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British Industrial History

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William Mackinnon

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William Mackinnon, Bart. (1823-1893) founder of The British India Steam Navigation Co.

1893 Obituary[1]


When some future Smiles arouses the spirit of emulation in a future generation by the narration of the triumphs of “ Self-Help,” he will find a noble example in the life of Sir William Mackinnon, Bart., whose death in London on the 22nd inst. has awakened a widespread regret. And this regret is intensified by the unexpectedness of the end, for although he had been in delicate health for some time, no great anxiety was entertained. He was born on March 31, 1823, in Campbeltown, the youngest of a family of nine, with nothing but his brains as capital, and it may truly be said that during the seventy years of his life his country has earned a handsome return.

The deceased baronet started life as a lad in a shop in his native town, and afterwards found his way to Glasgow, where he subsequently entered the oflice of a merchant engaged in the Eastern trade. This situation was destined to have an important influence in his career, for it induced him in 1847 to join an old schoolfellow named Mackenzie in an export and import store in a small town up the Ganges. In 1855 the business was removed to Calcutta, the ramifications having immensely increased, as a result of great business energy. In the same year a skipper who traded between India and Burmah saw a great opportunity of establishing a trade on a large scale in Burmah. He interested Mr. Mackinnon, who managed to raise capital among his friends, and thus began the British India Steam Navigation Co, which went on prospering and extending its operations from England to India and other parts of Asia, and afterwards to Australia. This great company was founded in 1857, the fourth steamer launched from the Pointhouse yard at Glasgow by Messrs. Inglis being for the “B.I.,” as it is now so well known, and it is interesting here to note that with a few unimportant exceptions the fleet has been built by Messrs. Inglis and Messrs. Denny, Dumbarton, who became associated with the company later. Mackinnon, it may be said, has through these firms distributed between five and six millions sterling. The fleet of the British India Co is the greatest of sea-going fleets in the world, comprising about 110 vessels, all of considerable size, and it has been built without Government aid. Forty or fifty vessels more belong to the Australasian fleet founded by Sir William Mackinnon, while an immense commerce also results from the trade carried by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, likewise associated with his name. The development of India, and particularly of the north-eastern part, and of Burmah, are due to the shrewdness and business aptitude of Sir William Mackinnon.

In another part of the world, too, his great influence has been felt. Twenty years ago he established a mail service between Aden and Zanzibar, and to mark his respect and admiration for efforts which had greatly benefited the island, the Sultan in 1878 offered to make over his territories to the protection of the British Government, through the agency of the. head of the great shipping firm. The Government then unfortunately did not see their way to accept the offer, otherwise profit might by this time have resulted. In 1885 the Germans established a footing in East Africa, and had it not been for Sir William’s decisive action they might now have been supreme over the whole of East Africa from the Rovuma to the Jub, but he secured a footing for England in the region north of that in which Germany had established itself. Through his influence, rights were acquired which justified the British Government in granting a Royal charter, and by subsequent treaties the territory of the British East Africa Co has been extended to something like a million square miles.

As to the man, one who knew him in all his moods and tenses, more intimately, probably, than any other, writes us a private note, from which we may be pardoned for making an extract, since it gives a sincere estimate, free from conventionalities: “His abilities were extraordinary. He had a memory that was really prodigious, holding small things and great with equal tenacity. No one I ever knew could so pierce difficulties, and see to the other side of them. Prosperity never elated him unduly, nor did misfortune depress. You see he did not keep his religious convictions for Sunday use only, like a good many who pass through the world with a reputation for piety. One of the most remarkable things was the loyalty with which he was served. I fancy that a humbug felt uneasy before him, and had an impression he wasn’t wanted. At all events, it is the fact that those who were under him, or associated with him, felt they must do their best somehow.”

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