The Other Cargill

From apprentice sailor to coffee extraordinaire and a jack of many trades, Cargill & Co has withstood the sands of time due to the relentless efforts of its founding father

Founded in 1844, “Cargills” is a household name in Sri Lanka. The island’s top retail chain gets its name from David Sime Cargill, globally famed as the founder of Burmah Oil. However, 150 years ago, another Cargill had greater fame in this island.

Born in Edinburgh in 1823, Edward Bowes Cargill studied there and in England before going to sea as an apprentice sailor at the age of 14, and visiting the Far East and Australia. On 21 September 1843, he boarded the barque Parkfield in Sydney, sailing via Western Australia to Colombo, arriving in January 1844.

Cargill’s father, Captain William Cargill, a former army officer who served in India, Spain and Portugal, sold wine for a living. However, the family received its major support from his elder brother William Walter Cargill, who went to India and became secretary and treasurer to the Bank of Bombay. In 1842, the board of the new Bank of Western India invited him to join as secretary. It expanded rapidly, establishing branches in Colombo (the first foreign bank in Sri Lanka), Kolkata, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In 1845, Walter Cargill went to London, where he converted what was essentially a regional bank in India into one covering the entire East: Oriental Bank. He became its chief manager, with George William Anderson, later governor of Sri Lanka, as chairman. The next year, it became the first note-issuing bank in Hong Kong. In 1851, it became Oriental Bank Corporation and, following the Australian Gold Rush of that year, Cargill’s younger brother Francis founded branches in Melbourne and Sydney.

New Oriental Bank

E.B. Cargill came to Sri Lanka to join the local branch of his elder brother’s bank. These were the days of the “Coffee Rush”, when scores of Europeans went into Sri Lanka’s interior and began coffee plantations. The planters needed cash for clearing the jungles, planting coffee, weeding and manuring before they could get a return, so they needed banks. Thus, the Bank of Western India and, later, Oriental Bank, began investing heavily in coffee.

However, Cargill does not appear to have savoured prospect of becoming a banker. Certainly, by 1845, the Oriental Bank only had three employees: George Smyttan Duff as manager, Peter Rankine as the accountant and John Forbes Moir as an agent in Kandy. It went on to become a major international bank before collapsing in 1884. Reconstituted as New Oriental Bank, it lasted only eight years, closing its doors in Colombo in 1892.

Cargill joined the agency house of Lambe, Rainals and Company, founded by Frederick Lambe, son of a London vintner and grandson of a former Lord Mayor of London. Lambe, a founder-member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, became its secretary. The firm managed coffee estates and traded in coffee and other commodities. The pioneering nature of coffee plantations meant that they did not have infrastructure in place to import their inputs and export production. The agency companies filled this vacuum and did roaring business.

However, Cargill wanted to branch out on his own and, in 1848, joined John Byng Withers Dowdall to establish a partnership business in Colombo named Dowdall, Cargill & Co. Unfortunately, Dowdall died while returning to Britain onboard the Scindia in 1852. Two years later, partnering Andrew Nicol, Cargill reconstituted the firm as Nicol, Cargill & Co, an insurance agent, general merchant, planter and coffee exporter. Nicol, the son of a Banff customs official, came to Sri Lanka from Mumbai, where his half-brother had business interests, and became known as a “poor and industrious planter”, growing coffee in Rangala and coconut in Batticaloa, and eventually becoming a member of the Legislative Council.

Nicol, Cargill advertisement in the Melbourne Argus 26 Oct 1858

The firm did good business and acquired several coffee estates. However, after the coffee slump in 1864, the company could not recover the large sums it had lent. The partners, therefore, voluntarily dissolved the firm. However, two partners reconstituted the firm in 1866 as Fowlie, Richmond & Co. This venture, in turn, went under in 1875. However, an assistant at the firm, William Somerville, started up on his own, selling coffee, tea, cocoa, cinchona, coconuts and tea – the first tea auction took place in 1883. He entered the share-brokering business, and was instrumental in setting up the Share Brokers Association, ancestor of the Colombo Stock Exchange. Somerville & Co still exists.

Meanwhile, Cargill returned in 1854 to England, where he married Dorothy Jemima Nesham, daughter of a surgeon. The following year, he moved to Australia, setting up his own shipping agency as a trader of Sri Lankan coffee, chicory, wheat, oats and (of all things) mirrors. He also ventured into mining machinery. However, he had limited success.

In 1857, auctioning off his furniture and what remained of his mirrors, he moved to New Zealand, where his father had founded the European settlement of Otago on South Island. Settling in Dunedin, Cargill went into business with his brother John’s father-in-law John Jones, a Sydney-based whaler and pastoralist. Jones, Cargill & Co acted as shipping agents and owned a steamer, Geelong. As merchants, they imported coffee direct from Sri Lanka, sugar direct from Mauritius and tea direct from China, and dealt in products ranging from American clocks to New Zealand cravats. In 1861, Jones left the firm and Cargill’s brother John joined him. With the discovery of gold, Cargill & Co expanded rapidly. However, fire damage affected its prospects, and several of its ships either sank or ran aground. Cargill also started a finance company, a bank and an insurance company (now part of Tower Insurance), while making huge investments in land and meat production. A slump impacted his firms badly in the 1880s, and Cargill retired from business, selling his firm to a British company. In the meantime, he contested a parliamentary seat successfully and served from 1862 to 1865; he also served on the Provincial Council over 1862-1867 on the Dunedin city council as vice-chancellor of Otago University, and as Mayor of Dunedin. He also held the position of Consular Agent for Italy and Vice-Consul for the Netherlands, in Dunedin. He died in 1903.

New Oriental Bank (1864)

New Zealanders remember E.B. Cargill chiefly for a “folly” he built in Dunedin at a cost of £14,000 (Rs330 million today). The crenelated tower on the grand clifftop 21-room residence, which Cargill named “The Cliffs”, won for the concrete edifice the nickname “Cargill’s Castle”, a name that has stuck to this day. The building caught fire in 1892 and, apart from a grand piano and some rare china, Cargill could not save its contents, losing his extremely valuable antique pattern furniture, works of art, jewellery and library. By that time, Cargill was poorer than he had ever been and did not have the funds to restore it completely, only having insured it for £2,200. Hence, today it has the forbidden aspect of a ruined mediaeval fort. The somewhat Italianate style building originated from its architect, Francis William Petre. While building the castle, Petre fell in love with Cargill’s eldest daughter. Since Petre came from a Roman Catholic background, whereas Cargill was staunchly Presbyterian, the latter objected to the relationship. However, he relented finally, and the couple were married in the newly opened castle in 1881.

However, it was another of Cargill’s five daughters who carried his business heritage to Europe. In 1893, Isobel Cargill (then 29) went to Italy with an older woman, Anna Maria Babington. In Rome, they started an establishment to provide the numerous English tourists with tea, newspapers and toilet facilities. Called Babington’s Tea Room, “where ladies or gentlemen hard at work sightseeing could go to refresh themselves with a comforting cup of tea”, became a Roman institution, and is still run by Cargill’s descendants today.