Mackinnon, William (DNB01)

MACKINNON, Sir WILLIAM, first baronet (1823–1893), founder of the British East Africa Company, born at Campbeltown in Argyleshire on 31 March 1823, was the son of Duncan Mackinnon of Campbeltown, by his wife Isabella (d. 21 April 1861), daughter of John Currie of the same town. He was educated at Campbeltown, and was trained to the grocery trade there. Early in life, however, he came to Glasgow, and was employed in a silk warehouse and afterwards in the office of a merchant engaged in the Eastern trade. In 1847 he went out to India and joined his old schoolfellow, Robert Mackenzie, who was engaged in the coasting trade in the Bay of Bengal. Together they founded the firm of Mackinnon, Mackenzie, & Co. On 29 Sept. 1856 the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company was founded mainly through Mackinnon's exertions. It was renamed the British India Steam Navigation Company on 8 Dec. 1862. The company began with a single steamer plying between Calcutta and Rangoon, but under Mackinnon's direction it became one of the greatest shipping companies in the world. Under his guidance it developed, and in many instances created, a vast trade around the coast of India and Burmah, the Persian Gulf, and the east coast of Africa, besides establishing subsidiary lines of connection with Great Britain, the Dutch East Indies, and Australia. He was careful to have his ships constructed in such a manner that they could be used for the transport of troops, thus relieving the Indian government from the necessity of maintaining a large transport fleet. His great business capacity did not impair the humanity of his disposition. On learning that his agents during a famine in Orissa had made a contract with government for the conveyance of rice from Burmah at enhanced rates, he at once cancelled the agreement, and ordered that the rice should be carried at less than the ordinary price.

About 1873 the company established a mail service between Aden and Zanzibar. Mackinnon gained the confidence of the sultan, Seyyid Barghash, and in 1878 he 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 district comprised at least 590,000 square miles, and included Lakes Nyasa, Tanganyika, and Victoria Nyanza. The British government, however, declined to sanction the concession, which, if ratified, would have secured for England the whole of what is now German East Africa. In 1886 the 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 company acquired a coast line of 150 miles, including the excellent harbour of Mombasa, and extending from the river Tana to the frontier of the German protectorate. The company, which included among its principles the abolition of the slave trade, the prohibition of trade monopoly, and the equal treatment of all nationalities, found itself seriously handicapped in its relations with foreign associations, such as the German East African Company, by the strenuous support which they received from their respective governments. The British government, on the other hand, was debarred by the principles of English colonial administration from affording similar assistance. The territory of the company was finally taken over by the British government on 1 July 1895 in return for a cash payment.

Mackinnon had a great part in promoting Sir H. M. Stanley's expedition for the relief of Emin Pasha. In November 1886 he addressed a letter, urging immediate action, to Sir James Fergusson, under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, and followed this by submitting to Lord Iddesleigh, the foreign secretary, a memorandum suggesting the formation of a small committee to send out an expedition. He and his friends subscribed more than half the sum of 29,000l. provided for the venture, the rest being furnished by the Egyptian government (cf. In Darkest Africa, 1890, prefatory epistle).

Mackinnon was for some time a director of the City of Glasgow Bank, and assisted to extricate the concern from its earlier difficulties. In 1870, finding that he could not approve the policy of the other directors, he resigned his seat on the board. On the failure of the bank in 1878 the liquidators brought a claim against him in the court of session for about 400,000l. After a protracted litigation Mackinnon, who had peremptorily declined to listen to any suggestion of compromise, was completely exonerated by the court from the charges brought against him, and it was demonstrated that the course taken by the directors was contrary to his express advice.

Mackinnon was one of the chief supporters of the Free Church of Scotland. Towards the end of his life, however, the passage of the Declaratory Act, of which he disapproved, led to some 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 Mackinnon was nominated C.I.E., and on 15 July 1889 he was created a baronet. He died in London, in the Burlington Hotel, on 22 June 1893, and was buried at Clachan in Argyleshire on 28 June. He was a highlander of the best type, a hospitable host, and a generous benefactor. He possessed great administrative ability. When Sir Bartle Frere sent Sir Lewis Pelly to the Persian Gulf in 1862 he said, 'Look out for a little Scotsman called Mackinnon; you will find him the mainspring of all the British enterprise there.'

On 12 May 1856 Mackinnon married Janet Colquhoun (d. 1894), elder daughter of John Jameson of Woodside Crescent, Glasgow. He had no issue.

[Scotsman, 23, 29 June 1893; Glasgow Herald, 23 June 1893; D. D. Mackinnon's Memoirs of Clan Fingon, 1899, pp. 194–9; Times, 23 June 1893.]

E. I. C.