The Important Glasgow Connection to Canton and Chinese Export Silver
A cross-section of an 18th-century East Indiaman. The preferred ship plying the Calcutta-Canton-Glasgow trade route, they could carry a large load, but were also heavy and cumbersome, required a large crew and were not particularly speedy.
There are more similarities between the early 19th-century port cities of Glasgow, Scotland, and Canton, China, than one might think, apart from the obvious fact they were both thriving port communities where the very existence of each city was inextricably linked to the business being done in the harbor.
By the 17th century, both Canton and Glasgow had highly sophisticated systems of guilds for the various merchants, trades and craftsmen. In Canton, the Qing government had become more open to “foreign trade”— the Portuguese based in nearby Macau, the Spanish from the Philippines, Arabs from the Near and Middle East, and Jews, Muslims ad Parsi from India had all become established in the landscape when the English and French began to trade with the onset of the Canton System. These were soon followed by the Ostend General India Company, the Dutch East India Company, the Danish Asiatic Company and the Swedish East India Company that were heavily constituted by Scots Jacobites’ business houses—the “refugee” supporters of the House of Stuart. In Glasgow, the eventual de-silting of the River Clyde allowed larger ocean-going ships to dock further up river and the historic Broomielaw ferry point (named after the Brumelaw Croft, a stretch of land running along the north bank of the Clyde) was transformed into a bustling dockside quay. Glasgow was a cosmopolitan cityscape of people striving to make their way and their fortune.
Both Canton and Glasgow served as ports for both the entry of goods from overseas, as well as goods being exported, with both being dependent on particular imports without which the entire economy of each city would collapse. In Canton, it was spice goods, opium, cotton and silver bullion, while in Glasgow the city had a virtual monopoly on the tobacco and sugar imports from the West Indies and Americas. Glasgow was also to be one of the largest receivers of tea from China, as well as opium. Neither was regulated in any way at the time and both were being over-consumed through a lack of understanding and pure obsession (opium was considered as a necessary medicinal drug that superseded the importation of dried rhubarb in terms of necessity; rhubarb also came in vast quantities from China).
The ties with the cities did not end there though. While the Scots Jacobite connection with Canton has been mentioned, merchants from Scotland were at the forefront of the “foreign” trade within the Canton System, many of whom were permanently based in the small area allocated to foreign merchants outside of the walled city at Canton, an area not dissimilar to Broomielaw.
By the middle third of the 19th century, speed had become an essential part of the China Trade and a new ship, the “China Clipper” (also known as “tea clippers” and “opium clippers”) was to supersede the East Indiamen. The Taitsing, pictured here, is seen entering Hong Kong harbor in 1877.
Areas denoted by the “pebble” areas in the cross section diagram above could, theoretically, be substituted by peripheral cargoes, which made the economics of shipping the peripheral cargoes highly attractive and the goods themselves became potentially highly profitable as a result.
By the 18th century, the sailing vessel known as the East Indiaman was the preferred ship plying the Calcutta-Canton-Glasgow trade route. While they could carry a large load, they were heavy and cumbersome, required a large crew and were not particularly speedy. By the middle third of the 19th century, speed had become an essential part of the China Trade and a new ship, the “China Clipper” (also known as “tea clippers” and “opium clippers”) was to supersede the East Indiamen. Many of these vessels were built in Scottish shipyards, with a significant number being built in Glasgow along the Clyde.
The China Clippers were also far more efficient in terms of the load they could carry and the manner in which the ship could be loaded. Ballast areas created by the space between the interior layer of the outer skin of the ship and the straight sides of tea chests were where “ballast cargoes” could be stashed; these cargoes being Chinese Export Silver, lacquerware, silks and other luxury goods items.
With tea being the main purpose of the ship and the voyage itself, the economies of the voyage were calculated on the carrying of that main cargo, which made the economics of shipping the peripheral cargoes highly attractive and the goods themselves became potentially highly profitable as a result. We must take all this in the context of one single China Clipper could carry 40,000 tea chests.
Applying these facts into the context of Chinese Export Silver, we are talking of a huge amount of “ballast space” on ships of which a significant proportion was taken up with silver. We know that across China there was a network of silver workshops that probably numbered more than 10,000 and, in addition, there were the retail silversmiths—many of whom commissioned the silver items and many of whom were owned or co-owned by hong merchants, foreign merchants or a complicated partnership that could even include the wily compradores. The sea captains and even crew members optimized the time they were forced to wait in Canton for favorable trade winds to return with cargo were known to have created lucrative relationships with some of the retail silversmiths in Old and New China Streets in Canton, where the drinking establishments that were a favorite haunt of sailors were also situated. Some of the ships would be plying the Canton-Glasgow route and captains and crew could place special orders with specific silversmiths in Canton on behalf of private clients in Glasgow, which provided a welcome supplementary source of income for enterprising sailors.
The tea warehouse of J & A Ferguson on the corner of Trongate and New Wynd, circa 1872. The building had been built in 1827 by the tea and sugar merchant William McEwan, Sons & Co., which occupied the premises until 1855, selling it on to Fergusons.
Having spent five years in America, Thomas Lipton returned to Glasgow and opened his first store on Stobcross Street. By 1882, he had shops in four Scottish cities and Leeds. By 1890, he was opening a new shop every week. He soon had more than 300 shops and was a multi-millionaire.
At the time Lipton family was establishing their original Gorbals grocery store, George Edward, a Glasgow silversmith, had opened his first retail shop and workshop, George Edward & Sons, in 1838.
Edward & Sons grander shop located at 92 Buchanan Street in Glasgow offered a regular stock of Chinese Export Silver, in particular from the Canton and Hong Kong retail silversmith Wang Hing. The firm was also holders of a royal warrant to both Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, as we can see over the two entrance doors.
An advertisement for George Edward & Sons, highlighting the firm’s stores in Glasgow and London.
All of the buildings for the 1888 International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry were purpose-built in the West End of Glasgow at Kelvingrove Park and were intended to be temporary. The area earned the nickname “Baghdad,” which may be readily understood from this illustration.
In the first quarter of the 19th century, more than 100 tea merchants are recorded as existing in the relatively small area of Glasgow between Broomielaw quay and the ancient High Street/Trongate areas.
Thomas Lipton was born in the Gorbals in 1850, an area diagonally opposite the Broomielaw quay on the south side of the Clyde. The Liptons, a family of Irish immigrants from County Fermanagh, had already established a grocery store on Crown Street in the Gorbals. Thomas worked in the store where he learned the trade and in 1876, having spent five years in America, returned to Glasgow and opened his first store on Stobcross Street. By 1882, he had shops in four Scottish cities and Leeds. By 1890, he was opening a new shop every week. He soon had more than 300 shops and was a multi-millionaire. In 1880, Lipton invested in the stockyards in Omaha, Nebraska; that original investment was reinvested in creating the Lipton tea brand in America, which was targeted at the hitherto untapped poor and working-class market. The brand still exists today.
At the time the Lipton family was establishing their original Gorbals grocery store, George Edward, a Glasgow silversmith, had opened his first retail shop and workshop, George Edward & Sons, in 1838. In 1874 a branch was opened in London by the Mansion House at No. 19 Poultry. George Edward developed a fascination with the “oriental” style and, while there is no recorded evidence of his ever having travelled to China, his fascination grew to an obsession that could only have been fuelled by seeing the wares various sea captains and crew brought to Glasgow from Canton.
By the time the renamed Edward & Sons had relocated to new, much grander premises at 92 Buchanan Street in Glasgow, the retail silversmith held a regular stock of Chinese Export Silver, in particular from the Canton and Hong Kong retail silversmith Wang Hing, as well as other items of silver and wares from China, Japan and Burma. By now, Edward & Sons were holders of a royal warrant to both Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.
In 1888 Glasgow hosted the International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry in an ambitious conglomeration of purpose-built buildings in the West End of the city at Kelvingrove Park. All of the buildings were intended to be temporary and earned the nickname “Baghdad,” based on its architecture.
It was here that Edward & Sons chose to exhibit, with an emphasis on Chinese Export Silver and Japanese silver. Edward & Sons regularly stocked Wang Hing items in both London and Glasgow, and it seems right to assume the goods arrived via Glasgow, since they all carried an additional Edward & Sons Glasgow hallmark. Edward & Sons also used hallmarks registered in Chester and Birmingham, but never in conjunction with Wang Hing pieces.
This Chinese Export Silver reticulated large, shallow dish by Wang Hing carries the Glasgow hallmark of Edward & Sons (George Edward & David Edward) with the date mark for 1900. It is also a slightly unusual mark for Wang Hing, even though Chinese Export Silver marks normally lacked any semblance of uniformity.
Where one would normally expect to see the number stamp 90, which was Wang Hing’s almost constant purity level, here we have the rather strange number 96 stamped.
This rather unusual Wang Hing rose bowl takes the form of lobed lotus petals resting upon three dragons that sit upon an intricately carved wooden stand that has obviously been made for the bowl. A secondary Glasgow mark for Edward & Sons accompanies the mark for Wang Hing and dates the piece at 1905.
The high relief-work bowl is again by Wang Hing and is also an interesting item inasmuch as it has been used as a Scottish presentation piece. Carrying an inscription around the base plinth “GOOD COMPANIONS OF BALNACRAIG,” the bowl also carried the Glasgow mark of Edward & Sons dated for 1898. Lewis Farquharson Innes (1730-1830) of Balnacraig was born in the old castle at Balmoral and later sold Balmoral to Lord Fife, who in turn sold it on to Queen Victoria and Albert, Prince Consort.
Lastly, and somewhat appropriately given Glasgow’s affinity with the tea trade, this reticulated Wang Hing tea caddy is ornately decorated with writing dragons and small rocaille handles and a final in the same style atop the domed lid of bands of prunus and dragon motifs. Again it carries the additional Glasgow mark of Edward and Sons that dates the item to 1898.
Yet again, the Wang Hing mark diverts away from its normal .90 purity mark for .95. While there are instances of other Wang Hing marks alluding to .95 purity, one is left wondering whether Edward & Sons had a particular specification for items ordered from Wang Hing to appear to be above the Sterling silver benchmark. It is feasible, given there was no assay system in China and no legal requirement to record manufacture of silver items.
In 1928, Edward & Sons was sold to the London department store Harrods. It was amalgamated in 1968 with Mappin & Webb, which is when the Glasgow store, which had by then relocated to St Vincent Street, closed for good, some 28 years after Wang Hing & Company had ceased to exist.
The China Trade was the end result of a highly complex series of commercial transacting that was carried out by merchants from various countries that took advantage of political situations that were in the main created by crises promulgated by trade imbalances. It was fuelled by a combination of entrepreneurialism, greed and personal relationship and it operated almost exclusively underneath the radar of the Imperial Court and the individual governments of each participating merchant nation. The trade in the more peripheral Chinese goods could never have existed without the existence of the two main exports; tea and opium.
Although opium was not a specifically Chinese commodity, most of it passed through Canton en route for the West. Both tea and opium were used to obsessive levels: by 1897 in Britain, some 80 million cups of tea were drunk each day and Laudanum was widely used as was a non-prescription drug until the early 20th century. Laudanum, unlike the opium that was smoked in China, was a tincture that was approximately 10 percent opium that was mixed with rhubarb and other ingredients, such as nutmeg. It was so readily available that itinerant sellers plied the streets of British cities in the 19th century. We also have to remember that the opium trade existed as a direct result of the size of the tea trade. Great wealth was accumulated which in turn and in part fuelled the need for the peripheral trade items.
Laudanum was a tincture that was approximately 10 percent opium that was mixed with rhubarb and other ingredients, such as nutmeg, and was so readily available that itinerant sellers (left) plied the streets of British cities in the 19th century. An example of an 18th-century English opium jar is on the right.
The Scottish merchant company that dominated the opium trade to Britain by way of Glasgow was Jardine Matheson.
The China Trade, in the latter half of the 19th century, seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut. The Canton Cohong merchants were a tightly operating fraternity, but they could not operate without interaction with foreign merchants. Equally, the Scottish merchants were operating as a tight cartel and this like-mindedness of the Scots and the Chinese worked not only on the same wavelength but also as a well-oiled, intuitive machine. The merchant forces behind Glasgow as a city in the 19th century had so many similarities to the organized chaos that was Canton. The reason is hard to pinpoint; it may have been that both were geographically remote from the seat of governmental power that, in conjunction with the clannish second nature of both the Scots and the Chinese, made for an insuppressible force.
A much forgotten fact is the historical existence of trade with Scottish merchants with India and China that finds its roots in the 17th century, pre-dating the existence of the English East India Company as a joint-stock company. The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies (a.k.a. The Scottish Darien Company) was created by an act of parliament in 1695; The East India Company existed as a joint-stock company from 1705. Although the Scottish enterprise was a catastrophic financial failure that cost Scotland almost one quarter of its entire liquid assets, what it did achieve was to give Scottish merchants experience and understanding of the potentials that existed, as well as the hurdles that required overcoming. Luckily for the Scots, the ratification of the Act of Union in 1707 included a clause where the debts incurred were agreed to be covered by the new joint government.
The flag of the Company of Scotland, 1868.
The shock of the failure of the Company of Scotland came as a wake-up call and the lessons that had been learned in conjunction with the diminutive size of Scotland, its lack of financial resources and a navy and the Act of Union all coincided to give Scottish entrepreneurs the privilege of accessing the East India Company, which they had previously been barred from. Scots also benefitted from the money from the “Equivalent” feature of the Act—money that sweetened the bitter pill of the loss of sovereignty.
Within Scotland, more banks appeared in order to look after the new sources of money from the Act. Savings, deposit and check schemes were created. The Scottish gentry and merchant classes had a new-found protection and the next stage of their “evolution” in becoming world-class entrepreneurs was establishing a Scottish elite in London that added to the already established elite that had followed the Scottish monarch James VI to London when he became James I of England. By the end of the 17th century, Scottish gentry and a new middle layer of Scottish society that were trained professional formed an extraordinarily large proportion of London society in relation to the small size of Scotland to England.
By 1706, the sea routes to India, China and the Spice Islands had been opened up for some time, but the Scots had surreptitiously become involved and ensconced in the various trades, in particularly the “Country Trade”—the name given to the coastal trade with India.
The Scottish officers were recruited in vast numbers into the East India Company military branch. The Scots were there because the Whig government had begun using East India patronage to maintain political control of Scotland. Only the abundance of “favors” granted the East India Company by Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, in collusion with the East India Company director John Drummond, a Scot! Government connection with the company continued to favor offering Scots positions in the company in exchange for electoral and political support. This resulted in Scots forming a disproportionate number of the elite of the East India Company and, most importantly, allowed Scots to be effective free shipping merchants. What became known later in the 18th century as the “Patronage System” lasted until late in the 18th century in order to keep the Scots “quiet.”
The Scottish trader Colin Campbell founded the Swedish East India Company.
Add to the equation the Scottish Jacobite “refugees” who had fled to Sweden and Austria and, by the 18th century, had become members of the Swedish East India Company, founded by the Scottish trader Colin Campbell, and later in the Imperial Ostend East India Company (Austrian Netherlands), the number of Scots operating in Canton and Calcutta by the mid-18th century far exceeded any other single nation.
Campbell was knighted by the Swedish King Frederik I and was named Swedish Ambassador to China in 1732. Not only did this give the Scots in general a huge advantage in China, but it also protected Sweden against the dominant Spanish, who tried to thwart any move to weaken their hold on trade. Spain intercepted Campbell’s ship, Friedericus Rex Sueciae, but his diplomatic status saved the day (and the ship).
Throughout China’s history, the nation has had to deal with one major problem: China had a very harsh view on foreigners, yet trade was crucial for a successful Chinese economy. Following basic Confucius beliefs, the merchant class is near the bottom of the society. Conversely, the presence of trade and merchants is crucial to the survival of the Chinese economy and their way of life.
It was these extraordinary circumstances that allowed the Scots to steal the march on China and the East Indies from the English. That, and the rapport they were able to find with the Chinese—a rapport the English never did manage to equal.
The Chinese saw their world in a series of three circles. On the inside of the circle were the Chinese. The outer circle included the Chinese tributary states. And on the outermost circle was everyone else. The Chinese has historically had a great issue with foreigners. Scotland, like China, had a history of wanting to remain a closed-off nation, resisting incursion for as long as it could. In the end, China had to relent. Scotland, for its part, had already been down that route. What the Scots and the Chinese shared was a like-mindedness that allowed them to profit from each other. Without it, and the trade that ensued, wealth would not have been created and cities would not have existed without that unique mindset. Whether it was good or bad is a matter for conjecture. We do at least have a vast amount of superb silver and we have tea! We also still do have the mindsets.
• “The Scottish Connection with India 1725-1833,” George K McGilvary, University of Edinburgh;
• “British ‘Country Trade’,” circa 1680-1770, D K Bassett, Modern Asian Studies Vol.23, 1989;
• “Jardine Matheson; Traders of the Far East,” Robert Blake, 1989;
• “Scotland’s Empire,” Thomas M Devine, 2003;
• The East India Register and Directory, 1799-1844;
• “How Scots Finaced the Modern World.” Liza Giffen, 2009;
• “British Trade and the Opening of China.” Michael Greenberg, 1951;
• “The Thistle and the Jade; A Celebration of 175 Years of Jardine Matheson & Co,” Maggie Keswick & Clara Weatherall, 2008;
• “East India Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the 18th Century,” Peter J Marshall, Oxford University Press, 1976;
• “The Directors of the East India Company,” James G Parker, University of Edinburgh, 1977;
• “A Cup of Kindness: The History of the Royal Scottish Corporation,” Justine Taylor, 2003;
• “The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations,” Douglas Watt, Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions U.K.; Bonhams, New Bond Street, London; Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver; Brenda Ginsberg Art & Antiques; Tennants Auctioneers, U.K.; Mitchell Library, Glasgow; The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland; Mappin & Webb Archives, U.K.; scotcities.com; British Library East India Company Archive; Etudes Litéraires et Linguistiques de l’Université de Grenoble Etudes Ecossaises; Statistics Bureau of Guangzhou; Department of Market System Development, Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China.
Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the Chinese Export Silver archive.
Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, a Fellow for Arts & Culture at the Asia Scotland Institute and works with museums and universities around the world. He is a consultant for Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions and his ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. His new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at email@example.com.
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