Sir James Nicholas Sutherland Matheson, co-founder of Jardine, Matheson & Company

HF: The following article about James Matheson was written by Alain Le Pichon 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.

Thanks to SCT for proofreading the retyped article.

James Matheson Wikipedia

James Matheson Courtesy: Wikipedia

Matheson, Sir James Nicholas Sutherland FRS (1846), Baronet (1851) b. 17 November 1796, Lairg, Sutherland, Scotland; d. 31 December 1878, Menton, France. Merchant, co-founder of Jardine, Matheson & Company.

Second son of Captain Donald Matheson of Shinness and Katherine, daughter of Thomas MacKay, minister of Lairg, James Matheson attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh, although it is uncertain what subject he read or even if he graduated. In 1815 he obtained the indenture of a ‘free merchant’ from the East India Company and began work as an apprentice in a relative’s agency house in Calcutta. Too independent minded to adhere to office routine, he left abruptly three years later, moving on to Canton, where the market for Indian exports was growing. Under East India Company rules he settled in Macau, where he formed a short-lived partnership with Robert Taylor, importing opium from Calcutta. In 1821 he became a partner of Xavier Yrisarri, a friend of Basque origins whom he had first met in Bengal. It took only a few years for the Macau-based Yrisarri & Co. to become one of the five principal agency houses in China, with a flourishing business in Bengal opium and India bills. Matheson’s early substitution (in 1821) of Lintin (Lingding) Island for Macau as the principal opium trading mart proved irreversible. In 1823 the Yrisarri partnership made the first successful attempt at selling opium direct to the Chinese in Xiamen, a daring act undertaken by Matheson in the San Sebastian, under the Spanish flag, in blatant defiance of Chinese rules and precedents.

News that Ysarri had died in India, reached Matheson in early 1827. With the help of his nephew Alexander Matheson, James Matheson started to unwind the affairs of Yrisarri & Co. and to trade under the names Matheson & Co. He realised, however, that rather than continuing to operate on his own it was more advantageous to join William Jardine at Magniac & Co., which he did in 1828. The firm was renamed Jardine, Matheson & Co. in 1832.

Matheson was as hard-working as Jardine and as single-minded about making a fortune, but he was less austere and showed greater indulgence for the weaknesses of his fellow men. A consummate communicator, he was adept in the art of negotiation and had considerable personal charm. He was fond of women and enjoyed their company.

During his years on the China coast, Matheson contributed much to the changes not only in the business practices of the day but also in the image that the British trading community formed and projected of themselves as agents of progress and modernity against the forces of what they saw as obscurantism and backwardness. In December 1834, two months after the death of Lord Napier and the failure of his mission as Britain’s first Superintendent of British Trade in China, Matheson founded the Canton Chamber of Commerce, which immediately sent a petition to King William 1V about the difficulty of trading with China owing to what all ‘free traders’ of the day regarded as unfair restrictions and regulations. Matheson felt so strongly about this that he spent a year (1835-36) in Britain explaining the situation in China to cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, heads of East-India firms in the city, textile manufacturers, tea importers and all the principal chambers of commerce in the country. His ideas, published in a pamphlet in 1836 – Present Position & Future Prospects for the China Trade – attracted considerable interest among the manufacturing and trading community. Meanwhile, he also sealed important alliances that were to prove crucial for the future development of the firm. He agreed to supply a few of the best tea firms in the City and arranged for the banking firm of Magniac Smith & Co. to become Jardine, Matheson’s principal correspondent in London, thus securing the support of its senior partner, John Abel Smith, who was a member of the Payne Smith banking family, a relative of Lord Carrington and a friend of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston.

Jardine left China in January 1839. From March 1839, when the opium crisis erupted, to March 1842, when he finally sailed home himself, Matheson steered the firm through the fits and starts of the Opium War. He handled the situation skilfully and profits rose to record levels. Like other British merchants, Matheson was kept ‘in durance’ for a few weeks in the Canton factories until all the foreign opium stocks had been delivered to Commissioner Lin Zexu by order of Captain Charles Elliot. Unlike many, however, and certainly unlike Jardine, he thought Elliot’s decision to force the opium issue upon the British government ‘a large and statesmanlike measure, more especially as the Chinese have fallen into the snare of rendering themselves liable to the British crown’. To Matheson, Elliot’s surrender of the opium was the action of a superior strategist who understood that only by facilitating a clash between the governments of Britain and China could the opium question be resolved once and for all.

After the 1841 Convention of Chuenpi (Chuanbi) which ceded Hong Kong to Britain, Matheson was one of the first British merchants to sail round the island. He saw Hong Kong as a place where merchants would at last be able to trade as they pleased, with few regulations and the simple recourse to English common law in cases of disputes. In excited anticipation, he wrote to Jardine: ‘The advantage of Hong Kong will be that the more the Chinese obstruct and trammel the trade of Canton with Consoo charges, exaction, etc., the more will they drive trade to the new English settlement.’ At the first land auction in Hong Kong in June 1841, Matheson bought a large marine lot at East Point and immediately started building the firm’s godowns and headquarters there.

On his return to Britain in the summer of 1842, Matheson looked for a suitable estate in Scotland and soon purchased the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and other Scottish estates totalling over 200,000 acres. In 1943 he succeeded to Jardine’s parliamentary seat at Ashburton and married Mary Jane, the fourth daughter of Michael Henry Perceval, settling down to enjoy the million-dollar fortune he had made in China.

James Matheson, Lews Castle, Stornoway, Scotland Courtesy Undiscovered Sotland

Lews Castle, Stornoway, Scotland built by James Matheson Courtesy:Undiscovered Sotland

He retained the Ashburton seat until 1847, and was Member of Parliament for Ross and Cromarty until 1868. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846 and made a baronet in 1851  for his generosity ‘in alleviating the famine and distress which had prevailed among the fishermen and seafaring population of the Isle of Lewis’ in the late 1840s. He was chairman of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam and Navigation Company and Lord Lieutenant and Sheriff Principal of the County of Ross. He retired in 1868 and died in Menton, on the French Riviera, in 1878. Since he had no children the baronetcy became extinct.

Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, ed M Holdsworth & C Munn, HKU Press, 2012 This wonderful book collects in one volume more than 500 specially commissioned entries on men and women from Hong Kong history.


  1. The Canton Register – English language newspaper founded by James Matheson and his nephew Alexander
  2. James Matheson Wikipedia

This article was first posted on 18th September 21019.

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