Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Borneo Company Limited

The Borneo Company Limited building..(roughly the site of the present Kuching Hilton.)

The Borneo Company Limited was formed in 1856 to exploit the business opportunities in Borneo (Sarawak). It was also active in other parts of Asia. The company was unique among the early British trading houses for being associated with large-scale motor vehicle trade, ever since the introduction of the motorcar into the region.

In 1841, James Brooke, popularly known as the White Rajah, was granted the authority over the region of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei for his help in protecting the local ruler of Sarawak against raiding tribes. In 1847, Brooke was appointed consul general to the island of Borneo. To facilitate trade between Sarawak and Britain, Brooke enlisted the services of Ludwig Helms, a Danish merchant who was operating out of Singapore. Helms' business in Singapore linked him to a Glasgow-based merchant house of MacEwen & Co. which had branches in Singapore, Batavia and Manila. In 1849, the MacEwen's operations in Singapore was ran by John Harvey. MacEwen's office in Singapore became Brooke's agent while Helms managed Brooke's business in Sarawak.

MacEwen & Co. was a family-based operation and evolved from an earlier trading firm, W. R. Paterson and Co., founded in 1842. In 1849, when Paterson retired, the company became MacEwen & Co.

The Borneo Company Limited (BCL) was founded on 8 May 1856 in London as a joint stock, limited liability company, to exploit the business opportunities in Sarawak. John Harvey became one of its board members and managing director in London. With the formation of BCL in London, MacEwen & Co. in Singapore was dissolved and its properties including the wharves at Telok Blangah were transferred to BCL. In Singapore, the Borneo Company was established on 31 July 1857, and became a member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce in 1860. MacEwen & Co.'s branches in Batavia and Siam were formally transferred to BCL in 1857. The firm also established branches in Sarawak, China, India, Hong Kong, Thailand and Java, with Singapore as the centre of BCL's network in the Far East.

Nature of Business
Up to World War I, BCL in Singapore was involved in the import and export business including the formation of a shipping cartel. It also ventured into other businesses such as brick making. In Thailand, the company capitalised on the Treaty of Chiengmai (1883), which permitted Western companies to cut trees, and became a teak producer. In Sarawak, the company's businesses covered importing and exporting, banking, production of agricultural commodities, mineral exploitation, and development.

After World War I, the company ventured into new ground following the wide interest in the motorcar which first made its appearance in Singapore in 1896. In the early 1920s, the company started selling imported cars in Singapore and Malaya. To take advantage of the phenomenal growth in the car population, its subsidiary, Borneo Motors Limited was incorporated in 1925 to import and sell cars. Car sales subsequently became one of the most important businesses of the Borneo Company.

After World War II, the company's business expanded to cover other products. In 1967, BCL merged with Inchcape Group of UK. As a result, the Borneo Company became a subsidiary of Inchcape, while Borneo Motors Limited was split into two separate entities - Borneo Motors (Malaysia) Sendirian Berhad and Borneo Motors (Singapore) Limited.

In the 1980s, the company was agent and distributor for a wide range of pharmaceuticals, consumer, technical, sports and leisure products. Meanwhile, Borneo Motors was involved in the distribution of motorcars and trucks and motor-related products and services. They were selling leading brands like Austin, Rileys, Vauxhall, Bedford, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Chrysler, Pontiac, Buick and Leyland.

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia

Longhurst, H. (1956). The Borneo story: The history of the first 100 years of trading in the Far East by the Borneo Company Limited. Newman Neame.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959 LON -[RFL])

Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 2, p. 185). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE)

Singapore International Chamber of Commerce. (1979). From early days (pp. 52-53). Singapore: The Chamber.
(Call no.: RSING 380.10655957SIN)

Kaur, A. (1995, February). The Babbling Brookes: Economic change in Sarawak 1841-194 [Electronic version]. Modern Asian Studies, 29 (1), 65-109.

Wale, G., & Jones, J. (1998, Autumn). Merchants as business groups: British trading companies in Asia before 1945 [Electronic version]. Business History Review, 72 (3), 367-408.

Cox, H., & Metcalfe, S. (1997). The role of networks in the early development of the Borneo Company Limited. Retrieved July 2, 2007, from

Funding Universe. (n.d.). Inchcape PLC -- Company History. Retrieved 2007, July 2, from

Borneo Motors Singapore. (2006). About Us: BMS history. Retrieved 10 October, 2006, from

The information in this article is valid as at 2007 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Anonymous said...

Better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion...................................................