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British Business in Asia since 1860.

British Business in Asia since 1860 In the last few years the historical records of several British companies that are active internationally have become accessible to scholars, and a sequence of studies have been published. However, the available business records represent only a very small part of British overseas enterprise, so any balanced account needs to be taken along with other evidence such as regional studies, biographies, official reports, and consular files. A group of young academics, mostly connected with the Business History Unit of the London School of Economics, have now united some of their specialist work with the wider literature to produce this survey volume. After a useful introductory essay by the editors, the contributors focus in turn on Iran, Russia (mainly Siberia and Transcaucasus), India, Thailand, Malaysia (including Singapore), China, and Japan. This effectively covers every market in the Far East in which the British were involved, for Indonesia and the Philippines were left to other imperial masters.

The overall theme is not unfamiliar: spectacular British enterprise in the early and mid-nineteenth century followed by a long period of decline. Given the changing pattern of international power this must be regarded as inevitable, but it has been exacerbated in Britain's case by indifferent industrial performance at home and shaky marketing overseas, while the support of the government in London and the embassies was not so consistently positive as that of some competitors. Beyond this point it is not easy to make comparisons or generalizations from these essays. Part of the reason is that each market has its own peculiar conditions, but it is also true that the different approaches of the essayists makes synthesis difficult. To take just one example: most of the contributors mention the role of merchants, and two or three devote several pages to this important subject. It should be possible to reach some overall understanding of the performance of British mercantile enterprise, since many of the same firms (agency houses) were involved in India, Iran, Thailand, Malaysia, China, and Japan. The introductory chapter alludes to "the inefficiencies" of the managing agency system developed by the British merchant houses (p. 27), while the chapter on India focuses on these firms "operating in an enclave . . . at an arm's-length from local producers" (p. 109), and the chapters on Malaysia and Thailand bear witness to the firms' activity as local producers. No doubt there is a measure of truth in each of these contentions, but they are not the whole story, and the serious reader is left without direction. Why are very similar kinds of British organizations found to be so second-rate in India and so commendably enterprising in Malaysia and Siam? Some of the chapters (Iran, Malaysia) focus on banking, while others (Russia, India) largely ignore it. Is this a measure of British banking enterprise or of the interest of the individual essayists?

This is a compact book in which none of the authors wastes time on banalities. Its value is more fairly judged by its total impact than by the kind of inconsistencies of treatment just indicated. The essential achievement is to assemble an up-to-date and authoritative summary of the record of British business in the Far East from widely scattered sources and unpublished materials. As such it will be widely appreciated by scholars and teachers.

Stanley D. Chapman is Pasold Reader in Business History at the University of Nottingham, England, and editor of the journal Textile History. He is the author of Cotton in the Industrial Revolution (1972, rev. ed. 1987) and The Rise of Merchant Banking (1984), as well as of several studies of particular companies and a range of articles on industrial, commercial, financial, and imperial topics in European and American periodicals. He is now completing a book on British mercantile enterprise in the nineteenth century.
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Author:Chapman, Stanley D.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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