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James Matheson

  • Name  : Matheson
  • Born  : 1796
  • Died  : 1898
  • Category  : Other
  • Finest Moment : Founding the great trading company of Jardine Matheson in the late 1820's.

He bought a Scottish island with profits made from opium and tea.

Born in Lairg, Sutherlandshire, Matheson became a country trader in India (involved in inter-port trade of the East) before moving to China. There he met up with William Jardine. The latter, from near Lochmaben, had been a surgeon in the East India Company before moving into commerce. Jardine joined Cox & Beale, an established Canton House, which the two took over, founding the great trading company of Jardine Matheson & Co.

Matheson was then in his early 20's, and the company prospered rapidly through the opium trade with China. Basically, the East India Company produced and marketed opium in India. The main demand for this drug lay in China, but Peking had banned the substance. There was also a huge trade in tea from China, which was a valuable commodity. The EIC had to sell opium so they could buy tea, so the answer was to set up the country traders to allow them to smuggle opium into China. This trade accounted for most of Jardine Matheson's turnover for a decade. When in 1833 the EIC lost their tea monopoly, JM made a killing there too.

As the Chinese became more hostile to this insalubrious, if highly profitable trade, the British government became more belligerent, supporting the likes of JM in their tradings. The Opium Wars broke out, and Britain took possession of islands in the mouth of the Pearl River, one of them being Hong Kong. Matheson stayed on as a taipan until 1842, then returned to Scotland. There, in 1842, he bought the Isle of Lewis, and began to pour money into various improvements to the island.

The potato famine was ravaging the islands at this time, and he endeavoured to protect the inabitants with schemes involving oatmeal, seed potatoes, and the building of roads and a castle at Stornoway. Sir James even had a plan to remove the island's covering of peat, and transform it into tar, but this was unsuccessful. Jardine Matheson continued to prosper, even although its mainland interests in China were nationalised with the communist take-over in 1949. Now registered in Bermuda (to protect its Hong Kong interests since the return of that island to China), it is worth a staggering 11 billion dollars in annual turnover, and is the largest Asia-based conglomerate.

Sir James Matheson died at the grand old age of 102.

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