Flagships of imperialism

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

By Freda Harcourt

Flagships of imperialism

Book Information

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN: 978-1-8477-9652-3
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Published Date: July 2013
  • BIC Category: Modern History, History, United Kingdom, Great Britain, European history, Colonialism & imperialism, TRANSPORTATION / Ships & Shipbuilding / History, HISTORY / Europe / Great Britain, Shipping Industries, Humanities / Colonialism & imperialism
  • Series: Studies in Imperialism


Flagships of Imperialism is the first scholarly monograph on the history of the P&O shipping company, and the first history of P&O to pay due attention to the context of nineteenth century imperial politics which so significantly shaped the company's development. Based chiefly on unpublished material from the P&O archives and the National Archives, and on contemporary official publications, the book covers the crucial period from the company's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 with the development of the necessary financial infrastructure for P&O's operations; the founders' attitudes to technical advances; the shareholding base; 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 which, above all else, implicated its fortunes in the wider politics of empire, as illustrated by the book's concluding account of 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.

Flagships of Imperialism will be of interest to transport and company historians and to historians of the British empire alike, as well as to anyone interested in the history of British ships and shipping in the nineteenth century.


1. 'A Large Capital and Great Arrangements': P&O to 1840
2. Full Steam Ahead: West and East of Suez, 1840-1845
3. From India to China: P&O and the Opium Trade, 1845-57
4. Competition and the Route to Australia, 1847-52
5. Views from the Boardroom, 1840-55
6. Nuts, Bolts and Money, 1843-65
7. Crisis and Rescue, 1853-67
Afterword by Sarah Palmer


Freda Harcourt was until her retirement Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. Sarah Palmer is Professor of Maritime History and Director of the Greenwich Maritime Institute, the University of Greenwich

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