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EAST INDIA COMPANY FACTORY RECORDS
Sources from the British Library, London

Part 2: China

Part 2: China Factory Records, 1817-1832 includes topics for a wide spectrum of research. Each of the volumes generally incorporates a very useful index to the contents.

  • Details on the arrival and departure of EIC ships at Canton, Malacca and Macao
  • Lists of stock held in the factory at Canton
  • Instructions from the Select Committee of supercargoes to captains of ships regarding the amount of tea of different types to be purchased
  • Canton Treasury Reports showing monies received and expenses
  • Details on the opium trade with an analysis of the consumption and value of opium in China for 1832
  • Seamen’s and officers’ wages
  • The decrease in the sale of broadcloth and of cotton
  • Instructions from the Select Committee on how to deal with damaged goods
  • Estimates for the rebuilding of factory warehouses
  • An inventory of the crockery and silver being used by the Canton factory
  • Papers relating to Lord McCartney’s Embassy to China
  • Papers relating to Lord Amherst’s Embassy to China
  • Details on private trade carried out by ships’ officers
  • “Tea Reports” - statistics showing merchants, the type of tea and whether it was accepted as being in good condition or rejected

The extract below is taken from correspondence relating to Lord Amherst’s Embassy to China:

"22nd Feb 1815
The Chairman communicated to the Court a letter… from John Barrow Esq … suggesting for the reasons therein stated, a Mission to the Court of Pekin in order to announce the restoration of general peace in this quarter of the world; and of congratulating the Emperor upon his recent escape from assassination….”

The next extract is from the Secret Commercial Drafts to China, November 1813-March 1832:

“26 Nov 1813

From the best information we can obtain of the merchants and indeed from our own observation, the consumption of Tea is gradually but regularly increasing in Great Britain & Holland and it is said to be in greater use than formally upon the Continent of Europe. In the United States of America and the British American Colonies, Tea is in general use….”

The following extract is from the Select Committee’s Secret Consultations, March 1820-April 1822:

"1820 Altho’ it may be hoped that the Mahore Opium may ultimately be obtained of a quality little inferior to the Opium of Behar and Benares, it will yet be proper that the purchasers of Opium in China, and the Custom Markets, show to have the means of distinguishing the two descriptions….”

The last extract is from Letters received from China, March 1823-March 1825:

“Experimental Consignment of Emerald Green, Bright Crimson & Pale Yellow. The Consignment noted in the paragraph under reply consisted of an abaonment? Totally unfit for the Canton Market being colors to which the Chinese can attach no use….”

China Factory Records, 1596-1840

From an early date the East India Company had made efforts to trade with China to obtain silks and porcelain. Voyages were made to the East intermittently in the first half of the seventeenth century and at first the Company was represented in East Asia by factories in Taiwan and Tonkin (North Vietnam) which were opened in 1672. But the first foothold on mainland China was not gained until 1676, when Company merchants were given permission to trade at Amoy, Canton and Chusan. East India Company trade with China started in earnest in 1762 with the establishment of a factory at Canton.

Up to 1680, the trade with China was conducted by country ships freighted by the Company’s factory at Bantam, but it was then decided to employ ships freighted direct from England. By 1715, ships were despatched yearly with a supercargo appointed to each ship. Their role was to look after the cargo on the ship and to manage commercial operations on shore in China. Until 1754 the supercargoes did not stay there but travelled back and forth on the Company’s ships. But from the latter end of the eighteenth century some of them did remain in China. The supercargoes sometimes formed Councils, either one for each ship, or two or more to supervise two or more ships and sometimes these Councils were combined into one Council while at Canton. In 1755 there were three Councils at Canton, and one of them remained until 1756; similarly another Council resided from 1756 to 1757 and another from 1757 to 1758. Thereafter there was always only one Council of Resident Supercargoes for all ships.

Until the mid nineteenth century the factories at Canton were based on a stretch of land between the city walls and the river and Europeans were not allowed into the city. The ships anchored and received their cargoes off the island of Whampoa. The three main commodities were tea, silk textiles and porcelain. But tea was the most important. It was adopted by the upper classes as a healthy drink and by the late eighteenth century accounted for more than 60% of the Company’s total trade. Porcelain for everyday domestic use was also imported into England in massive quantities but very little profit was made on this commodity.

In the eighteenth century opium was highly sought after by the Chinese and in 1773 the Company assumed the monopoly of opium growing in Bengal. Company ships were not allowed to carry opium so it was smuggled into China by traders and agency houses. Cash received from Chinese drug-runners at Lintin was paid into the Company’s factory at Canton and by 1825 most of the money needed to buy tea in China was raised by the opium trade. The Opium War of 1840 with the Chinese, fought over the trade in opium, resulted in the English seizing Hong Kong. The Company’s monopoly on the China trade was abolished in 1833 with an agent remaining in Canton until 1840.

The Factory Records for China can be found in Parts 1 and 2 of our publication and the following information has been annotated to show which records can be found in which part.

  • • Diaries of the Council in China (records of daily activities)
    Part 1: 1721-1815 and Part 2: 1815-1834
  • Consultations of the Council in China (records of administrative decisions, purchases and sales and of correspondence)
    Part 1: 1721-1815 and Part 2: 1815-1834
  • Diaries of the supercargoes of the ships
    Part 1: 1737-1751
  • Papers of the Board of Control
    Part 1: 1753-1822
  • Canton Diary of Chinese debts
    Part 1: 1779-1781
  • Miscellaneous papers – journals of voyages, diaries of factors such as James Naish at Canton and Macao, letters including copies sent by the Court of Directors of the Company to the factors and instructions to ships’ captains
    Part 1: 1596-1815
  • Canton Financial Consultations
    Part 2: 1834
  • Canton Commercial Consultations
    Part 2: 1832-1834
  • Canton Factory Consultations
    Part 2: 1832-1834
  • Canton Agency Consultations
    Part 2: 1834-1840
  • Despatches to China
    Part 2: 1829-1832
  • Letters received from China
    Part 2: 1823-1832
  • China Select Committees Secret Consultations
    Part 2: 1793-1832
  • Superintending Committee’s Consultations
    Part 2: 1792-1794

“In a world where long-distance communication was only as fast as the speed of a sailing ship, the Company Directors in London faced two problems – how to take and manage decisions, and how to keep their servants [...] industrious, sober and honest. The first was perhaps less of a problem than the second. All business at all stages was carried out in writing... The result survives today as the massive East India Company Archive, deposited in the British Library.”

Anthony Farrington
Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia’ (2002)

“A maritime empire based on free trade was an improbable legacy from a mercantilist and monopolistic entity like the Honourable Company.”


John Keay
‘The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company’ (1991)

The Factory Records of the East India Company for China are an invaluable research tool for scholars interested in the history of the maritime trade, the origins of global commerce and the establishment of trading networks in Asia. The Factory Records for India, covering Fort St George (Madras), Calcutta and Bombay will be covered in Parts 3-6 of our publication.

East Indi Co. Ensign

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