James Matheson

For the American politician, see Jim Matheson. For the Australian TV presenter, see James Mathison.
James Matheson (published 1837)
James Matheson Memorial built in 1880 in Stornoway Castle Grounds refurbished in 2006
James Matheson's Tomb in Lairg Scotland
Poppy Wreath in James Matheson's Tomb in Lairg Scotland

Sir James Nicolas Sutherland Matheson, 1st Baronet FRS (17 October 1796  31 December 1878), born in Shiness, Lairg, Sutherland, Scotland, was the son of Captain Donald Matheson,[1] a Scottish trader in India. He attended Edinburgh's Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh. He and William Jardine went on to co-found the Hong Kong-based trading conglomerate Jardine Matheson & Co. that became today's Jardine Matheson Holdings.

China and Hong Kong

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.[2]

In 1807, Matheson was entrusted by his uncle with a letter to be delivered to the captain of a soon-to-depart British vessel. He forgot to deliver the missive and the vessel sailed without it. Incensed at his nephew's negligence, the uncle suggested that young James might be better off back in England. He took his uncle at his word and went to engage a passage back home. However, a chance encounter with an old sea captain instead saw Matheson departing for Canton (Guangzhou).

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.

In 1827 he provided a small hand press for the printing of the Canton Register, the first English language newspaper in China,[3] which was edited by William Wightman Wood, an American from Philadelphia who would later work for rival trading house Russell & Co.[4]

On 1 July 1832, Jardine, Matheson and Company, a partnership, between William Jardine, James Matheson as senior partners, and Hollingworth Magniac, Alexander Matheson, Jardine's nephew Andrew Johnstone, Matheson's nephew Hugh Matheson, John Abel Smith, and Henry Wright, as the first partners was formed in Canton,[5] and took the Chinese name 'Ewo' (怡和 "Yee-Wo" Literally Happy Harmony). The name was taken from the earlier Ewo Hong founded by Howqua[6] 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.[7]

Jardine wanted the opium trade to expand in China and despatched 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 expressed his views plainly, contemporaneously describing, "... the Chinese [as] a people characterised by a marvelous degree of imbecility, avarice, conceit and obstinacy..."[8]

Matheson returned to Asia in 1838 and the following year Jardine left for England to continue lobbying.[5]

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 Matheson 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.

Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in China

On 29 November 1834, Matheson became chairman of the newly formed "Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in China". The committee members represented a wide section of the business and missionary community in Canton: David Olyphant, William Wetmore, James Innes, Thomas Fox, Elijah Coleman Bridgman, Karl Gützlaff and John Robert Morrison. John Francis Davis, at that time chief superintendent of British trade in China, was made an honorary member.[9]

Return to Scotland

Matheson married Mary Jane Perceval on 9 November 1843.[10] Her father, Michael Henry Perceval (1779–1829), was the illegitimate son of assassinated British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval,[11] Commissioner of the Port of Quebec from 1826 and a member, from Spencer Wood, of the Legislative Council of Lower Canada. The Mathesons had no children.[10]

Matheson bought the Scottish Isle of Lewis in 1844 for over half a million pounds and built Lews Castle, near Stornoway. In 1845, he began a programme of improvements on the island, including drainage schemes and road construction. He increased the programme 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.

When in London Matheson lived at 13 Cleveland Row. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846.[12] As a result of his actions during the Highland Potato Famine, Matheson was awarded a baronetcy in 1850. He was Member of Parliament (MP) for Ashburton from 1843 to 1852 and for Ross and Cromarty from 1852 to 1868. He led an active public life into his eighth decade, and for many years served as chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.[10] His nephews succeeded him in directing Jardine Matheson and Matheson & Company.[10]

Matheson died in 1878 at the age of 82 in Menton, France, upon which his wife erected a memorial to him in the grounds of Lews Castle.[13] He left £1,500 to help pay for the construction of the harbour at Port of Ness.[14] The baronetcy became extinct on his death.


  1. Mackenzie, Alexander History of the Mathesons with Genealogies of the Various Families (1900)
  2. Greenberg, Michael (2000). Tuck, Patrick J. N., ed. British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800–1842. 9. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-18998-5. p. 39
  3. Waters, Dan (1990). "Hong Kong's Hongs with Long Histories and British Connections" (PDF). Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch. 30: 219–256. ISSN 1991-7295. p. 222
  4. Haddad, John Rogers (2008). The Romance of China: Excursions to China in US Culture: 1776–1876. Columbia University Press. p. 35. ISBN 9780231130943.
  5. 1 2 "William Jardine". Retrieved 13 April 2011.
  6. Cheong, W.E. (1997). The Hong Merchants of Canton: Chinese merchants in Sino-Western trade. Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-0361-6. p. 122 Online version at Google books
  7. Dong, Stella (2000). Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-688-15798-X. p. 6
  8. Matheson, James (1836). The Present Position and Prospects of the British Trade With China. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  9. Elijah Coleman Bridgman; Samuel Wells Williams (1835). The Chinese Repository. Maruzen Kabushiki Kaisha. p. 381.
  10. 1 2 3 4 DNB: "Matheson, Sir (Nicholas) James Sutherland"
  11. "Auction of Fine Portrait Miniatures Including the Judy & Brian Harden Collection London, Knightsbridge 25 May 2011". Bonhams. 25 May 2011. Retrieved 30 April 2014.
  12. "Fellows Details: Matheson; Sir; Nicholas James Sutherland (1796 - 1878)". Royal Society. Retrieved 9 May 2014.
  13. "Lady Matheson's Memorial". The Stornoway Trust. Retrieved 13 April 2011.
  14. Second Annual Report of the Fishery Board of Scotland 1883 Appendix E No. 1

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
William Jardine
Member of Parliament for Ashburton
1843 – 1847
Succeeded by
Thomas Matheson
Preceded by
Sir James Mackenzie
Member of Parliament for Ross and Cromarty
Succeeded by
Sir Alexander Matheson
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Hugh Duncan Bailie
Lord Lieutenant of Ross-shire
Succeeded by
Duncan Davidson
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baronet
(of The Lews)
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