On January 17, 1927, Marcus Samuel, a London-born businessman whose vision transformed the nature of the world petroleum trade toward the end of the 19th century, and a founder of what became Royal Dutch Shell, died.
Marcus Samuel was born on November 5, 1853, in the Whitechapel section of London’s East End. He had the same name as his father; his mother was the former Abigail Moss, both of them also London-born.
Marcus Sr. owned a curio shop in Houndsditch, near the Tower of London, and he bought his merchandise from sailors who disembarked from ships returning from the Far East. Among his more popular items were small boxes covered with painted seashells, which were often sold at seaside resorts. As his business expanded, Marcus added rice and other commodities, also imported from the east, and by the 1860s, he was also exporting goods.
The elder Samuel’s two sons, Marcus and Samuel, followed their father into the business, Marcus in 1869, after education in both Paris and Brussels. But they expanded its range, trading with a number of countries in an East Asia that was opening up to the world.
As Marcus sold Japan and other countries machinery that allowed them to industrialize, he realized their need for oil to power the process.
Inventing the first oil tanker
At the same time, the Samuels were approached by the French Rothschilds, who owned the rights to develop oil reserves discovered in the Caucasus region of the Russian empire, but lacked the means to transport it to market. It was in 1891, after trips to Japan and then to present-day Azerbaijan, that Marcus Samuel had the idea of hauling oil from the Caspian Sea to Japan and Singapore by way of the Suez Canal, which had opened in 1869.
Doing that required a new kind of tanker, which Samuel designed himself, before ordering up eight of them. Not only would the hold of one of these vessels be the actual container for the oil – as opposed to the separate containers used until then – but the hold would be steam-cleanable, so that on the return trip from the East, they would be able to transport other goods, even food. Samuel designed the ships to meet the strict safety standards of the Suez Canal Co.
The Samuel brothers called their company Shell Trading and Transport, a tribute to their father’s original commodity, and each of the ships that were hastily constructed bore the name of a different seashell (Murex, followed by Conch, Clam, and the like).
Despite the best efforts of America’s Standard Oil, which then dominated the nascent oil trade, to convince the authorities that the new tankers were not safe and that their owners were a “powerful group of financiers and merchants” who were under “Hebrew influence,” the Samuel-Rothschild alliance received permission in January 1892 to begin plying the Suez Canal route.
It was a development that shook the petroleum market and it made the brothers Marcus and Samuel Samuel wealthy men. Between 1897 and 1927, the value of their firm rose from ₤1.8 million to ₤26 million.
But Marcus Samuel was no John D. Rockefeller, and even as the company he headed became a global giant, he ran it out of a single room in London’s East End, improvising rather than planning strategically. As a result, he was unprepared to deal with success, and by 1907, Shell Trading and Transport was forced to merge with Royal Dutch Petroleum, forming one of the world’s largest oil distributors, Royal Dutch Shell.
In the meantime, Marcus Samuel involved himself in local politics, becoming a London alderman, sheriff of the City of London, and later lord mayor, an honorary post, for a year. He also picked up a variety of titles, in part for his contributions to the war effort in World War I, becoming Baron Bearsted of Maidstone.
Samuel remained an observant Jew throughout his life, and was active in the United Synagogue. In 1881, he married Fanny Elizabeth Benjamin, with whom he had four children.
Fanny died on January 16, 1927, and Marcus followed her just a few hours later, on January 17, dying at the age of 73.