All studies of empire confront the gap between image and reality, between the propagandist mask and the often fraught face beneath. The very name P&O bears resonances of power, efficiency and regularity, the images of its ships conveying a sense of style and authority, as well as reflecting a more mundane transportation system. Through its own propaganda – in its advertisements, paintings, engravings, and, later, postcards and films – the company has been inseparably bound up with the British empire in the East and in Australia. Even the modern company's cruise ships (now American-owned) were until recently universally decorated with these reassuring and evocative images of the past. The phrase ‘flagships of imperialism’ neatly conveys this symbiotic relationship between mercantile shipping and empire. But in this book more attention is paid to the fraught face than to the mask. Despite the ebullience and aggressive tactics of its founders, the company was seldom wholly free of internal strife, political controversy or financial problems. Freda Harcourt charts the often difficult origins of this imperial company with an acute sense of political and imperial contexts, as well as with a sharp eye for the interplay of policy and personality.
The personalities are indeed worth studying. One of the striking characteristics of British imperialism is the extent to which so many significant developments came from the periphery rather than from the centre. Harcourt charts the manner in which the origins of P&O lie in the shipping traditions of Ireland, its mercantile entrepreneurs, bankers, and investors. Moreover, many of the leading figures in the history of the company were Scots. In some respects P&O has affinities with other firms founded by Scots: Sir William Mackinnon's involvement in the creation of the British India Steam Navigation Company and other imperial enterprises, for instance; Sir Donald Currie's dominance in shipping to South Africa through his Castle line; the Henderson brothers’ roles in shipping to Burma and New Zealand; and the formation of many other companies like the Clan, Ben, Anchor, and Donaldson. The mighty Cunard line owed its origins to Canadian enterprise, and some other local lines – such as Burns Philp, the Irrawaddy Flotilla, and the Straits Steamship companies – were created at the periphery, often with strong Scots’ involvement.1 If the British empire was directed from the metropolis, much of the energy and business acumen came from its fringes.
As Sarah Palmer points out in her ‘Afterword’, this book will take its place among the works of the ‘Liverpool School’ of maritime history as well as the studies of Andrew Porter, J. Forbes Munro and others. While P&O has been well served in its company histories, often emphasizing the propagandist mask, it has never before been subject to the penetrating analysis, based on private and public archival sources, offered by Freda Harcourt. The chapters here take the P&O story up to the time of the opening of the Suez Canal.
(p.ix) Draft chapters which carry aspects of the research through to 1914 are available in the P&O Archive. It is to be hoped that other maritime and business historians, stimulated by Harcourt's work, will continue to research the company's copious and significant history.
Manchester University Press and the ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series are very grateful to Edward Harcourt for doing so much to bring this book to publication.
(1) For more on these, see John M. MacKenzie, ‘Lakes, Rivers and Oceans: Technology, Ethnicity and the Shipping of Empire in the Late Nineteenth Century’, in David Killingray, Margarette Lincoln and Nigel Rigby (eds), Maritime Empires: British Imperial Maritime Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2004), pp. 111–27. (p.x)