Butterfield and Swire Co, Ltd. was a British firm formed in 1866 to trade with China and Japan. Its business activities quickly expanded to include extensive shipping operations in China as well as manufacturing and services. The Swire Group, a contemporary multinational, remains an important investor in enterprises in China and Southeast Asia today.

Butterfield and Swire was a subsidiary of the British trading firm John Swire and Sons that was founded to expand the firm’s business to Japan and China. John Samuel Swire formed Butterfield and Swire by partnering with wool merchant Richard S. Butterfield in 1866 in order to sell British textiles in China and to buy silks and teas for export to England.

In 1867 Butterfield and Swire’s first office opened in Shanghai using the Chinese hong name (given to a commercial establishment or house of foreign trade in China) Taikoo ??. The partnership between John S. Swire and Butterfield ended the next year, leaving Butterfield and Swire under the control of John Swire and Sons.

In addition to its trade activities, Butterfield and Swire was the agent for Alfred Holt’s Ocean Steamship Company (or Blue Funnel Line) in Japan and China. This association allowed Butterfield and Swire to expand its network of branch offices in China and provided the basis for its long involvement in shipping in Asia. Between 1870 and 1890 Butterfield and Swire added branches in Hong Kong, Tianjin, Hankou, Guangzhou (Canton), Fuzhou, Su’ao, Jiujiang, Xiamen, and Qingdao as well as in Kobe and Yokohama. Responding to quickly changing economic conditions in China, within a few years of its founding the trading activities of Butterfield and Swire were subordinated to the management of new lines of business begun by the broader Swire organization. Most prominent of the new businesses was the China Navigation Company, a steamship company established in 1872 with capital from the Swire and Holt families. The China Navigation Company began on the Yangzi (Chang) River and later expanded its routes to the China coast, Japan, Australia, and Southeast Asia, often acting as a feeder service for the Ocean Steamship Company. China Navigation became one of the most prominent shipping companies in Chinese waters before World War II.

The Taikoo Sugar Refinery (established in 1881 in Hong Kong) was another Swire business; Butterfield and Swire managed its sugar shipments; China Navigation ships transported them. By the 1890s Butterfield and Swire had almost completely withdrawn from trade to concentrate on these associated businesses, which later included the Tianjin Lighter Company (1904), the Taikoo Dockyard and Engineering Company (1908), and the Orient Paint, Color, and Varnish Company (1934). Butterfield and Swire branches throughout China acquired agencies for other shipping companies, banks, insurance firms, and other businesses in addition to managing Swire affiliates.

World War II brought permanent change to Swire activities in China. After Japan attacked the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japan seized most Swire properties, including China Navigation ships. After the war China’s government and shipping interests resisted the return of foreign ships to China’s coastal waters. Unable to continue its shipping business on the mainland, Swire shifted its base of operations to Hong Kong, completing the transition in 1953 when the firm transferred ownership of its remaining mainland properties to the government of the People’s Republic of China. Today the Swire Group remains an important multinational firm, owning manufacturing, waste management, bottling, and real estate development interests in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific Airways, and the China Navigation Company (now a Pacific Rim container line). Swire also has invested in businesses in the United States and Australia and in the 1980s began to reinvest in mainland China in a range of real estate, manufacturing, and aviation concerns.

Further Reading

Jones, G. (2000). Merchants to multinationals: British trading companies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Marriner, S., & Hyde, F. E. (1967). The senior John Samuel Swire, 182598: Management in Far Eastern shipping trades. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press.

Sugiyama, S. (1987). A British trading firm in the Far East: John Swire & Sons, 1867–1914. In S. Yonekawa & H. Yoshihara (Eds.), Business history of general trading companies (pp. 171–207). Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.

Zhang Zhongli, Chen Zengnian, & Yao Xinrong. (1991). The Swire group in old China. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House.

Source: Reinhardt, Anne. (2009). Butterfield and Swire. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 249–250. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Butterfield and Swire (Tàig? Yáng Háng ????)|Tàig? Yáng Háng ???? (Butterfield and Swire)

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