Rothschild and China
The first firm evidence of trading links between N M Rothschild & Sons and China dates from 1838, In the earliest surviving letters from Rothschilds' agents in Canton (now Guangzhou). Chinese silks feature considerably, alongside tin, tea, cochineal and quicksilver, as the stock in trade of an increasingly bustling corner of the globe. Following the Anglo-Chinese Treaties of 1842 and 1858, which ended the Opium Wars, N M Rothschild & Sons moved to expand the Chinese links. Much of the correspondence with their agents in Shanghai focused on silver, the medium of commercial payment in China.
Sycees (a type of silver bullion) took the form of ingots called ‘shoes’, so-called because they were supposed to resemble the Chinese female foot. They were used throughout China in varying weights and sizes. Each ingot was stamped with the name of the smelter, date of casting and an indication of the weight and fineness. Trading and shipping of specie and bullion had, from the first, been a central pillar of the business of N M Rothschild and the firm was quick to organise a substantial trade to China.
In one shipment alone in 1856, the Rothschild agent in Shanghai acknowledged receipt of Mexican dollars totalling £23,128 - though 140 dollar coins were found to have ‘escaped’ through a slit in the bag in which they were being transported.
These sycees were given to Charles Rothschild (1877-1923) as a gift, and displayed in the Bank.
RAL reference: RAL 000/1911