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Matheson, Sir (Nicholas) James Sutherland, first baronetlocked

  • Richard J. Grace

Sir (Nicholas) James Sutherland Matheson, first baronet (1796–1878)

by Henry Cousins, pubd 1837 (after James Lonsdale)

Matheson, Sir (Nicholas) James Sutherland, first baronet (1796–1878), merchant and politician, was born on 17 November 1796 at Shinness, near Lairg, Sutherland, the second son in the family of three sons and five daughters of Captain Donald Matheson of Shinness, and his wife, Katherine, daughter of the Revd Thomas MacKay, minister of Lairg. He was educated at Inverness Royal Academy, the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and the University of Edinburgh, after which he spent two years learning commerce with a London agency house.

India attracted Matheson about 1815, and, with free merchants' indentures from the East India Company, he joined the agency house of Mackintosh & Co. at Calcutta. But his first business experience there was unsuccessful and inauspicious; he therefore left that firm and formed a partnership in 1818 with an elderly merchant named Robert Taylor. Their ventures had only limited success, and within two years Taylor died. While sailing as supercargo on ships carrying their country trade goods between India and China, Matheson first visited Canton (Guangzhou) during the tea season of 1818, and he was settled in the area of Macau and Canton from 1820. By 1821 he held an appointment as Danish consul at Canton, which put him beyond the jurisdiction of the East India Company and allowed him to fly the Danish flag on ships he engaged.

As a partner in the firm of Yrissari & Co., which he helped to form at Macau in 1821, Matheson served as agent for merchants in Singapore and India; and, dealing in export and import commerce, he speculated in the opium trade which, although illegal in China, offered the greatest profits.

After the death of Xavier Yrissari in 1826, Matheson continued the firm briefly, but wound up its affairs in 1828. In that year, a fellow Scot, William Jardine, brought Matheson into the firm of Magniac & Co., reconstituted in 1832 as Jardine, Matheson & Co. Of the two, Jardine was the dour, disciplined business planner, while Matheson was the more mercurial and intellectually curious entrepreneur. Their combined experience built the most influential agency house in Canton. Jardine Matheson engaged in banking, shipping, insurance, and marketing, principally on commission for businesses remote from China. Their legitimate trade may have exceeded their opium trade, but it was their hard-currency resources from opium sales which gave them primacy among the foreign merchants in Canton.

Official Chinese policy confined the commerce of British merchants (and nearly all other foreign merchants) to Canton, and channelled their transactions through a loose organization of Chinese merchants known as the ‘Cohong’, who functioned as middlemen to control the foreign trade. When Matheson returned to Britain for an extended visit in 1835–6, he articulated his ideas on free trade in a booklet entitled The Present Position and Prospects of British Trade with China (1836). Resentful of the haughty contempt shown towards foreign merchants by the Chinese imperial government, he argued that providence had blessed the Chinese with a vast portion of the most desirable parts of the earth, from which they were trying to exclude foreigners, in defiance of the laws of nature. To correct that situation he urged the British government to make a resolute approach to the Chinese emperor in order to establish a proper commercial relationship.

No such arrangement had been achieved by 1839, when Jardine retired from China, leaving Matheson as the managing partner. In March 1839, two months after Jardine's departure, imperial commissioner Lin Zexu confiscated foreign inventories of opium, and forcibly detained sixteen merchants, including Matheson. Upon their release in May, Lin expelled Matheson from China for ever, but the Scot retreated first to Macau and then to Hong Kong, to resume opium sales in secret, with 200 per cent profits on fresh supplies from India. During the First Opium War (1839–42), after Hong Kong was occupied by a British expedition, Matheson purchased for his firm the first plots of land offered for sale on the island.

For medical reasons (asthma) Matheson retired to London in 1842, and there found his partner terminally ill. When Jardine died in 1843, Matheson succeeded him as Liberal MP for Ashburton, Devon, 1843–7. He then sat for Ross and Cromarty, 1847–68. He also pursued finance, and in 1848 helped to reorganize the banking firm of Magniac Jardine, which as Matheson & Co. became a financial giant in the City, and within which he became known as ‘Uncle James’. On 9 November 1843 he married Mary Jane, daughter of Michael Henry Perceval, of Spencer Wood, Canada, a member of the Quebec legislative council. They had no children. His nephews succeeded him in directing Jardine Matheson and Matheson & Co.

In his China days Matheson had joined with Jardine and others to organize the Medical Missionary Society in Canton and a hospital in Macau. He repeatedly showed kindness toward old British merchants, newly down on their luck. Also, with a small hand press, in 1827 he started the Canton Register, China's first English-language newspaper. He had begun acquiring extensive estates in Sutherland before he left China, and in 1844 he purchased the Isle of Lewis, largest of the Outer Hebrides, from the Seaforth Mackenzies. At Stornoway he and Lady Matheson built the Lews Castle and developed elaborate gardens on the castle grounds. As proprietor of Lewis, Sir James was considered to be a kind laird in his efforts to improve conditions of life in many ways. For his generous relief to the people of Lewis during the great famine of the late 1840s he was made a baronet in 1850. However, in later years the estate management of his tyrannical factor, Donald Munro, led to much discontent among the population of the island and caused the so-called ‘Bernera riot’ in 1874. That incident led to Munro's disgrace, but residual hard feeling diminished somewhat the people's memory of Sir James's generosity.

Matheson was appointed lord lieutenant and sheriff principal of the county of Ross in 1866. Elected FRS in 1846, he led an active public life into his eighth decade, and for many years served as chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.

Sir James died at the spa town of Menton in the south of France on 31 December 1878. He was buried, not far from his birthplace, in the cemetery at Lairg under a funeral monument strikingly reminiscent of imperial India where his career as a merchant began. He was survived by his wife.


  • CUL, Jardine, Matheson & Co. MSS
  • J. Matheson, ‘Brief narrative’, CUL, Jardine, Matheson & Co. MSS [concerning events at Canton, March–April 1839 during hostage crisis]
  • J. Matheson, The present position and prospects of British trade with China (1836)
  • monument, 1880 [at Lews castle, Stornoway, erected by Lady Matheson]
  • Valuation rolls of the county of Ross and Cromarty, 1868–9
  • Valuation rolls of the county of Ross and Cromarty, 1872–3
  • Valuation rolls of the county of Ross and Cromarty, 1877–8
  • M. Keswick, ed., The thistle and the jade: a celebration of 150 years of Jardine, Matheson & Co. (1982)
  • P. W. Fay, The opium war (1975)
  • M. Greenberg, British trade and the opening of China, 1800–42 (1951)
  • J. S. Grant, A shilling for your scowl (1992)
  • A. Mackenzie, The history and genealogy of the Mathesons, 2nd edn (1900)
  • private information (1995)
  • D. MacDonald, Lewis: a history of the island (1978)


  • CUL, Jardine, Matheson & Co., private letter-books
  • CUL, Jardine, Matheson & Co., private letter-books, William Jardine
  • CUL, Jardine, Matheson & Co., letter-books, Yrissari & Co.
  • CUL, Jardine, Matheson & Co., letter-books, Taylor & Matheson
  • NMM, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.


  • H. Cousins, engraving, pubd 1837 (after J. Lonsdale), NPG [see illus.]
  • group portrait, Lodge Fortrose, Stornoway, Lewis
  • photographs, Stornoway, Lewis
  • portraits, repro. in Keswick, The thistle and the jade

Wealth at Death

£169,685 6s. 11d.: confirmation, 28 May 1879, CCI

under £25,000—effects in England: probate, 9 May 1879, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Cambridge University Library