Borneo Co. Ltd.

Singapore Infopedia


The Borneo Co. Ltd. (BCL) was formed in 1856 to exploit business opportunities in Borneo (Sarawak).It was also active in other parts of Asia. Drawing on its knowledge of the Southeast Asian markets, the company entered the automobile industry in the 1920s, importing and selling cars in Singapore and Malaysia.2

In 1841, James Brooke (also known as the White Rajah) was granted authority over Sarawak by the sultan of Brunei for his help in protecting Sarawak’s local ruler against raiding tribes.3 Brooke was appointed consul general to the island of Borneo in 1847.4

To facilitate trade between Sarawak and Britain, Brooke enlisted the services of Ludwig Helms, a Danish merchant who was operating out of Singapore. Helms’s business in Singapore linked Brooke to the Glasgow-based merchant house, MacEwen & Co., which had branches in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and Batavia (Jakarta). MacEwen’s office in Singapore became Brooke’s agent, while Helms managed Brooke’s business in Sarawak.5

MacEwen was a family-based operation that evolved from trading firm W. R. Paterson and Co., founded in 1842.6 With Paterson’s retirement, the company became known as MacEwen & Co. in 1849, and its operations in Singapore were run by John Harvey.7

BCL was founded on 8 May 1856 in London as a joint-stock, limited-liability company to exploit the business opportunities in Sarawak.Harvey became one of the company’s board members and its managing director in London.9

With the establishment of BCL in London, MacEwen’s properties in Singapore, including the wharves at Telok Blangah, were transferred to BCL in 1857.10

The Borneo Co. was established in Singapore on 31 July 1857, and it became a member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce in 1860. BCL also established branches in Sarawak, Shanghai, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Thailand and Java, with Singapore as its administrative headquarters for the region.11

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.12 In Thailand, the company became a major teak producer, capitalising on the Treaty of Chiangmai (1883), which permitted Western companies to cut their own trees.13 In Sarawak, its businesses covered import and export, banking, production of agricultural commodities, as well as mineral exploitation and development.14

After World War I, there was growing interest in motorcars, which had made its first appearance in Singapore in 1896. BCL identified the trend as a business opportunity.15 It then started selling imported cars in Singapore and Malaya in the early 1920s.16 The industry grew rapidly. Before long, it became clear that the sale and servicing of motor vehicles could no longer be just a side business.17 Borneo Motors Ltd. was thus incorporated in 1925 in Singapore as a subsidiary of BCL to import and sell cars.18 Car sales through Borneo Motors became an important source of income for Borneo Co.19 In 1967, BCL merged with Britain’s Inchcape Group.20


Joshua Chia Yeong Jia

1. “The Borneo Company,” Straits Times, 30 October 1929, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Henry Longhurst, The Borneo Story: The History of the First 100 Years of Trading in the Far East by the Borneo Company Limited (London: Newman Neame, 1956), 17. (Call no. RCLOS 959 LON-[RFL])
2. Geoffrey Jones and Judith Wale, “Merchants as Business Groups: British Trading Companies in Asia before 1945,” Business History Review 72 no. 3 (Autumn 1998): 379. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
3. “The First of the White Rajahs,” Straits Times, 7 August 1954, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Craig A. Lockard, “The Early Development of Kuching, 1820–1857,” p. 110. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 49, no. 2 (230) (1976): 110 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Longhurst, Borneo Story, 11–16.
4. H. Cox and S. Metcalfe, “The Role of Networks in the Early Development of the Borneo Company Limited” (Centre for International Business Studies Working Papers, London South Bank University, 1 November 1997), 5–6; “First of the White Rajahs.”
5. Cox and Metcalfe, “Role of Networks in the Early Development of the Borneo Company Limited,” 9.
6. Cox and Metcalfe, “Role of Networks in the Early Development of the Borneo Company Limited,” 9; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 185. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
7. Cox and Metcalfe, “Role of Networks in the Early Development of the Borneo Company Limited,” 9; Longhurst, Borneo Story, 17.
8. “Heritage,” Inchape, accessed 8 June 2020; Cox and Metcalfe, “Role of Networks in the Early Development of the Borneo Company Limited,” 5; Longhurst, Borneo Story, 17.
9. Cox and Metcalfe, “Role of Networks in the Early Development of the Borneo Company Limited,” 12.
10. Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, From Early Days (Singapore: International Chamber of Commerce, 1979), 52 (Call no. RSING 380.10655957 SIN); Cox and Metcalfe, “Role of Networks in the Early Development of the Borneo Company Limited,” 18; “100 Years Old Borneo Company,” Indian Daily Mail, 27 October 1956, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Tommy Koh, et al eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, 2006), 68 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Longhurst, Borneo Story, 31; Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, From Early Days, 52.
12. Jones and Wale, “Merchants as Business Groups,” 377; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 69.
13. Geoffrey Jones, Merchants to Multinationals: British Trading Companies in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 70 (Call no. RBUS 338.88941009034 JON); Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 69.
14. Jones and Wale, “Merchants as Business Groups,” 377; Amarjit Kaur, “The Babbling Brookes: Economic Change in Sarawak 1841–1941,” Modern Asian Studies, 29, no. 1 (February 1995): 75–80, 83–93. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
15. Ilsa Sharp, Wheels of Change: The Borneo Motors Story (Singapore: Borneo Motors, 1993), 19, 22. (Call no. RSING 338.76292095957 SHA)
16. Jones and Wale, “Merchants as Business Groups,” 379.
17. Sharp, Wheels of Change, 32.
18. Jones, Merchants to Multinationals, 109; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 69; Jones and Wale, “Merchants as Business Groups,” 380.
19. Jones and Wale, “Merchants as Business Groups,” 384.
20. Inchape, “Heritage”; International Directory of Company Histories, vol. 50 (Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 2003), 266, 268. (Call no. RBUS 338.7409 INT)

Further resource
Howard Cox and Stuart Metcalfe, “The Borneo Company Limited: Origins of a Nineteenth-Century Networked Multinational,” Asia Business Review 4, no. 4 (June 1998), 53–68.

The information in this article is valid as at May 2020 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. 


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