Papers of Sir William Mackinnon

Scope and Content

The collection comprises correspondence and personal, estate and business papers accumulated by Sir William Mackinnon, predominantly during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The material covers a wide range of commercial, imperial and humanitarian topics, and includes correspondence and papers relating to the British India Steam Navigation Company, City of Glasgow Bank, Emin Pasha Relief Expedition and the Imperial British East Africa Company.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Mackinnon was born on 13 March 1823 in Campbeltown, Argyleshire. He was educated in Campbeltown and trained in the grocery trade there. Early in his life he went to Glasgow, where he was employed in a silk warehouse and afterwards in the office of a merchant engaged in the Eastern Trade.

MacKinnon began his business career in 1847, when he joined an old school fellow Robert MacKenzie who was engaged in the coasting trade in the Bay of Bengal. Together they founded the firm of Mackinnon, MacKenzie & Company. On 29 September 1856, the Calcutta and Burmah Steamship Navigation Company was founded, mainly through Mackinnon's exertions. In 1862 the rapidly expanding company was renamed the British Indian Steamship Navigation Company. What had begun as a single steamer plying between Calcutta and Rangoon, became one of the greatest shipping companies in the world. Under Mackinnon's guidance it developed and often created a vast trade around the coast of India and Burma, the Persian Gulf and East Coast of Africa, besides establishing subsidiary lines of connection with Great Britain, the Dutch East Indies and Australia. In 1873, the company established a mail service between Aden and Zanzibar. Mackinnon gained the confidence of Sultan Seyyid Barghash and in 1878 opened negotiations with him for the lease of a territory extending 1,150 miles along the coast line from Tungi to Warsheik, and extending inland as far as the eastern province of the Congo Free State. The British Government however, declined to sanction the concession, which if ratified would have secured for England the whole of what became German East Africa. In 1886 the British Foreign Minister availed himself of Mackinnon's influence to secure the coast line from Wanga to Kipini, a charter was granted and the Imperial British East Africa Company was formally incorporated on 18 April 1888 with Mackinnon as Chairman. The territory was finally taken over by the British Government on 1 July 1895, and became British East Africa. Mackinnon was also instrumental in promoting and funding Sir Henry Morton Stanley's expedition for the relief of Emin Pasha in 1886.

In 1858 Mackinnon became a Director of the City of Glasgow Bank, resigning that position in 1870, eight years before the Bank's complete collapse. Mackinnon did not escape from the consequences of the failure of the Bank, one of the most serious crises in modern Scottish financial history. The liquidators sued him for close to a quarter of a million pounds on a claim connected with advice Mackinnon was said to have given on American railway securities. Following protracted litigation, Mackinnon was completely exonerated by the court from the charges against him when it was demonstrated that the course of action taken by the remaining directors was contrary to his express advice.

Mackinnon was one of the chief supporters of the Free Church of Scotland. However, towards the end of his life the passage of the Declaratory Act, of which he disapproved, led to a difference of opinion between him and the leaders of the Church and he materially assisted the seceding members in the Scottish Highlands. In 1891 he founded the East African Scottish Mission.

In 1882 he was nominated C.I.E. He was created a Baronet on 15 July 1889. He married Janet Colquhoun (d 1894) on 12 May 1856. They had no children. William Mackinnon died on 22 June 1893, in the Burlington Hotel, London. He was buried at Clachan, Argyleshire.


The papers are arranged into six categories relating to distinct areas of Mackinnon's life and career: The Balinakill Estate; The British India Steam Navigation Company; The City of Glasgow Bank; The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, the Imperial British East Africa Company; and private correspondence, miscellaneous commercial correspondence, and personal correspondence (relating largely to his philanthropic activity and involvement with the Free Church of Scotland).

Access Information



Acquisition Information

D. Mackinnon gifted papers to SOAS, 11 Feb 1953. Donated in c.1976

Other Finding Aids

Published catalogue, A Handlist of the Papers of Sir William Mackinnon, Baronet, (SOAS, 1977)

Alternative Form Available

A microfiche copy of this collection is also held at SOAS Library [Classmark: M6313]

Conditions Governing Use

For permission to publish, please contact Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library in the first instance

Copyright transferred to SOAS, University of London

Related Material

Related Material held at SOAS: The papers of Francis George Hall, Imperial British East Africa Company [ref. MS 225864].

Associated Material held elsewhere: Letters of Sir William Mackinnon (1880-1884) held at the National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division [ref. MS 20311xx]. Letters to Duncan Mackinnon (1873-1880) held at the National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division [ref. Acc 6168]. Letters from the 9th Duke of Argyll (1884-1893), Private. Enquiries to National Register of Archives (Scotland), HM General Register House, Edinburgh, EH1 3YY [ref. NRA(S) 0006, NRA 9955 Campbell, NRA(S) 1209/1614].

Records of the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. (1856-1970), held at the National Maritime Museum, Manuscripts Section [ref. BIS]. Administrative and financial records of the City of Glasgow Bank, 1840-1882, held at Glasgow University Archives & Business Records Centre [ref. UGD 108, UGD 129].

The National Archives holds the records of the Foreign Office (FO) and Colonial Office (CO) which contain records relating to the East Africa Protectorate (which came under the Foreign Office from 1895, and was passed to the Colonial Office in 1905).


Further reading: Galbraith, John S., Mackinnon and East Africa, 1878-1895: a study in the 'new Imperialism' (Cambridge University Press, 1972)