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China Trade: Sources in the India Office Records

Summary of administrative history

Canton tea warehouse

Canton tea warehouse. Watercolour on paper.C.1790. Artist unknown. [Add. Or. 4665]

The East India Company's earliest contact with China was made through a trading post in Taiwan, established in 1672. The trading activities gradually expanded to Amoy, Chusan and Canton. From about 1700, Canton, where a sophisticated system of control and supervision through officially-appointed 'Hong' merchants was established, became the main port for the European traders.

In the 1770s the management of the trade was placed under a Chief Council of Supercargoes which remained in China until 1786, when it was superseded by a Select Committee of the Senior Supercargoes, which was responsible for affairs until the Company's trading monopoly was finally abolished in 1833.

From 1834 British interests in South China were entrusted to a Superintendent of Trade, appointed by the British government and vested with consular as well as commercial authority. With the East India Company's direct role over, the China trade was taken over by dozens of separate British companies.

The records

Sources for the 17th century contacts with China before the era of Supercargoes are scattered in 'commercial intelligence' correspondence:

  • IOR: B Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors, 1599-1858
  • IOR: E/3 Original Correspondence, 1602-1712 and Despatch Books, 1626-1753 (124 volumes)
Court Minutes

The meeting of 16 Dec 1696 attended by 20 directors with George Bohun as Chairman shows the auction records of Chinese costumes. [B/41 p.134]

The East India Company Marine Records have some fascinating ships' logs describing the voyages to and from China. They include passengers list and lists of cargos on board from the early 17th century to the mid 19th century:

  • IOR: L/MAR/A Brief history of shipping by East India Company to China, c.1605-1705
  • IOR: L/MAR/B Ships' logs and journals, c.1702-1856

From the early 18th century, the Company's records of its trade in South China began with the diaries and consultations of the supercargoes of the individual ships for each trading season, in which they recorded details of sales and purchases and negotiations with merchants and officials, for the information of the Court of Directors in London. This series started from 1721 and lasted to the early 19th century.

The log of ship 'Rochester'.

On this page, from the log of the China voyage in 1710, is noted the death of a crew member, John Tillington. Ink on paper. (L/Mar/B/137, f.90)

IOR: G/12 China Factory Records c.1695-1858

  • G/12/22-57, R/10/3-9 Diaries and consultations at Canton 1721-77
  • G/12/58-240 Consultations of the Council and Select Committee at Canton 1775-1829 (interspersed with Canton Diaries, see below)
  • G/12/67-255 Canton Diaries 1779-1834
  • G/12/249-264 Canton consultations 1832-40
  • G/12/265-277, R/10/9-11 China Select Committee's Secret Consultations 1793-1834
  • G/12/278-283 Letters received from China 1823-34
  • G/12/284-287, R/10/52-53 Secret letters received from China 1810-1832
  • R/10/22-46, G/12/288-290 Despatches to China 1784-1832
  • G/12/291 Secret commercial drafts to China 1813-1832
  • L/PS/1/14-16 Minutes of the Secret Commercial Committee in London 1815-33
  • G/12/6 Miscellaneous documents 1615-1703, inc.:
    - Weddell's China voyage 1637
    - Letters from Taiwan and Amoy 1673-79
    - Consultations at Macao and Lantau 1682-83
    - Taiwan consultations 1683-85
    - Amoy consultations 1684-86
    - Consultations at Canton 1689-90
    - Chusan diary 1701
    - Consultations at Canton 1702
  • G/12/195 Miscellaneous documents 1710-1812: trade at Canton
  • G/12/18 Board of Control miscellaneous papers 1753-87
  • G/12/90 Papers on the proposed Cathcart Embassy 1787-88
  • G/12/19 Board of Control miscellaneous papers 1768-1797
  • G/12/20 Board of Control miscellaneous papers 1755-1822: Macartney Embassy 1793
  • G/12/91-93 Papers on the Macartney Embassy, 1787-1810, inc: original letters from Macartney 1792-95
  • WD 959-961 William Alexander's drawings made during the Macartney Embassy 1792-94: containing 870 drawings of landscapes, coastlines, costumes and everyday life
  • G/12/195-197 Papers on the Amherst Embassy 1815-17, inc: original letters from Amherst 1816-17
  • R/10/70 Journal of Hugh Lindsay's voyage to Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai in the 'Lord Amherst' 1832
  • G/12/13 Collections relative to China and to intercourse of the English with that Empire: the collections, made around 1800, cover 1623-99
  • G/12/1-8 Materials for a history of the rise and progress of the trade to China, compiled in 1821 by Peter Pratt, a clerk in the East India Company's Library, 1613-1704, 1712-25
  • G/12/10 Supplement to China Materials, additional extracts covering the seventeenth century, compiled by Pratt in 1823
  • G/12/11-12 Memoir of the East India Company's intercourse with China, prepared during the 1833 negotiations for the renewal of the Company's charter, 1518-1832
  • G/12/13 Materials for a history of a series of attempts to acquire and establish a trade at the port of Chusan in China, 1699-1759, compiled by Pratt in 1830