After graduating from the Edinburgh Medical School, he joins the service of the British East India Company in 1802, at the age of 18, as a ship surgeon until 1816. Service with the East India Company, allows employees to trade in goods for their own profit. Jardine, engages in this trade and was able to save enough, wherein upon leaving the company, he serves as commercial agent and junior partner for several different merchant houses, firstly with the trading concern of Cowasjee of Bombay then lastly, as a junior partner to the firm of Charles Magniac and Co in Canton.
In the early 1820s, Daniel Magniac, who succeeded Charles Magniac after the latter's death in Paris, was forced to resign from the firm after marrying his Indian mistress, a practice that was abominated during the 19th century similar to the term 'marrying one of the heathen natives', leaving the firm to brother Hollingsworth Magniac. Hollingsworth hands the management of the firm to junior partner Jardine, preferring to be a silent partner. The firm then renames the company as Magniac, Jardine and Co. Hollingsworth wrote about William Jardine:
Jardine was known for his legendary imperiousness and sturdy pride, nicknamed by the locals, "The Iron-headed Old Rat" after being hit on the head by a rock thrown by an angry mob during a petition by the China traders to the Mandarins in Canton. Jardine, after being hit, just shrugged off the insult as if being bit by a pesky mosquito. He even only had one chair in his office in the Jardine clipper flagship "The Hercules", and that was his own. Visitors were never allowed to sit to impress upon them that Jardine was a very busy man. Jardine was also known as a brilliant crisis manager. In 1824, during his visit to the firm's Canton office, he finds the local office in management crisis, with employees in near mutiny against the firm's managers. Jardine then proceeds to take temporary control and succeeds in putting the office in perfect order in just a matter of days. Also a shrewd judge of character, Jardine was even able to persuade the Rev. Charles Gutzlaff, a fanatic Prussian missionary to interpret for their ship captains during coastal smuggling of opium, using the idea that the reverend would best gather more converts during these smuggling operations. Matheson was known to own the only piano in Asia and was also an accomplished player.
In July 1, 1832, Jardine, Matheson and Company, Ltd, a limited partnership, between William Jardine, James Matheson as major partners, and Hollingsworth Magniac and Alexander Matheson and others, as minor partners, is formed in Canton, taking the chinese name 'Ewo' (怡和) meaning 'Happy Harmony', trading opium, tea and other goods. In 1833, Parliament, removes the license of the British East India Company to trade with China. Jardine, Matheson and Company then takes this opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the huge East India Company, with its first voyage carrying tea, Jardine clipper ship 'Sarah' leaves for England. Jardines was then transformed from a major commercial agent of the East India Company to become the largest trading hong (洋行) or firm in Asia. William Jardine was now being referred to by the other traders as "Tai-pan" (大班), a Chinese colloquial title meaning 'Great Manager'.
In 1841, Jardines had 19 inter-continental clipper ships compared to close rival Dent and Company with 13. Jardines also had nearly a hundred small ships, lorchas and small smuggling crafts for coastal and upriver smuggling. Other trading concerns of Jardine's includes smuggling opium into China from India, trading spices and sugar from the Philippines, importing Chinese tea into England, handling cargo papers and cargo insurance, renting of dockyard facilites and warehouse space, trade financing and other numerous lines of business and trade. During the mid-1830s, trade with China was becoming more difficult due to the increasing Chinese government's restrictions to control the worsening outflow of silver. This trade imbalance stems from the fact that Chinese traders import more opium than they were exporting teas and silk.
Nevertheless, William Jardine wants the opium trade to expand in China, and orders James Matheson to leave for England to persuade the Government to take up strong action to further open up trade in China. Matheson, unsuccessful in his forays in England, being brushed aside by the legendary "Iron Duke" (Duke of Wellington), the then British Foreign Secretary, reports to Jardine of being insulted by an arrogant and stupid man. Matheson is then ordered by Jardine to return to Asia in 1838, prompting Jardine to leave for England to try to continue Matheson's works.
The Chinese government is ecstatic upon hearing 'The Iron-headed Old Rat's', departure, then proceeded to stop the opium trade. Lin Tze-hsu, the leading Chinese official in Canton states, "The Iron-headed Old Rat, the sly and cunning ring-leader of the Opium smugglers have left for The Land of Mist, of fear from the Middle Kingdom's wrath". He then orders the surrender of the opium traders and the burning of 20,000 cases of opium in Canton. Even ordering the capture of Lancelot Dent, an elderly taipan of Dent and Company, the second largest trading firm in the Far East after Jardines, which was controlled by the Dent brothers. Even went on further, writing to Queen Victoria to kowtow or bow to His Imperial Highness the Emperor of China.
In 1840, armed with a petition signed by hundreds of traders and businessmen both in Asia and in England, Jardine successfully persuades parliament to wage war on China, giving a full detailed plan for war, battle strategies, the indemnifications and political demands from China and even the number of troops and warships needed. This plan was known as the 'Jardine Paper'. The forceful and energetic Jardine sold his argument as good as he sold his goods. Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary who succeeded the Iron Duke, decides mainly on the 'suggestions' of Jardine, to wage war on China. In 1840, the first of the Opium Wars with China is waged, British warships destroyed numerous shore batteries and enemy warships, laid waste to numerous coastal forts, even pushing up north to threaten the Imperial Palace in Beijing itself. The Imperial Government, forced to surrender, gave in to the demands of the British, mainly demands that were written by Jardine himself. In Richard Hughes book, 'Hongkong: A Borrowed Place, A Borrowed Time', "William Jardine would have made his mark as admirably as a soldier as he did as a Tai-pan."
In 1842, The Treaty of Nanking is signed by representatives of both Britain and China, opening numerous chinese trading posts in five major Chinese cities, the formal acquisition of the island of Hong Kong, which was taken over as a trading and military base since January 1841, the abolition of Chinese laws that controlled foreigners' activities in China, and the expansion of the importation of opium into China. Trade with China grew and so did the firm of Jardine, Matheson and Co, which already was known as the 'Princely Hong' (太子行) for being the largest trading firm in Asia. In 1843, William Jardine, 58, died in England, successful as a Member of Parliament. Lord Palmerston writes about William Jardine, "Without whose wise counsel, our success in China would have never prevailed."
Jardine died a bachelor but his nephews, David and Andrew Jardine continued to assist James Matheson in running the Princely Hong. Matheson retired as Taipan during the early 1850s and handed over to Robert Jardine, another nephew of Jardine. The Princely Hong would be managed by several nephews and nieces of William Jardine and their descendants throughout the decades, including, the Keswicks, Buchanan-Jardines, Bartons, Nightingales, Weatheralls, etc.
Notable Taipans include, Robert Jardine, William Keswick, Sir John Buchanan-Jardine, A.L.J Nightingale, Sir Hugh Barton, Sir Michael Herries, Sir John Keswick, Henry Keswick, Simon Keswick, Alasdair Morrison, among others.
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