Flagships of imperialism

The P&O Company and the Politics of Empire from its origins to 1867

Author: Freda Harcourt

This book is a study on the history of the P&O shipping company, paying due attention to the context of nineteenth-century imperial politics that so significantly shaped the company's development. Based chiefly on unpublished material in the P&O archives and in the National Archives and on contemporary official publications, it covers the crucial period from the company's origins to 1867. After presenting new findings about the company's origins in the Irish transport industry, the book charts the extension of the founders' interests from the Iberian Peninsula to the Mediterranean, India, China and Australia. In so doing it deals also with the development of the necessary financial infrastructure for P&O's operations, with the founders' attitudes to technical advances, with the shareholding base, with the company's involvement in the opium trade, and with its acquisition of mail, Admiralty and other government contracts. It was the P&O's status as a government contractor that, above all else, implicated its fortunes in the wider politics of empire, and the book culminates in an episode which illustrates this clearly: the company's rescue from the edge of a financial precipice by the award of a new government mail contract prompted, among other things, by the Abyssinian expedition of 1867.

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