheson to join the firm. Magniac returned to England in late 1820s with the firm in the hands of two of the most talented traders in Asia.

Jardine was known as the planner, the tough negotiator and strategist of the firm and Matheson was known as the organization man, who handled the firm’s correspondence, and other complex articles including legal affairs. Matheson was known to be behind many of the company’s innovative practices. And both men were a study in contrasts, Jardine being tall, lean and trim while Matheson was short and slightly portly. Matheson had the advantage of coming from a family with social and economic means, while Jardine came from a much more humble background. Jardine was tough, serious, detail-oriented and reserved while Matheson was creative, outspoken and jovial. Jardine was known to work long hours and was extremely business-minded, while Matheson enjoyed the arts and was very eloquent. But there were similarities in both men. Jardine and Matheson were second sons, possibly explaining their drive and character. Both men were hardworking, driven and single-minded in their pursuit of wealth.

It was their reputation for business probity, innovative management and strict fiscal policies that sustained their partnership’s success in a period where businesses operated in a highly volatile and uncertain environment where the line between success and bankruptcy was extremely thin. Jardine was known for his legendary imperiousness and pride. He was nicknamed by the locals "The Iron-headed Old Rat" after being hit on the head by a club in Guangzhou. Jardine, after being hit, just shrugged off the injury with dour resilience. He had only one chair in his office in the "Creek Hong" in Canton and that was his own. Visitors were never allowed to sit, to impress upon them that Jardine was a very busy man. Jardine was also known as a crisis manager. In 1822, during his visit to the firm’s Guangzhou office, he found the local office in management crisis, with employees in near mutiny against the firm’s officers. Jardine then proceeded to take temporary control and succeeded in putting the office in order in just a matter of days. Also a shrewd judge of character, Jardine was even able to persuade the Rev. Charles Gutzlaff, a Prussian missionary, to interpret for their ship captains during coastal smuggling of opium, using the idea that the reverend would best gather more converts during these smuggling operations.

Matheson claimed to own the only piano in Asia and was also an accomplished player. He was also responsible for removing one of the firm’s ship captains for refusing to offload opium chests on the Sabbath. Matheson observed, "We have every respect for persons entertaining strict religious principles, but we fear that very godly people are not suited for the drug trade."

On 1 July 1832, Jardine, Matheson and Company, a partnership, between William Jardine, James Matheson as senior partners, taking the Chinese name ’Ewo’, pronounced "Yee-Wo", and meaning ’Happy Harmony’. The name was chosen as it had been used by the former Ewo Hong run by Chinese merchant Howqua, a business with an impeccable reputation.

The firm’s operations included smuggling opium into China from India, trading spices and sugar with the Philippines, exporting Chinese tea and silk to England, factoring and insuring cargo, renting out dockyard facilities and warehouse space, trade financing and other numerous lines of business and trade. 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 then began its transformation from a major commercial agent of the East India Company into the largest British trading hong , or firm, in Asia. William Jardine was now being referred to by the other traders as "Tai-pan", a Chinese colloquial title meaning ’Great Manager’.

During the mid-1830s, trade with China was becoming more difficult due to the Qing government’s increasing restrictions on the narcotic trade in part to control the worsening outflow of silver. This trade imbalance stemmed from the fact that Western traders were importing more opium into China than they were exporting teas and silk.

Nevertheless, Dr. William Jardine wanted the opium trade to expand in China. In 1834, working with the Chief Superintendent of Trade representing the British Empire, William, Lord Napier, tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the Chinese officials in Canton. The Chinese Viceroy ordered the Canton offices where Napier was staying to be blockaded and the inhabitants including Napier to be held hostages. Lord Napier, a broken and humiliated man, was allowed to return to Macao by land and not by ship as requested. Suffering a fever, he died a few days later.

Jardine, who had good relations with Lord Napier, a Scottish peer, and his family, then took the initiative to use the debacle as an opportunity to convince the British government to use force to further open trade. In early 1835 he ordered James Matheson to leave for Britain to persuade the Government to take up strong action to further open up trade in China. Matheson accompanied Napier’s widow to England using an eye-infection as an excuse to return home. Matheson in England then extensively travelled to meet with several parties, both for government and for trade, to gather support for a war with China. Though in some ways unsuccessful in his forays in England, he was brushed aside by the "Iron Duke" (Duke of Wellington), the then British Foreign Secretary, and reported bitterly to Jardine of being insulted by an arrogant and stupid man. But his activities and widespread lobbying in several forums including Parliament bore the seeds that would eventually lead to war in a few years. Matheson returned to China in 1836 to prepare to take over the firm as Jardine was preparing to fulfill his temporarily delayed retirement. Jardine left Canton on 26 January 1839 for Britain as retirement but in actuality to try to continue Matheson’s work.

The farewell dinner to Jardine was held on 22 January 1839 with several members of the Foreign settlement in Canton mostly traders. Among the guests were the Forbes brothers of the prominent Forbes family and Warren Delano, a senior partner in the trading firm Russel & Co. and maternal grandfather of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Qing government was pleased to hear of Jardine’s departure, then proceeded to stop the opium trade. Lin Zexu, appointed specifically to suppress the drug trade in Guangzhou, stated, "The Iron-headed Old Rat, the sly and cunning ring-leader of the opium smugglers has left for The Land of Mist, of fear from the Middle Kingdom’s wrath."

Once in London, Jardine’s first order of business was to meet with Lord Palmerston. Jardine successfully persuaded the British Foreign Minister, Lord Palmerston, to wage war on China, giving a full detailed plan for war, detailed strategic maps, battle strategies, the indemnifications and political demands from China and even the number of troops and warships needed. This plan was known as the Jardine Paper.

In the ’Jardine Paper’, Jardine emphasized several points to Palmerston in several meetings and they are as follows: There was to be complete compensation for the 20,000 chests of opium that Lin had confiscated, the conclusion of a viable commercial treaty that would prevent any further hostilities, and the opening of further ports of trade such as Fuzhou, Ningbo, Shanghai, and Keeson-chow. It was also suggested by Jardine that should the need arise to occupy an island or harbor in the vicinity of Guangzhou. Hong Kong would be perfect because it provided an extensive and protected anchorage. As early as the mid-1830s, the island of Hong Kong had already been used for transhipment points by Jardine Matheson and other firms’ ships. Jardine clearly stated what he thought would be a sufficient naval and military force to complete the objectives he had outlined. He also provided maps and charts of the area. In a well calculated recommendation letter to Parliament, creating a precedent now infamously known as ’Gunboat Diplomacy’, Jardine states:

’No formal Purchase, -- no tedious negotiations,...A firman insistently issued to Sir F. Maitland authorizing him to take & retain possession is all that is necessary, & the Squadron under his Command is quite competent to do both,...until an adequate naval and military force...could be sent out from the mother Country. When All this is accomplished, -- but not till then, a negotiation may be commenced in some such Terms as the following - You take my opium - I take your Islands in return - we are therefore Quits, --& thenceforth if you please let us live in friendly Communion and good fellowship. You cannot protect your Seaboard against Pirates & Buccaneers. I can - So let us understand Each other, & study to promote our mutual Interests.’

Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary who succeeded Wellington, decided mainly on the "suggestions" of Jardine to wage war on China. In mid-1840, a large fleet of war ships appeared on the China coast and with the first cannon fire aimed at a British ship, the Royal Saxon, the British started the first of the Opium Wars. British warships destroyed numerous shore batteries and enemy warships, laid waste to several coastal forts, indiscriminately bombarding town after town with heavy cannon fire, even pushing up north to threaten the Imperial Palace in Beijing itself. The Imperial Government, forced to surrender, gave in to the demands of the British.

In 1843, the Treaty of Nanjing was signed by official representatives of both Britain and China. It allowed the opening of major five major Chinese ports, granted extraterritoriality to foreigners and their activities in China, indemnification for the opium destroyed and completed the formal acquisition of the island of Hong Kong, which had been officially taken over as a trading and military base since 26 January 1841, though it had already been used years earlier as a transhipment point. Trade with China, especially in the illegal opium, grew, and so did the firm of Jardine, Matheson and Co, which was already known as the Princely Hong for being the largest British trading firm in East Asia.

In 1841, Jardine was elected to the House of Commons a Whig Member of Parliament (MP) representing Ashburton in Devon. Despite his nominal retirement, Jardine was still very much active in business and politics

In late 1842, Jardine’s health had rapidly deteriorated possibly from pulmonary oedima. In the latter part of the year, Jardine was already bedridden and in great pain. The taipan, Dr. William Jardine died on 27 February 1843, just three days after his 59th birthday, one of the richest and most powerful men in Britain and a respected Member of Parliament. Jardine’s funeral was attended by a very large gathering of family, friends, government and business personalities, many of whom Jardine had helped in his lifetime.