Tuesday 20 September 2011

Harriman's - The oldest surviving business

Business is at times an adventure. Charles Hugon arrived in Port of Spain by accident in about 1803. He had sailed from the French port of Bordeaux, where he and his brother Luc had run the family business, a lot of import and some export.
From an old journal of his, most of which had been eaten by worms by the time it came into my hands, we read:
“We were crossing the Atlantic at our tremendous best, averaging 330 knots a day. Captain Vigo ordered the main, royal, the fore and mizzen, top gallant sails taken in so as to preserve his shrouds and yards. The seas were enormous, waves that kept the decks constantly awash rushing along the decks and exploding forward against the capstans. There is a great beauty and a marvellous fascination in the experience of a ship under sail, driven to her greates speeds in a pounding gale of wind...”
This storm, perhaps it was a mid-Atlantic hurricane of the sort we see on the weather report on television, drove Captain Vigo’s ship south to Trinidad and Charles Hugon, who had intended to go to Canada, found himself in a noisy, muddy, badly built, little more than a fishing village, place that was described as Port of Spain. He hadn’t intended to stay, but his effects such as they were, were put ashore and Captain Vigo sailed with the tide, taking the remous straight through the Dragon’s Mouth.
Hugon did well in Port of Spain. First, he rented aplace around where Chacon Street would later appear on maps. It was more or less bush, naked Caribs camped at his door. Governor Picton was ahning or decapitating African slaves in public at an alarming rate. A German soldier received 1500 lashes for rape one Sunday morning while respectable people were going to church.
Hugon minded his business, slept in it to deter thieves and so that the Caribs did not move in. He got to like the place, bought a little house on Queen Street and followed the advice of another young Frenchman, Jean Boissière, and stayed off the rum. A frew years later, he married a pretty girl with an aristocratic sounding name, made a bit of money and put on some weight. His business was a ship chandlery and a hardware store.
This story really begins in 1812 with Madame Hugon going on holiday to Europe. Traveling by coach through the German countryside, near to the village of Eschau in the duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt, an unfortunate accident occured. Her coach capsided in the snow and she suffered several injuries. The alderman of Eschau called Gerold took her in and Mrs. Gerold looked after Mrs. Hugon.
During this period, Europe was at war. Napoleon Bonaparte was in the process of re-arranging the status quo. The Gerold’s eldest son was already fighting in Russia. After having been in th hospitality of the Gerolds for three months, Mme. Hugon offered on leaving to take their other sons, Chritian and Anslem, to the West Indies to as to save them from being conscripted into Napoleon’s army.
Three years later, the eldest Gerold had been killed in battle, and Gerold senr. was also dead at the hands of Cassock marauders. Christian and Anslem took up on the offer, went out to Trinidad and worked for Charles Hugon in Port of Spain.
The Hugons had no children, and upon their retirement in 1828, the firm passed to the young men. It was renamed C. & A. Gerold. Over the years, they brought their nephews over from Hessen-Darmstadt to work with them: Wuppermann, Feez, Urich and Zürcher.
Many Germans travelled to South America in the 1820s. The Gerolds opened a branch at Angostura, now Ciudad Bolivar, with Henry Dick under the name Dick & Wupperman. Adolph Wupperman married a Ganteaume woman from Mayaro. They came to know Dr. J.G.B. Siegert, the concoctor of the world-famous bitters. It was through this connection that the Angostura Aromatic Bitters of Dr. Siegert were taken to the world.
In 1839, Adoph’s son, George, came out to Trinidad and in 1870 married Josephine Hancox in New York. Two years later, the House of Gerold and Urich failed. The business, however, was revivied by Joseph Hancox, Josephine’s father, who came to Trinidad the same year with his second daughter and her husband John Neilson Harriman to see what could be done to rescue the position of his daughter.
As a result an accommodation was made whereby the business was restarted under the name of J.N. Harriman and Company, his son-in-law’s name, in trust for his daughter, Josephine Wupperman. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Harriman, Josephine’s sister, died in Trinidad, and Harriman returned to the United States shortly after, leafing George and Josephine Wupperman to carry on their former company’s business in the name of J.N. Harriman & Co.
In 1875, the business of J.G.B. Siegert & Sons removed to Port of Spain; three years later, Carlos D. Siegert, Dr. Siegert’s son, approached George Wupperman, and together they set up an agency in New York for the sale of Angostura Bitters. The Siegerts and the Wuppermans were close friends, and Carlos was the godfatehr to George and Josephine’s son.
This company later became known as Angostura, Wupperman & Co. and was the sole agent in the United States for the sale and distribution of Angostura Bitters. On their departure, the Wuppermans left a fellow countryman, Karl Boos, in charge of J.N. Harriman & compan. Boos had come to Trinidad in 1873, also from Hessen-Darmstadt, and was initially employed by Fritz Zurcher. He left Zurcher and joined J.N. Harriman & CO in 1875/76, and by 1878 had risen to the post of head clerk.
As time passed, the New York operation diverted the interest of the Wuppermans and in 1885 the company was sold to Dr. J.G.B. Siegert & Sons. Within a matter of weeks, the Siegerts sold it to Karl Boos for the same sum. Carlos Siegert extended the credit to Boos for the purchase of the company and as part of this contract an annuity of $2,000 per annum for 20 years was payable for the goodwill. J.N. Harriman & Company, it is to be remembered, had the world trade rights for Angostura for life, but this was to change. Boos established his independence by repaying htis debt early, but when years later, in 1892, in a desperate effort to obtain further finance to complete the purchase of two cocoa estates, he approached Carlos again for financial assistance, the condition of that loan was the termination of the existing world agency rights to one at will and for Trinidad only.
In 1896, the company moved from their premises at 2 South Quay to the present location at 61 Marine (now Independence) Square. In the same year, Carl August Boos joined his father as cashier and in 1900 was taken into partnership. The father and son partnership continued for 21 years, weathering several financial storms, until 1921 when the partnership was dissolved and the son purchased his father’s interest in the business.
In 1900, Karl Boos left Trinidad with his family to reside in New York where he opened the firm of Boos & Co. as a branch of J.N. Harriman & Co.

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