So today let’s just fast forward to the Qing Dynasty, this is where it all began as far as when Hong Kong went from being this sparsely settled land with an economy that relied on fishing, pearls and salt, to one of the great centers of China trade with the West. This was the time of these incredible merchant adventurers and founding of the legendary firms like Jardine Matheson, Swire, Dent, Russell, Augustine Herde, Howlin, Aspinwall, Weylock Martin, and many many others. But it’s Jardine and Matheson that I want to talk about first today because these were the two chaps who joined together in 1827 to get the ball rolling in the 1830s. Theirs is quite the interesting story, many of you are probably familiar with the company they started.
James Clavell wrote a couple of novels called Taipan and Noble House that were loosely modeled on Jardine Mathison and Company. So today let’s sort of use William Jardine as one of the cornerstones to tell today’s story.
Last episode we mentioned Jorge Alvarez, he was part of an early contingent of Portugese who were scouting around the area in and around Hong Kong. The Portugese were the first westerners to get a look-see at the economic opportunities available out this way, their trading vessels were not only packed with provisions and cargo but always with any number of Jesuits looking to see what harvest they could reap out in these far-away lands. So 16th and 17th Century we recall the great work of the Jesuits, I mentioned Richie, Shaal van Bell and Veerbeest in a previous episode…that was Number 98. There were others who followed, and then as soon as the scent of blood got in the water as far as the riches of Cathay sitting there waiting to be had, all the other sharks started heading in that direction. There came the Dutch, the English and the French who mostly stayed down in Viet Nam for the time being.
When Khagxi put an end to the Hai Chien in 1684, it’s not like he welcomed the foreigners back, China was still closed for business and trade was restricted to Canton and Macau. The British meanwhile were making a ton of money in India and getting that place all set up, that was the springboard to China. It was the success in carrying out commerce in India since the battle of Plassey in 1757 and the men of steel who grew out of that world that facilitated the whole Opium War and everything that would later follow with Hong Kong.
So here was the problem, it was called the Canton System, it had been developed between 1685 and 1752. Western traders made some efforts to do some direct trade with China via Ningbo and Xiamen but if you wanted to do business with China beginning around 1757 you had to work within this Canton System. It was corrupt, arbitrary and quite an inefficient monopoly. The Qiualong Emperor was the first to command that all foreign trade had to go through this Canton system.
Has all this talk of Hong Kong’s history made you eager to visit? This amazing place truly needs to be experienced to be understood. Charming Asia Tours is the leading tour provider for Hong Kong tours from America.