Russell & Company, in China 1824 to 1891
Russell & Company ( 旗昌洋行) was the largest and most important American trading house in Qing dynasty China from 1842 to its closing in 1891.
Samuel Russell founded Russell & Company in Canton, China, in 1824. Dealing mostly in silks, teas and opium, Russell & Company prospered, and by 1842, it had become the largest American trading house in China. Russell withdrew from the company in 1836 and returned to the United States. Briton Nichol Latimer, resident of Shanghai and the publisher of the North China Herald, the most influential British newspaper in China, was the manager of Russell & Company’s Shanghai Steam Navigation Co. until his death in 1865. The company retained market dominance until its closing in 1891.(1)
America’s China Trade began in the late eighteenth century, mainly for the sake of
obtaining tea from Canton. During the early period of the Canton trade, Macao functioned as an adjunct of the Canton market and American traders formed mercantile communities in these two port cities in the Pearl River delta which became the first Chinese-American contact zone. As a traditional entrepôt and the only European settlement on the periphery of the Chinese empire, Macao played a pivotal role in the evolution of early Sino-US relations. Russell & Co. was founded in Canton in 1824 at a propitious moment in the development of early American trade.
Its predecessor was Samuel Russell & Company, founded in 1818. After Russell & Co. took
over the business of Perkins & Company in 1830, it subsequently emerged as the leading
American commercial house in East Asia.(2)
The China trade in the 19th century was the foundation of the wealth of several New England families, who in turn helped to finance in the industrialisation in the USA, particularly the development of railroads to the American West. At the centre of this elite network of families were three brothers: Thomas Tunno, Robert Bennet and John Murray Forbes. Their mother was the youngest sister of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a leading public figure in Boston and the founder, with his brother, of the firm J. and T.H. Perkins of Boston and Canton. In 1830 the firm was merged with Russell & Company, a commission agency founded by Samuel Russell in Canton in 1824 to trade opium, woollen and cotton cloth and other commodities in exchange for silk, porcelain and tea. The Forbes brothers led Russell & Co. – in its heyday the most powerful American merchant house on the China coast – from 1830 to its dissolution in 1891.(3)
In 1874 the American company Russell & Co. was actually the leading player on the Yangtze, with seventeen ships run by its Shanghai Ship Navigation Co. This compared at the time with China Merchants, Jardines and Butterfield & Swire, who all had just six steamships each. And yet just two years later, by the end of 1876, China Merchants had already acquired a fleet of sixteen ships and had established branches in thirteen locations, including Chinkiang, Kiukiang and Hankow on the Yangtze, and Ningbo, Amoy, Swatow and even Hong Kong.
In January 1877 China Merchants bought out Shanghai S.N. Co., the Americans having decided that profits were too low to warrant the considerable effort required to fight the competition.(4)
HF: I asked Nicholas Kitto if he had any images of Russell & Co. buildings in China.
Nick replied As I feared Hugh, just the one identified building (shown below) … their office on the Shanghai Bund taken in April 2015. As with Dent’s, there will be many more but overshadowed by more recent owners/occupants.
As the above extracts demonstrate there is no shortage of information about the company in China. Details about it in Hong Kong however are more difficult to unearth. If you come across anything I would be delighted to hear from you.
- Russell & Company Wikipedia
- Russell and Company in Shanghai, 1843-1891: U. S. Trade and Diplomacy in Treaty Port China Author – Sibing He
- Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, ed M Holdsworth & C Munn, HKU Press, 2012
- Changing Places, Stephanie Zarach, Hong kong Shipowners Association, 2007
- Nicholas Kitto’s website devoted to two projects, both involving historical buildings in China. The first is to photograph the many surviving foreign-inspired buildings in China’s former treaty ports and leased territories. This project is approaching completion. The second is to record Hong Kong’s 108 Declared Monuments.
- Samuel Russell wikipedia
- Harvard Library online The Russell & Co./Perkins & Co. collection contains letter books, order and purchase books, invoices, shipping orders and other financial material relating to the China trade merchant firms.
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