Business and commerce collections

Our business and commerce collections are particularly strong in relation to British commercial activity in China during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They include the records of John Swire and Sons, the parent company of the modern transnational Swire Group, who were involved in shipping, trade and related enterprises in China and East Asia. They also include the papers of individuals involved in the China Maritime Customs Service, a tax collection agency serving the Chinese Government largely run by foreign consuls.

These collections provide first-hand accounts, by some of the key figures of the period, of the historical and political developments in nineteenth and early twentieth century China.

Key Business and Commerce Collections

John Swire & Sons collection

John Swire and Sons is the parent company of the transnational Swire Group. The company has a long and distinguished history of shipping, trade and related enterprises in China and the Far East, stretching back for almost two centuries. The archives are amongst the finest collections held at SOAS and offer fascinating insights into the history and development of China and the Far East seen through the eyes of the key protagonists in this family-run firm.

First established by John Swire in Liverpool in 1816 as a textile import-export business, John Swire and Sons (JS&S) later diversified and increased the scope of its trading activities to cover America, Australia and China. The company’s real expansion in the East came when it partnered with R. S. Butterfield to create Butterfield & Swire in 1866. The first office was opened in Shanghai in 1867.

The company continued to expand, forming the Shanghai-based China Navigation Company (CNCo) in 1872, which tapped the potential for trade via steam shipping on the Yangtze River. JS&S went on to found the Coast Boats Ownery (CBO) in 1874, which would come  to monopolise the China coast trade. It eventually expanded its reach throughout South East Asia, Japan and Australasia before being amalgamated with CNCo in 1883. JS&S’s portfolio also extended to the sugar trade, with a sugar refinery and dockyard built at Taikoo in Hong Kong. The success of this led to the registering of the Taikoo Chinese Navigation Company in 1930.

The impact of the Second World War, followed by the Company’s post-war expulsion from China, threatened the survival of JS&S. However, under the chairmanship of the founder’s great-grandson, ‘Jock’ Swire, the company survived and began to rebuild its interests in the East, including investment in Cathay Pacific Airways in 1948.

View the John Swire & Sons collection catalogue

Chinese Maritime Customs Service collections

The Chinese Maritime Customs Service (Imperial Maritime Customs Service until 1912) was a remarkable organisation, a tax collection agency serving the Chinese Government founded and largely run by foreign consuls. It was the only bureaucratic agency of the Chinese government to operate continuously as an integrated entity from 1854 to 1950, and its archives therefore mark almost a century of China’s history.

Although it was initially set up to collect maritime trade taxes following the chaos of the Taiping Rebellion, the CMCS became an almost all-encompassing administrative organisation for China at local, national and international levels. The Service effectively managed domestic customs, postal administration, harbour and waterways management, meteorological reports and maritime policing, including anti-smuggling and piracy operations. In addition, the Service was instrumental in financial and economic management, including currency reform and loan negotiations for China. By the end of the nineteenth century it accounted for a quarter of revenue available to the Chinese government, and by 1920 all of China’s international trade was under the control of the Service. The revenue raised was invested back in the development of China in areas such as industrialization and railroad building.

Arguably the most significant figure in the CMCS was Sir Robert Hart, who was appointed Inspector General of the Service in 1863 and served for the next 43 years. It was under his guidance that the Service developed into a key Government department. Following Hart, subsequent Inspector Generals were Francis Aglen (1907-1928), Hart’s nephew Frederick Maze (1928-1945) and Lester Knox Little (1945-1949).

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Knox Little resigned and the responsibilities of the Service were divided between the administrations of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China.

SOAS Library holds a number of collections of semi-official and personal papers relating to officials who worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, including Inspector Generals, Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911); Edward Charles Macintosh Bowra (1841-1874); and Sir Frederick William Maze (1874-1959).

View the collections relating to the Chinese Maritime Customs Service

The China Association collection

The China Association was formally constituted in 1889 as a representative body of British traders operating in China, Hong Kong and Japan. In its heyday it was one of the most influential lobbying groups representing British mercantile interests in the Far East and had key links with British government representatives.

From the start, leadership of the Association included representatives of the large China Houses such as Swire, Jardine Matheson, Paton & Baldwins, and Dents, in addition to Members of Parliament and retired colonial and military officials returned from service in the Far East.

Much of the work of the China Association involved corresponding with the Foreign Office regarding commercial grievances in China. The China Association also produced quarterly summaries of Chinese affairs, translations of the Chinese press, and maintained regular diplomatic contacts in the promotion of British trade. The Association is still in existence and works towards the development of good diplomatic and commercial relations between China and Britain.

View the China Association collection catalogue