The East Asiatic Company in Siam

Old office building

The East Asiatic Company in Siam

Table of Contents

A young Danish entrepreneur in Siam

Hans Niels Andersen, the founder of East Asiatic Company (EAC), was born in the village Nakskow, Denmark, in 1852. He was into shipping at a young age. Trained as a shipbuilder, they hired him as a carpenter on a ship. Hans was not highly educated traditionally but educated himself more or less. He founded a multinational conglomerate, which became the biggest Danish company.

His first trip to Siam took place in 1873. After that, he first became “the first mate” and then captain on a Siamese ship. This was the “Thoon Kramom,” which King Chulalongkorn of Siam owned.

In recent years the company ASIATIQUE The Riverfront built a replica of this ship. The new ship is named the Sirimahannop, which moors at Asiatique the Riverfront. Andersen was a very enterprising person: he established his own company in Bangkok in 1884, called Andersen & Co. Peter Andersen (not related) and Frederick Kinch, both from Denmark, were his partners.

Buffaloes in front of warehouses
Warehouse in Bangkok of the East Asiatic Company in 1935. Source unknown

The Oriental Hotel

Before starting his own company, Andersen and his partners bought a riverside hotel in Bangkok in 1881. He then assigned Stefano Cardu, an Italian architect, to build a new luxury hotel in 1885. This became the Oriental Hotel, which opened its doors in 1887. Frederik Kinch, Niels Andersen, and Peter Andersen are listed in the Siam Directory in 1888 as proprietors of the hotel.

In 1893 Andersen and his partners sold the hotel to a British or American businessman called Franklin Hurst. After that, Niels went back to Denmark, where he founded the East Asiatic Company (Danish: Det Østasiatiske Kompagni or ØK. Isak Glückstadt(1839-1910), the Danish Farmers’ Bank director, was also a shareholder of the company. The East Asiatic Company eventually became the biggest company in Denmark. Shipping and trade with South East Asia and Siam, in particular, were the company’s main objectives.

Young tree
Young teak tree in front of the first office of the East Asiatic Company in Phrae

Hans Niels Andersen and Royalty

Hans Niels Andersen was very well connected to the royal family of Denmark. King Christian IX (1818-1906) ruled Denmark from 1863 until his passing. When King Rama V, Chulalongkorn, visited Denmark in July 1897, the Danish monarch told Rama V, “he personally was deeply interested in the East Asiatic Company, and he considered it a national enterprise.” The royal involvement probably helped the East Asiatic Company become a major economic force in Siam in the 20th century. The company was involved in shipping, tin mining, teak and hardwood logging, and other activities.

The head office of the East Asiatic Company in Siam was in Bangkok. Another Italian architect Annibale Rigotti designed the office, which is next to the Oriental Hotel. The building dated back to ca.1900 and served as the office until 1995. It is not open to the public but occasionally serves as a location for movies. It is known as the East Asiatic Building.

Old house on stilts
The East Asiatic Company office in Phrae, ca.1907. Source: Universite Côte d'Azur.

The East Asiatic Company and teak

In the late 19th century, teak was the second-ranked export product of Siam. Hans had already invested some of his own money in a teak shipment to Europe on the Thoon Kramom, the ship on which he worked. After that, the East Asiatic Company obtained the first concession of a teak forest near the town of Phrae in North Thailand in 1899. Then, in 1906 Andersen’s brother-in-law V.Guldberg signed the lease contract of a piece of land within the old city walls of Phrae. The Minister of Interior Prince Rajanubhab signed for the Siamese government the contract that gave the company the right to use the land until 1926. 

In the years after having obtained the lease, the company constructed its first office. Later they constructed a residence for the manager and another building, which became the 2nd office and now houses the Teak Museum.

Old office building
The first East Asiatic Company office in Phrae in 2021

Images of the early operations of the EAC

In 2021 a unique photo album with images of the early operations of the East Asiatic Company in North Thailand surfaced. This album is on the website of the Bibliothèque Numérique of the University of the Côte D’Azur in France. It contains photos taken in Siam and Laos in the period between mid-1906 and mid-1910.

The photographer started his journey in Bangkok and traveled via Uttaradit, Phrae, Chiang Kham, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Saen to Laos. He continued by boat on the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, Vientiane, to Champassak province in South Laos. It is not a book with holiday snapshots, I think. The quality and composition of the photos are remarkable. The photographer, therefore, must have been a professional on assignment.
Elephants in a row
A group of elephants of the EAC. Source: University of the Côte D'Azur

Expeditions by elephant

The album contains outstanding photos of the compound of the EAC in Phrae and the logging operations east of Phrae. There are, for example, great photos of a game of Polo on what probably is the former compound of the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation BBTC). According to my information, the BBTC sold the three houses of their compound to the EAC in 1925.

I don’t know yet what happened with the three houses. They were still there in 1944 because they are visible in aerial reconnaissance photos taken by Allied planes.  The Yom River dramatically changed course sometime after World War Two, so they demolished the houses or were taken by the river.

The album also contains unique photos of an expedition on elephants to Chiang Rai and Chiang Kham. There are pictures of Tai Lue and Hmong minority groups.

Elephants at a temple
EAC elephants arriving at a Chiang Rai temple. Source: University of the Côte D'Azur

Facts about the East Asiatic Company in 1923

The English-language newspaper The Bangkok Times issued a yearly “Directory for Bangkok and Siam.” All foreign companies were listed in this book. In the 1923 edition, the East Asiatic Company presented itself as Steam and Motor Ship Owners, Millers of Teak and other Woods, Oil Millers, Cement Manufacturers, Rubber and Cocoanut Estate Owners, Tin Min Owners, Exporters and Importers, General Merchants.

The head office of the company was in Copenhagen. Moreover, it had branches in Bangkok, Durban, Hankow, Harbin, London, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore, Surabaya, Tientsin, Valparaiso, and Vladivostok.

In Siam, the company owned the Siam Steam Navigation Co. Ltd., had forest concessions in Phrae and Bandon (Surathani) and tin mines in Takua Pa, Phang Nga province, in the south. In short, the company had become a worldwide multinational conglomerate 25 years after its foundation.

Colonial house on stilts East Asiatic Company
The former residence of the EAC manager, constructed in the 1920s

The Teak Industry in Siam

The East Asiatic Company was the only Danish company that was involved in the teak industry in Siam. The other companies were British and French.

The two biggest companies were British: the Borneo Company and the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation.  Besides these, there was the smaller Anglo-Siam Corporation and Louis T.Leonowens Ltd. In our tours “In the Footsteps of the Teak Wallahs” and “The Teak Trade of Chiang Mai and Lampang,” we tell the story of the history of these companies.

In Chiang Rai province the French company “Compagnie Asiatique et Africaine”(Department Est Asiatique Français) was active. As far as I know, this company was not related to the East Asiatic Company.

Horse cart in front of old house East Asiatic Company
Horse cart at Baan Louis Lampang

Teak concessions of the East Asiatic Company

The teak concessions of the company were mostly in Phrae provinces and spilling over in Utaradit and Nan provinces. The office was in Phrae. Unlike suggested elsewhere, the EAC didn’t have offices in Lampang, in Chiang Mai, or any other city in northern Thailand, as far as I know.  The 1937-38 Directory of Bangkok and Siam mentions a Lampang & Chiengmai Agency, probably a representative office.

They had operational stations in Wang Chao (Tak province), Sawankhalok, Sukhothai and Paknampo (Nakhon Sawan). In 1904 German biologist Carl Curt Hosséus stayed with Mr.Mygind at a teakwood station in Wang Chao. This station was on the Ping River, implying the company had other concessions than the ones mentioned above. I will do more research to find out where these concessions were.

Rafts of logs in a river East Asiatic Company
Rafts of teak logs on the Chao Phraya River. Courtesy of Mrs.Suwaphon Chuto

The Tramway of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation

In 1929 the company bought the Mae Li “tramway” from the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, which used to transport teak logs in the Mae Li area in Lamphun and Chiang Mai provinces.

Companies had to use the term “tramway” because the term “railways” was reserved for the Royal State Railways of Siam. The EAC only needed one locomotive and 20km of rails, but they bought the whole tramway “plant.” Some of this equipment went to Bandon (Suratthani) district in South Thailand, where the company was logging hardwood trees.

Old steam train and personel East Asiatic Company
The tramway plant of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. Picture by Morinosuke Tanaka. Courtesy of Oliver Backhouse.

The end of the teak logging activities of the EAC

According to the Directory for Bangkok and Siam, issue 1941, only two staff remained in Phrae: forest manager A.Gredsted and employee P.A.Bloch.  In the years 1945-46 the forest concessions of the EAC expired. The Directory of 1948 mentions three staff at Phrae: P.A.Bloch, C.G.Brodsgaard, and T.Kl…Wer (third letter unreadable). I guess they were responsible for the sales of the offices and the elephants and they the removal of the last remaing teak logs.

The archives of the company are at the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen. I am planning a visit to Copenhagen in 2022.

Old colonial style building East Asiatic Company
The Forestry Museum in Phrae

The location of the old EAC office

The company’s office in North Thailand was in Phrae in a compound, of which the Forestry Department is the owner. In one of three buildings, left from the days of the EAC, is a small forestry museum. It is closed on Sunday but opens on weekdays. I guess opening times depend on the coming and going of the person in charge. It has some interesting pictures, exhibits, and information about the East Asiatic Company.

References for the East Asiatic Company

I have done extensive research on the history of the teak industry in Thailand. Furthermore, I have visited Phrae numerous times and visited the former compound of the East Asiatic Company and the Teak Museum which exhibits photographs and information about the activities of the company.

I collected correspondence of the Bombay Burmah Company, regarding the sale of a teak tramway to the East Asiatic Company in the London Metropolitan Archives.

  • A.Eggers Lura, THE DANES IN SIAM: Their Involvement in Establishing The Siam Commercial Bank Ltd. At the End of the Last Century, Siam Society, 1993
  • The Oriental Bangkok in a Danish perspective
  • The Directory for Bangkok and Siam: 1914, 1923, 1937-38, 1941 and 1948. Issued by the Bangkok Times.
  • Through King Chulalongkorn’s Kingdom(1904-1906), Carl Curt Hosséus, Bangkok, 2001
  • Forestry Museum in old EAC building in Phrae, Harry Schultz, Thai-Danish Trade News, 2004
  • Directory for Bangkok and Siam, Bangkok Times, editions 1914, 1923, 1925, 1927, 1930, 1937-38, 1941, 1946, and 1948.
Man with bicycle helmet East Asiatic Company
Frans Betgem at the East Asiatic Company office in Phrae in 2021

The Teak Museum and the former compound of the East Asiatic Company feature in this tour