Behn, Meyer & Co.
Behn, Meyer & Co. was established in Singapore on 1 November 1840 as a partnership between two Germans, Theodor August Behn and Valentin Lorenz Meyer.1 In its initial years, the firm traded in tropical produce such as coconut oil, pepper, camphor and rattan, but subsequently ventured into shipping and insurance. Meyer’s younger brother, Arnold Otto Meyer, later joined the firm, and was soon admitted as a partner.2 The younger Meyer subsequently returned to Germany and founded Arnold Otto Meyer Co.
Behn, Meyer & Co. was founded in Singapore on 1 November 1840.3 At the time, German enterprise in the East consisted of only a handful of individuals. Behn, Meyer and Co. was the first German business to compete for the growing Eastern trade in an extensive and organised manner.4
The firm started from a rented godown as a commission agent, trading between the East (primarily China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia) and Germany (in the cities of Hamburg and Bremen).5 The company enjoyed early success in its ventures. With the profits from its initial success, it was soon able to purchase a Chinese house on Market Street for use as a godown.6 The upper floor of the building was converted into an office, whilst the room next to the entrance held displays of glass and ironware.7
In 1891, the company established an office in Penang. By 1902, its headquarters was housed in a three-storey building at Finlayson Green. Located on the ground floor were the shipping department and estate administration office. The second floor housed the shipping and finance departments, while the third floor held the bookkeeping department and the general consulate.8
Business interests in the early years
Behn, Meyer & Co. prospered with the establishment of more European connections, and also as a result of improvement in trading environment with the introduction of steamships, abolition of the Navigation Act, and the liberalisation of coastal trade with Burma and the East Indies.9
The firm traded in a wide range of goods.10 It dealt in manufactured goods, small goods, hardware, copper wire, glassware and foodstuffs from Germany; cassia, lignae, camphor, ginger, aniseed, silk, porcelain and tea from China; sugar, coffee, indigo, sapanwood, tobacco, ropes and Manila hemp from Manila; and gambier, pepper, other spices, sago, hides, buffalo horns, shells, damar, gutta percha, gum benjamin, rattan and rice in transshipment from Singapore. The company also transported Malayan tin ingots to London in exchange for Manchester goods; bartered Swedish steel, iron ore and tar for Siamese sugar; conducted transactions in Burmese rice and Ceylonese coconut oil; acquired Western Australian sandalwood, horses and ships in exchange for cane sugar; shipped prefabricated wooden houses and other colonial products to San Francisco to support the burgeoning gold-mining industry in California; as well as repacked and transported China tea to New York during the northeast monsoon season. The tea repacking business was later discontinued when fast clippers were able to sail from China to New York directly.11
In addition, the company secured a concession to carry English coal to Singapore. It was also involved in providing transportation for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.12
During the latter half of the 19th century, the company’s business interests expanded to include insurance, chartering of ships and coastal shipping. It also secured the agency of several major shipping lines, including Norddeutscher-Lloyd.13
On 7 August 1844, Behn married Valentin Meyer’s sister, Caroline Meyer, who came to Singapore on 28 December 1844. She became the first female German resident in Singapore, and the only one for some time. On 31 December 1849, the partnership between Behn and Valentin Meyer dissolved over differences in character and business approach. Despite the friction in their business relationship, they remained friends.14
Friedrich Albert Schreiber entered the firm as a clerk in 1841.15 In 1848, Arnold Otto Meyer, Valentin Meyer’s younger brother, arrived in Singapore and also joined the firm.16 Together with Behn, the three signed a new partnership agreement on 31 December 1851.17
Behn withdrew from the partnership by end 1856, while Johannes Mooyer became a partner on 1 January 1857. On 22 February 1857, Arnold Otto Meyer left Singapore to take over Behn’s responsibilities in Hamburg. He then founded Arnold Otto Meyer Co. on 1 June 1857 whilst in Hamburg,18 and resigned from Behn, Meyer & Co. on 1 January 1900.19
Between 1849 and 1899, there were no less than 12 partners joining and leaving Behn, Meyer & Co.20 Adolf Laspe and Franz Heinrich Witthoefft, who joined the firm in 1893 and 1896 respectively, were recorded as key figures who guided the company to its next stage of growth.21
List of partners
1840–1849: Valentin Lorenz Meyer
1840–1856: Theodor August Behn
1851–1867: Friedrich Albert Schreiber22
1851–1967: Arnold Otto Meyer23
1857–?: Johannes Mooyer24
1863–1869: Ferdinand von der Heyde25
1868–1872: Oscar Mooyer26
1870–1880: Caspar Glinz (Swiss)27
1873–1881: Julius Brüssel28
1882–1887: Johannes Lütjens29
1885–1891: Otto Mühry30
1885–1905: Eduard Lorenz Meyer (son of Arnold Otto Meyer)31
1890–1895: Walter Edelmann (Swiss)32
1893–1905: Adolf Laspe33
1896–1905: Franz Heinrich Witthoefft34
1900–1905: Otto Sielcken35
1902–1905: Alexander von Roessing36
Key developments from the 1900s
On 1 January 1906, the firm became a limited liability company, with control of the company transferred from Singapore to Hamburg. The first board of directors were Hans Becker, Ad. Asmus, A. G. Faber, F. Katenkamp and H. Riege.37
The firm experienced crises following a sharp rise in pepper prices towards the end of 1906; prices fell dramatically shortly after. In 1907, the firm suffered considerable losses, and 1908, no profits were recorded.38 By 1914, Behn, Meyer & Co. had 11 branches in the Far East, including Penang, Manila, Sandakan and Iloilo.39 The firm was liquidated in both world wars, lost all its assets and offices in Southeast Asia during World War II, but eventually recovered.40
The company exists today as the Behn Meyer Group.41 Besides distributing a number of renowned brands, the group also develops its own products, particularly in chemicals. It has a network of offices in more than 14 countries.42 Together with Behn Meyer’s shareholders and members from the supervisory board in Hamburg, the Singapore office celebrated the company’s 175th anniversary on 1 November 2015. A $100,000 donation was given to the National University Cancer Institute at the occasion. 43
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
1. “History,” Behn Meyer, accessed 15 July 2017; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 187. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
2. Emil Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co. and Arnold Otto Meyer, vol. 1 (Hamburg: Hans Christians, 1981), 96–97. (Call no. RSING 382.0943059 HEL); Arnold Wright and H. A. Cartwright, eds., Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources (London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Pub., 1908), 672. (Call no. RCLOS 959.51033 TWE)
3. Behn Meyer, “History.”
4. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 672.
5. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 70–71, 72 facing; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 672.
6. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 672.
7. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 74.
8. Emil Helfferich, Behn, Meyer and Co. Founded in Singapore November 1, 1840 and Arnold Otto Meyer Founded in Hamburg June 1, 1857: A Company History, vol. 2 (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 1983), 74, 85–87. (Call no. RDLKL 382.0943059 BEH)
9. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 86; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 672.
10. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 672.
11. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 87–88.
12. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 86, 88.
13. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 672, 674, 801.
14. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 80, 83–84, 86, 97.
15. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 71.
16. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 672.
17. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 97.
18. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 100, 118; Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, From Early Days (Singapore: The Chamber, 1979), 46. (Call no. RSING 380.10655957 SIN)
19. Helfferich, Company History, 81, 83–85.
20. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 672.
21. Emil Helfferich, Company History, 70, 73–84.
22. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 97; Helfferich, Company History, 42.
23. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 97; Helfferich, Company History, 42.
24. Helfferich, Behn, Meyer & Co., 100, 129; Helfferich, Company History, 43.
26. Helfferich, Company History, 43.
28. Helfferich, Company History, 43.
29. Helfferich, Company History, 43.
30. Helfferich, Company History, 43.
31. Helfferich, Company History, 43.
32. Helfferich, Company History, 43.
33. Helfferich, Company History, 71, 73, 91.
34. Helfferich, Company History, 74, 91.
35. Helfferich, Company History, 87, 91.
36. Helfferich, Company History, 87.
37. Helfferich, Company History, 89–92.
38. Helfferich, Company History, 97–98.
39. Helfferich, Company History, 115–15.
40. Behn Meyer, “History”; “Behn, Meyer Re-Open Branches,” Singapore Standard, 3 January 1958, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Behn Meyer, “History.”
42. “About Behn Meyer,” Behn Meyer, accessed 6 January 2017.
43. “Behn Meyer 175th Anniversary in Singapore,” Behn Meyer, accessed 12 December 2019.
The information in this article is valid as at February 2020 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.