- Maritime Enterprise and Empire: Sir William Mackinnon and his Business Empire, 1823–1893
Imagine a shipping route from Singapore to Penang, Tavoy, Rangoon, Bassein, Akyab, Chittagong, Calcutta, Vizagapatam, Cocanada, Madras, Cochin, Calicut, Mangalore, Marmagoa, Bombay, Surat, Karachi, Bundar Abbas, Bushire, and Basra. That coastal trade, from the Straits of Malacca into the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf formed the core of a shipping empire that rose in a single generation [End Page 703] to become "the world's largest maritime conglomerate" (p. 327). The patriarch of the empire was William Mackinnon (1823-1893), a Scottish grocer's son turned entrepreneur and imperialist.
Mackinnon's personal empire embraced a network of interlocking, mostly privately held firms engaged primarily in shipping but diversified in real estate, railroads, and finance. The shipping interests shadowed the British Empire, taking root in the Indian Ocean and spreading to the Indonesian archipelago, Australia, and finally East Africa. Mackinnon was the common denominator, a partner in many of the companies, board member of some, and guiding genius behind the common vision of them all. Historian J. Forbes Munro, emeritus professor of international economic history at the University of Glasgow, stresses networking as the unifying theme of the Mackinnon story. Munro sees first a Mackinnon group, always three companies based in Liverpool, Glasgow, and Calcutta, respectively, subsuming an ever widening circle of subordinate and associated companies handling finance, commodities and manufacturing, and agent services. Enveloping the Mackinnon group is what Munro calls the Mackinnon enterprise network. This includes a circle of collaborators with whom Mackinnon and his business associates regularly communed—government officials in England and abroad, financiers, and commodity merchants in such fields as cotton, tea, and jute production.
Munro's interpretation of Mackinnon and his empire does not, however, turn on the model of a business network. Rather, Munro represents Mackinnon as a servant of empire, a courtier and lobbyist who tied his business ventures to government subsidies and charters. He was "a ship-owner whose instincts were to lay himself alongside the needs of the state" (p. 158). After getting his start in Glasgow, he moved his operations to London, both to be near the merchant capitalists and financiers who underwrote overseas trade and even more importantly to maintain easy access to the corridors of government. Many of Mackinnon's shipping ventures, for example, were subsidized by mail contracts, both with the British government and with governments around the Indian Ocean. These contracts guaranteed the solvency of his lines in good times and bad and freed him up to try economic schemes that would otherwise have risked too much.
His greatest business failure came in East Africa, when he uncharacteristically got out in front of British government policy. Falling under the sway of King Leopold II of Belgium and Leopold's agent, Henry Morton Stanley (of Livingston fame), Mackinnon joined in the "scramble for Africa." He created the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) Company, without subsidy, to promote an integrated rail and shipping combine that would connect London to the great lakes region of Africa via the port of Mombasa. When the British government [End Page 704] declined to help fund the railroad on which the whole scheme turned, Mackinnon found himself presiding over a shipping line with too few passengers and too little cargo. To add insult to injury, he learned about the same time that the missionary and humanitarian rhetoric of Leopold and Stanley masked wretched behavior on the ground. He had not only lost a significant investment, but he had sullied his reputation as well. He resigned the presidency of IBEA in March 1893, just three months before his death.
William Mackinnon died without issue. Relatives who had once been groomed to succeed him had failed to sustain their reputations and credibility. His empire survived him, but it lacked a compass and a rudder. He had been the guiding light and the unifying vision that held the group and the network together...