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BI History

A world war was about to erupt and the Titanic catastrophe was still fresh in people's minds as a grand failure of maritime commerce and corporate arrogance. The year was 1914. Two of the world's most powerful men in shipping set themselves on a course to combine their companies, British India Steam Navigation and Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation. While the bare financial facts of this 'merger' are well known, far less is known of the attitudes and intentions of those who were consumating this act, and what they thought they might achieve. The following document which possibly originates from the archives of the Inchcape trading company, but whose author is unknown, gives some apparently fascinating insights into the intentions of Lord Inchcape and Sir Thomas Sutherland as they brought together their two shipping empires.


The merger between BI and P&O was one of the most shrewd deals of [the Earl of] Inchcape's life. It is a remarkable case of a company apparently selling itself out to a more powerful rival, whilst in reality gaining control of that rival and consolidating its authority for the present and the future. Why did Sir Thomas Sutherland, regarded as one of the strongest and most successful of P&O chairmen, his directors and shareholders allow this to happen?

Sutherland's career was outstanding by any standards. He had joined P&O within fifteen years of its earliest contract in 1852, when he was only 18. Two years later, he had been sent to Bombay, but it was in Hong Kong that he really made his mark. By the time he was 26, he had been appointed superintendent of P&O's Japan and China agencies and a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Assembly; Inchcape was 38 before he had achieved comparable prominence.

As Inchcape (right) was to benefit from the vacuum of power at Mackinnon Mackenzie and BI with the increasing age and untimely death of Sir William Mackinnon in 1893, so Sutherland rose to power whilst P&O founder, Arthur Anderson, was reaching the end of his life. Appointed managing director in 1872 after four years as assistant manager and an extensive tour of all P&O's operations worldwide, he revolutionised the whole set-up. Facing severe difficulties with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Sutherland implemented drastic economy measures within a company whose finances had been cushioned by generous subsidies (Freda Harcourt, 1982).

Astutely predicting the principal trends in the ocean carrying trade, Sutherland built up P&O, moving its base from Southampton to London, and contracting for a series of new efficient vessels. Under his able leadership, P&O rose to great power and influence, establishing unique national prestige. Like Inchcape, he also played a significant role in public life, elected as Liberal MP for Greenock in 1884, and achieving his knighthood in 1891.

By 1913, P&O had a secure financial base and extensive network of routes, such that it felt strong enough to negotiate with a similarly powerful shipping company without compromising its position. It had a paid-up capital of ?5.5 million, 60 ships of over half a million tons and a dominent position on the prime mail routes through Suez to Calcutta, Yokohama and Sydney. Meanwhile, P&O "Branch Line" to Australia , via the Cape ran extensive feeder services, and the company maintained over 200 overseas agencies.

A second factor in persuading Sutherland (pictured left in earlier days in Hong Kong) to look sympathetically upon a merger with BI was the growing inclination in the early twentieth century for shipping combines to grow. For example, P&O had already taken over the Blue Anchor Line in 1910, and the AUSN (Australasian United SN) had been created through the ASN and QSS (Queensland Steam Shipping Co) merger.

Thirdly, Sutherland himself, eighteen years older than Inchcape, was nearly 80 in 1913, and, unlike his successor was to do, sought retirement and a reduction of his responsibilities. Although other members of his board certainly saw themselves as possible candidates for the chairmanship, such as Sir Walter Lawrence, it was not until Inchcape had established a prominent position in BI that Sutherland felt confident that he had identified a worthy successor. All along, the possibility of merger with BI was tied up with Inchcape's ultimate leadership of the combine.

The surviving documentation within P&O archives, charts Sutherland's interest in BI. Detailed examination of its annual report in 1913 reveals that BI was closely comparable in size and complementary rather than competitive - in its activities, with P&O. BI had 120 steamers of over 700,000 tons; although P&O had only half the number of ships, it could muster a similar aggregate tonnage. BI dominated the Indian Ocean trades: P&O the long-haul routes and home lines.

BI certainly appeared financially sound: it could afford to distribute ?130,720 in dividends (5% on preference stock and 10% on the ordinary shares) with ?15,666 to carry over for 1914. It was expanding its fleet, with four new vessels delivered since the end of 1913, four more nearing completion and two cargo steamers on long-term contract had been purchased outright. Six old steamers had been disposed of in early 1913. Meanwhile, debentures totalling ?211,860 had been recently paid off. The book value of BI fleet was placed at ?4.3m, with further capital and reserves worth ?6m.

Duncan Mackinnon, who had unofficially acknowledged Inchcape's prominence in BI for at least the previous three years, retired owing to failing health in 1913, and with the death of the Duke of Argyll in the same year, the ?old guard? was disappearing, and with them, the opposition to a merger with P&O.

On 19th May 1914, the P&O board - Sutherland, Adamson, Rathbone, Gladstone and Cunard - issued a Resolution to make an offer to BI to buy its ordinary and preferred stock. The two Boards were to be "fused" still working separately but under a single controlling body "in which the Directors of P&O will possess a preponderating voice". Despite their insistence on this clause from the outset, it was not to be adopted. Lord Balfour, in a private letter to Sutherland, was among the first of his colleagues to voice disquiet when he expressed fears that the future board might not adequately protect the interests of its P&O element.

A further private letter to Sutherland, this time from Dr Freshfield, P&O solicitor, reveals a fourth reason why Sutherland welcomed the BI merger. Apparently the capital powers of P&O were almost completely exhausted. An increase in its capitalisation was necessary before any further expansion could be envisaged. An extraordinary general meeting, to authorise the raising of extra capital, was on the cards in any case.

Such a meeting was held a month later, when shareholders heard how the P&O board proposed to come to an agreement with BI whereby BI shares would be exchanged for P&O stock. Each BI ordinary share (nominally ?50) was to be paid for in P&O deferred stock, valuing each at ?33. 06s 08d, and each ?1 BI preferred stock acquired by ?1 fully-paid 5% preferred stock. The increase in capital which this represented was ?700,000 for the preferred stock and ?638,133 for the deferred stock, totalling ?1.3m., making P&O's total capital ?4.8m.

Sutherland, in presenting the case for the merger, insisted on referring to it not only as a good deal financially, but as a "combination", and that the aim was "to strengthen the position of both companies, to promote economy, eliminate possible rivalry and generally to increase the efficiency of their joint work." He emphasised that the conditions agreed were ?the only possible terms on which this operation could have been carried out" He tried to placate the anxieties of P&O stockholders and directors alike, by reiterating the resolution that P&O would maintain a "preponderating voice" and that P&O business would continue under the same management and agencies. The stockholders were well justified in their suspicions of Inchcape's motives, and the policies he would adopt when he succeeded to the chairmanship.

That the prospect of Inchcape as their chairman was not altogether welcomed by P&O stockholders is plain. Sutherland maintained that P&O was fortunate to acquire Lord Inchcape's (right) services - there was no need to dwell on his reputation; this was well known to the whole shipping world. One or two dissentients (such interventions were comparatively rare at P&O AGMs, such was the respect in which Sutherland was held) thought that Lord Inchcape's remuneration should be decided at a public meeting. Oral evidence (Wilfred Mizen, retired P&O company secretary, who joined the company in 1913) suggests that Sutherland was deaf by this stage, so his ignoring this question has no significance: but when repeated, Sutherland considered that it was but a small matter, and it was ungentlemanly to raise it. As in (sic) his hopes for the prominence of P&O within the new combine, he was wrong.


The final agreement came on 27th May 1914, whereby BI duly transferred all its issued stock to P&O. All twelve P&O directors were now also directors of BI, and all eight directors of BI were to have a seat on the P&O board. At this stage, Inchcape was to continue as Chairman of BI for a term of ten years only, and there was nothing to say he would be P&O chairman. BI closed its books on 30th September 1914, and officially ceased to exist. But in reality it was stronger than ever.

If P&O really wanted to cut out rivalry with BI in an age of fierce competition, and at the same time take over its property and goodwill, why was BI not liquidated? Sutherland argued to P&O stockholders that BI stockholders wanted to retain an interest in their own company through P&O "and we will have a controlling power in both concerns". BI, he said, was as large as P &O, too bigot be immediately taken over, and it needed to be managed separately. Mackinnon Mackenzie would remain managers for at least the next ten years, and its commission business with BI - although very extensive and remunerative - was necessary for BI's effective running. The two companies operating side by side would have a wider base of security for future profits than just one.

But this was not the full story. The directors' minutes record that when Sutherland opened negotiations with Inchcape in March 1914, he had advocated the liquidation of BI, but objections were anticipated from the Board of Trade in view of the monopoly this would create. Also, P&O could hardly have managed the heavy outlay of capital that would have been necessary to pay off BI's debenture issue which amounted to ?1.6m. So, in a nutshell, P&O's shortage of funds meabt that the future independence and power of BI, especially combined with the influence of its powerful leader, was assured.

By 10th June, Waltons, BI solicitors, informed Freshfields, representing P&O, that P&O offer to BI shareholders had been accepted by the requisite majority, and the acceptance documents were duly issued. In the final proof of the notification to the press, all references to P&O having a "preponderating voice" had been eliminated.

The last meeting of the old P&O board was held on 22nd July. Any hopes of a last-ditch attempt to assert the power of P&O in the new arrangement were lost at Sutherland's insistence that all the actions of the previous few months should be taken as confirmed so that no minutes would need to be read at the first meeting of the new board in October. At the new board meeting, all seemed to go smoothly ahead as planned. There was no immediate cause for alarm. It seemed just a formality when Sutherland (left) successfully proposed that Inchcape's salary as a managing director of P&O should be the same as that which he received from BI as chairman - ?5000.

Yet this meeting marked a turning-point in P&O history more far-reaching than was realised at the time, except possibly by Inchcape, and to a certain extent, by Sutherland. Inchcape had written to his friend, Lord Kilbracken, "I have, after much labour, fixed it up with P&O. I think the settlement is an uncommonly good one and perfectly fair to both companies". Sutherland agreed with this, or at least attempted to persuade himself, his fellow directors, and P&O shareholders that he did. He would have been less happy to read another private letter of Inchcape's, boasting that he now had nearly two million tons of shipping under his control, 'governing a 'single traffic system' which touched 'every conceivable port of the British Empire.'

That Sutherland's powers of persuasion were not altogether successful was shown in the reaction of a shareholder at the 24th June extraordinary meeting of P&O. Drawing attention to the high price finally paid for BI shares (?96 when the market price was ?83, and the original agreement was ?33), he complained that "the British India Company had made a very good bargain indeed. Whether P&O had done the same was open to doubt".

The steady accumulation of power by Inchcape, his assumption of the chairmanship and 2.5% of the net profits, the new prominence of BI and Mackinnon Mackenzie men and interests vis-à-vis P&O, and an overall feeling of usurpation of authority by BI - described graphically in contemporary oral evidence - confirmed worst P&O fears over the next few years. But none can have considered that this regime would continue for nearly a quarter of a century.

With acknowledgements to Tom Kelso and theScottish Maritime Museum
Harbourside, Irvine, Ayrshire, KA12 8QE
Tel: +44 (0)1294 278283

from whom this transcript was obtained.

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