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Pioneer merchant Alexander Guthrie arrives in Singapore 27th Jan 1821

The opening of Singapore as a free port in 1819 attracted many British private traders.[1] These were merchants who operated within the Asian circuit but were prohibited from doing a direct trade with London as this was reserved for the British East India Company (EIC).[2] Alexander Guthrie was one of these merchants and he arrived in Singapore on 27 January 1821 to start a local branch of the firm Thomas Harrington and Company.[3]

Guthrie came to the East almost a decade after the EIC had given up its monopoly of the Indian trade in 1813. When the monopoly ended, the British private traders quickly realised the value of Singapore as a centre for the country trade conducted between India and China.[4] Much of this trade that had gone to Riau in the previous century was channelled to Singapore where land parcels were acquired by European merchants for the purpose of setting up trading houses and godowns.[5] Shortly after a trading settlement was established by the British on Singapore, Bugis traders from the Celebes (now known as Sulawesi) and Chinese junk traders from Canton (now known as Guangzhou) arrived in great numbers. Singapore quickly became a transhipment base where European private traders took the Chinese silks brought by the junk traders and reshipped them to London on EIC cargoes, while the British traders left English cottons for the junk traders to take back to China.[6]

Guthrie’s firm, like other British agency houses in Singapore, acted as agents for British producers who supplied them with woollen and cotton goods. British traders in Singapore often sold these Western manufactured goods to Asian merchants on credit, payable in local (Straits) produce such as spices, sugar or tin obtained from local cultivators and miners. The British traders in turn shipped these local produce to London as payment to their creditors.[7] Another item that reaped handsome profits for Guthrie and other merchants was opium, an illegal commodity that was transported from Calcutta, India, to Singapore on ships owned by the EIC, and then loaded onto private vessels for distribution in China.[8]

In November 1823, Guthrie dissolved the local Thomas Harrington branch and founded his own firm with a new partner, James Scott Clark, in mid-February 1824.[9] Guthrie diversified his business and ventured into activities such as storage, freight and insurance.[10] In 1830, Guthrie’s agency house became the Singapore agent for London merchant bankers, Coutts and Company.[11] Guthrie also reduced his dependence on trade by investing in the production of nutmeg for export.[12] Guthrie left Singapore in 1847 and died in London in 1865.[13]

1. Drake, P. J.  (1981, September). Currency, credit and commerce: Early growth in Southeast Asia (p. 50). England: Ashgate. Call no.: RSING 332.4959 DRA.
2. Larson, J. L. (2001).  Bonds of enterprise: John Murray Forbes and Western Development in America's railway age (p. 60). Retrieved January 15, 2014, from Google Books.
3. Cunyngham-Brown, S. (1971). The traders: A story of Britain's Southeast Asian commercial adventure (p. 27).  London: Newman Neamie. Call no.: RSING 382.0959 CUN.
4. Chiang, H. D. (1970).  Sino-British mercantile relations (pp. 247–248). In J. Ch’en & N. Tarling, (Eds.), Studies in the social history of China and Southeast Asia; essays in memory of Victor Purcell (26 January 1896–2 January 1965).  London: Cambridge University Press. Call no.: RSEA 951 CHE.
5. Cunnyngham-Brown, 1971, p. 32; Trocki, C. A. (2006). Singapore: Wealth, power and the culture of control (pp. 14–15).  London: Routledge.  Call no.: RSING 959.5705 TRO-[HIS].
6. Chiang, 1970, p. 248; Drake, Sep 1981, p. 50; Trocki, 2006, p. 16.
7. Cunnyngham-Brown, 1971, p. 37–38; Drake, Sep 1981, 51–52.
8. Cunnyngham-Brown, 1971, p. 39.
9. Cunnyngham-Brown, 1971, p. 50.
10. Cunnyngham-Brown, 1971, p. 39.
11. Allen, G. C., & Donnithorne, A. G. (1957).  Western enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya: A study in economic development (p. 201).  London: Routledge. Call no. RSEA 338.9 ALL.
12. Drake, Sep 1981, p. 54.
13. The nineteenth century. (1952, January 22). The Singapore Free Press, p. 2; A hundred years of trade. (1927, September 10). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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