Augustine Heard & Company, major American 19th century China trading house with its headquarters in Hong Kong from 1856
The following article about Augustine Heard and Company was written by Gillian Bickley, Peter E Hamilton and George Cautherley and first published in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, edited by May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn. The publisher, HK University Press, has kindly granted permission for it to be posted here, but retains copyright over this material from 2012.
This article incorporates one written by John M. Carroll published in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography. The publisher, HK University Press has given permission for this to be posted here.
Heard, Augustine b. 30 March 1785; d. 14 September 1868, Ispwich, Massachusetts, USA. Trader.
Heard, John b. 14 September 1824, Ispwich, Massachusetts, d. 20 February 1894, Boston, Massachusetts. Trader.
Heard Jr., Augustine b. 1827, Ispwich, Massachusetts, d. 14 December 1905, SS Koung Albert, the Strait of Gibraltar. Trader and diplomat.
Heard, Albert Farley b. 4 October 1833; d. 26 March 1890, Washington, DC, USA. Trader and diplomat.
Heard, George Washington (name changed to George Farley Heard in 1861) b. 31 January 1837; d. 8 February 1875, SS Anadye, the Red Sea. Trader.
Thanks to SCT for proofreading the retyped article.
Augustine Heard and Company established a global trade network from Turkey and India to China, Siam, Japan and both coasts of the United States. Under the direction of the Heard family, the firm’s extraordinary rise and fall forms an integral part of the history of Sino-American commerce, much of it conducted from Hong Kong during the 19th century.
The first Augustine Heard (1785-1868), the son of a successful New England merchant and distiller, attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire but left before graduation to work for a Boston trading house, which sent him to Calcutta in 1805. Heard was both supercargo and captain of his own brig, the Caravan, by 1812. In 1830 he reached Canton, where he bought a partnership in Russell & Co. Augustine Heard maintained this connection to the Forbes Family for the rest of his career, although he left the company to found his own, eponymous and rival trading house with another Russell & Co. partner, Joseph Coolidge, in 1840.
Augustine Heard never married. In September 1841 he brought his brother’s son, John Heard, to Canton, at a time when the house was handling Jardine, Matheson & Co.’s opium business during the Opium War (1839-42). Uncle and nephew worked together in Canton for three years before Augustine Heard rewarded John with $10,000 and returned to the US. John would continue to be the dominant partner with the largest share of the business until it failed in 1875.
Heard’s remained a family firm: Augustine Heard’s four nephews – John Heard, Augustine Heard Jr., Albert Farley Heard and George Washington Heard – directed it in rotation, staying in China for two or three years at a stretch, until 1875. In March 1847 Augustine Jr. arrived in Canton after graduating from Harvard and became a partner in 1850. Poor health soon forced him to leave for home, but he returned to China in 1852. In 1853 the third brother, Albert Farley, graduated from Yale and replaced John; he became a partner in 1856. In 1857 John returned to China and relieved Augustine Jr.; he retired in 1862 to manage the business in Boston, leaving Albert in charge. George, who had served as secretary to the American Legation in China in 1859, came out to join the firm. From 1867 to 1871 the firm was once again headed by Augustine Jr. Albert served as the last senior partner from 1871 to 1875.
The firm flourished during its first three decades of operation; its scale of business, in comparison with other American merchant houses, trailed only slightly behind its rival, Russell & Co. Gross profit quadrupled between 1846 and 1856. Branches were set up in Shanghai, Fuzhou and Hong Kong. In 1856 the Hong Kong branch became Augustine Heard and Co.’s headquarters, with a tea taster, a silk inspector and six other assistants on the staff. In a 12-month period from 1856 to 1857 the value of orders received by the Hong Kong office was an impressive £400,000: exports of tea and silk to Boston, New York, London and Sydney accounted for much of it. Capable if not daring, John Heard dealt easily with the Hong Kong merchants: although all transactions were by word of mouth, their honesty, he said, was remarkable. By the 1860s the firm’s new investments in steam shipping in China’s coastal and inland waters, especially on the Yangtze, were helping to double its annual profits again. It entered into new businesses such as rice imports from Bangkok and other South-East Asian ports, banking and deposit-taking and insurance, as well as the Novelty Iron Works and the Wanchai Steam Bakery in Hong Kong. With an eye to acquiring influence and new business, the Heards cultivated contacts in diplomatic circles, and their efforts bore fruit when John and Albert were appointed Russian consul in Shanghai and Hong Kong respectively in 1860. Heard’s was among the firms of ‘repute and distinction’ convened by Thomas Sutherland to establish The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in 1864: Albert Heard served as a member of the provisional committee and as a director of the Bank (1865-67). Later George was also a director and served a term as chairman.
In 1867 Heard’s acquired an imposing building of four storeys at the top of Battery Path, with a commanding view of Hong Kong harbour (the building was later taken over by the Russian Consulate, and then the French Mission; and more recently the Court of Final Appeal). By then the pattern of Sino-Western business was changing and old trading houses such as Heard’s and Russell & Co. were coming under growing pressure to adapt or go under. They faced stiffer competition on several fronts, not least from increasingly sophisticated Chinese merchants. The four brothers met in Paris in 1871 to determine which of them would take over the flagging firm: in the end the responsibility fell on Albert. Default on a substantial debt by their dishonest US agent constituted the coup de grâce and the firm went bankrupt in April 1875.
In the same year George died aboard a ship and was buried in Aden. John lost his Boston mansion in the bankruptcy but the family managed to keep their Ipswich home. He pursued new business interests in mining, property and armaments. Augustine Jr. served as US Minister to Korea in 1890-94. (1)
- Augustine Heard & Co: Building a Family Business Harvard Business School – Historical Collections Exhibit
- Augustine Heard & Co.: Building a Family Business in the China Trade (A) Harvard Business School
- Augustine Heard and Company, 1858–1862: American Merchants in China Harvard East Asian Monographs, Stephen Chapman Lockwood
- Augustine Heard & Co. – wikipedia
This article was first posted on 19th February 2019.
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