Douglas Campbell Brodie – Vancouver Shipping Agent and Businessman (1902–2006)

by Douglas Campbell Brodie (from his reminiscences) 2013

Douglas Campbell Brodie

Douglas Campbell Brodie (Photo from John Brodie collection.)

Editor’s Note: Douglas Campbell Brodie died In Vancouver BC on November 13, 2006 at the remarkable age of 104. He had had a most exceptional life including more than 50 years in the shipping business. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1902, the son of Major Harry Campbell Brodie MBE, a career officer serving in the British Army. The balance of his life story is best told in his own words, left in written recollections late in his life for his family:

From the Author: At age seventeen I went to a cramming school in London to study for the entrance exam to the Royal Military College (Sandhurst). To everyone's surprise, including my own, I passed-in creditably on my first attempt. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately considering the chances of potential extinction in the Second World War, I had to give up on a career in the Army due to a heart murmur which was considered as a serious physical handicap (and for some time I had to behave as someone who had suffered a coronary). This was quite a blow, for by then my father's savings had dwindled, and since there were no employment possibilities in the small Irish country town in which he was stationed I could not live at home and work.

Returning First World War servicemen could command nearly every available clerical position, but finally my father engineered a job for me with the Vacuum Oil Company in London. The weekly pay was the equivalent of $10 per week, and room and board cost $7.50 per week so my father spent more to subsidize my employment than if I had remained at home and idle. I worked in the accounts department and my job all day and every day was to check the accuracy of invoices sent out to customers. No promotion from such tedious work seemed in sight and in 1922 at age twenty it was arranged for me to seek my fortune in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong I found a job immediately with the prominent British firm Butterfield and Swire, established during the Opium Wars. Shipping was their main interest. They handled ocean-going ships as Agents, and as owners they operated their own large fleet of coastal and river vessels in China. They were established in all main ports in China and Japan and moved us around a good deal. It was a most interesting life. Even the youngest of us had a responsible executive job and there was every opportunity for sports and for an active and variable social life. The firm gave us one year off in every five on full pay to return to England with transportation in the Company's ships in addition to three weeks of annual leave.

In 1924 I was posted to Butterfield and Swire’s office in Canton, about 100 miles upriver from Hong Kong. Our ships serviced the China coast from Manchuria to Canton. We also did an extensive fire-insurance business as agents for some British insurance companies. Some hundreds of 'foreigners' were in business there, some of them in 'hongs' (business houses) established originally with money extracted from the Chinese to 'compensate' for physical injury or 'mental anguish' experienced by the original foreign settlers.

We lived on Shameen (pronounced Sharmeen) a small and originally barren island in the Pearl River, separated from the mainland by a narrow creek. This 'concession', half British and half French, resulted from a 19th Century treaty with the Chinese at the end of the Opium Wars. Like similar concessions in other parts of China, Shameen was arbitrarily seized from us by the Chinese during World War Two and never reclaimed. The island itself was about 300 flat acres in extent, on which the foreigners built their homes and business houses 75 years earlier. For relaxation we had a Club building, a football ground, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a small hotel.

Except as house-servants, Chinese were not allowed in our homes. Neither in the countryside nor in the Chinese city was one at risk. I do not recall a break-in during the time I was there - perhaps thanks to the watchman who would walk the rounds at night calling out the equivalent of the Chinese 'alls well' from time to time. That custom, and the almost deafening sound of the Cicada insects at night are vivid memories.

Life on Shameen was a curious mixture of conventional and of easy-going ways. To be socially acceptable it was a must for a newcomer to leave calling cards at the home of every established resident. (The cards had to be engraved - a printed card was social suicide!) An invitation to a formal dinner automatically followed, to judge one's social acceptability. To the end of my days in the Far East (1941) it was always customary for the hostess to 'collect eyes' after the dessert, as a signal to the ladies to withdraw. leaving the men to relax over the port-wine and cigars, until the host led the way to rejoin the ladies!

To the office one wore formal day-clothes with tie and jacket, regardless of temperature (tropical heat in summer).But one could take one's dog to the office! Although it would now seem stiff and formal, the use of surnames from man-to-man was customary, perhaps a carry-over from school days in England where in those days a desperate effort would be made to conceal one's first name.

Our servants (called ‘boys’ whatever their age) lived-in, with their wives (who often served as wash–amahs or baby–amahs). They were at the beck-and-call regardless of the hour, and it was taken for granted that one could bring home unexpected guests without embarrassment to the host or cook. At impromptu bachelor dinners it was common to find one's own crockery with one's own servant assisting the host's houseboy. Communication with house servants was by use of pidgin-English at which we became quickly adept.

The household jobs were prized because of 'perks' involved in the catering and free living quarters. On one occasion during my time on Shameen, on account of some political agitation against us, both Chinese house servants and office staffs boycotted the island for five weeks, when we had to fend for ourselves. Our diet was sketchy, for it was not prudent to enter the Chinese city (for restaurants) during that time. However we were well supplied with fresh food from Hong Kong, brought up on our river ships.

On the Chinese mainland civil unrest and intermittent warfare between rival warlords were common. On several occasions we on Shameen could safely watch hand-to-hand fighting on the other side of the narrow creek which divided us from the mainland (which was Chinese territory). On one occasion we needed to withdraw a sick friend from the down-river hospital in the Chinese city before the shooting started. We reached the waterfront hospital without incident, but while we were there Chinese gunboats passing down the river opened fire on the city, with solid cannon balls, some of which plopped into the hospital compound. We returned safely to Shameen with our invalid after the shooting had stopped.

In another situation, on a broad river in China, two of us in a small boat were used as targets by soldiers on the bank. The current quickly took us out of range, but for a time we could hear the bullets passing overhead as we crouched in the bottom of the boat.

Life was often adventurous. I was once caught on a ferry boat in Hong Kong harbour during a typhoon. Ships out of control were being blown about in all directions by the 120 knot wind, and the chances of getting safely to shore were slim.

All this was before the days of TV, and the only movies we could understand were those shown aboard the river gunboat U.S.S. Helena so the community relied on itself for social diversion. There was much playing of bridge and Mah-Jong and extensive private entertaining. Poker parties were popular among the unmarried men, after which the evening would sometimes end by playing fan-tan in the Chinese city, a popular and then lawful gambling game. This led to trouble on one occasion when high spirits caused us to protest too strongly, under the impression that we were being cheated. The house lights went out and the grill separating us from the street clanged shut. After dead silence the lights went back on and those who had appeared to be fellow gamblers turned out in fact to be armed employees of the house. The calming effect was immediate and we were quietly let out to return to our homes.

Clerical office staff was entirely English–speaking male Chinese, and as far as I can recall all our letters were first hand written and then copied by a Chinese typist. The Chinese made particularly good accountants and cashiers, though one of ours turned out to be too good. One day, having retained for himself a good portion of fire insurance premiums paid in cash by Chinese farmers, he never returned to the office. By a strange coincidence, considering the millions of people in the city, on a rare visit there I spotted the thief from my rickshaw and handed him over to the Chinese police. His trial was conducted in an open courtyard with everyone standing except the judge who was seated behind a tall bench. After my evidence, and his conviction, the culprit fell to his knees and begged for mercy, whereupon the judge asked me what would be my idea of a sentence. I believe the judge ordered him conscripted into the Chinese army, certainly an undesirable fate.

Banditry and piracy were commonplace in China at that time and full-scale fighting between warring factions sometimes went on fully visible from the relative safety of our "settlements". We protected ourselves by armed and uniformed forces into which we organized ourselves on a volunteer basis. I was a kilted amateur soldier in both the Hong Kong and Shanghai Volunteer Forces at one time or another. The Hong Kong unit became anything but amateur when the Japanese took the place in 1941 and many of my civilian friends were killed in that action when I was in Japan.

In 1937 I was in Shanghai when the Japanese attacked the Chinese part of the city in large numbers and with heavy armament. Our Volunteer Force had to guard the ten-mile perimeter of our settlement. My own post was within a few yards of a Chinese pill–box. The Chinese city just the other side of our perimeter was all aflame from the shelling of Japanese gunboats under attack from Chinese aircraft, and artillery shells were constantly passing over our heads.

I worked for Butterfield and Swire in various ports in China and Japan until war broke out in the Pacific (December 7th, 1941). In May of 1941, while stationed in Kobe Japan, I married Frances Marion Black an American teacher of English at Miyagi Jo Gakku, in Sendai, Japan.

In those immediate pre-war days Japan was a 'police state' and we foreigners were under constant surveillance, unable even to look out on to the water without coming under suspicion. Even leaving the country involved endless and exhausting red-tape, as we found when Marion left for her home in the US several months after we were married. All trans-Pacific shipping had been suspended, and Marion went back via Java and the north-east coast of Australia.

Douglas Campbell Brodie

"Seeing off evacuation ship, at Kobe Japan, 1941. Douglas Brodie (2nd from right) w/Ginger Nuzum (l), and the British Naval Attaché (Lieutenant Agutter RN)". (Photo from the John Brodie collection.)

At this time I was stationed in Yokohama, in charge of my firm's business in Japan. I was interned by the Japanese on December 8th, 1941, and after some months in a civilian prison awaiting trial for spying, was released in September 1942 and repatriated under an exchange scheme for enemy nationals on both sides. I was shipped to Lourenco Marques in Portuguese Mozambique (which was a neutral territory) and transferred to a Swedish ship which had carried Japanese nationals being released by the Allies.

On arrival in the United States in December 1942, my employers (John Swire and Sons) proposed to send me to their office at Basra Iraq in the Persian Gulf (the wartime base for their fleet of cargo ships). Having so recently emerged from a war zone this had little appeal so I chose to work for the British Government. I joined the Security Division of the British Security Coordination (BSC) at the New York HQ of the British Secret Service. The Security Division was responsible for the security of British ships in the western hemisphere. The head of BSC was a Canadian businessman, William Stephenson, who was appointed by Winston Churchill. Stephenson provided a conduit for covert communication between Churchill and President Roosevelt. This was of vital importance to the British war effort at a time when Britain's survival was threatened by U-boats. For such communications Churchill adopted the code name 'INTREPID' for William (later Sir William) Stephenson.

Much of BSC activity had to do with the use of information derived from continuous deciphering of the German ULTRA code, the most closely guarded secret of the war. It was so secret that on one occasion, we heard that the German code equipment that had been stolen by a British agent had to be surreptitiously replaced in the German Embassy in Lisbon. The Allies often had to refrain from using knowledge gained from the deciphering to prevent the Germans from realizing that they had cracked the codes.

The organization was at pains to be unobtrusive (hence the obscure name). An intelligence agency of a foreign government was naturally regarded with disfavour and suspicion in the United States. In particular, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI resented our presence and activities. But without the trust of President Roosevelt the BSC probably could not have continued to operate. To play down the British presence the clerical staff was predominately staffed by Canadians, and we worked from unobtrusive offices in the Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Not all BSC activity was of a 'cloak and dagger' nature and I myself had no involvement in that end of the operation. Our concern was the safety of our ships sailing between South America and the UK. The Caribbean area was especially vulnerable because of the Venezuela oilfields whose entrance is a narrow sea passage through an isthmus that could be easily blocked.

Apart from the possibility of subversive characters among crew members, our ships were vulnerable to time bombs planted in the cargo. For example, a ship loading in Chile had to be carefully watched. The source of strategic nitrates intended for the Allied war effort was in Chile and the mines were owned by resident Germans. This presented an easy opportunity for sabotage by concealing explosives between the sacks. Later we discovered that the nitrate in bulk form was more stable and could not be ignited. Nitrates in sacks however were easily ignited through contact with paper or burlap sacking. From then on all nitrates were shipped in bulk.

Ships' crew lists also had to be scrutinized, and 'blacklists' maintained. I recall confusion arising because of FBI insistence that any Communist was automatically subversive. Eventually this philosophy was extended after the war when the USA entered the McCarthy era. We had British security officers in all South American and Caribbean ports but none in the USA as this was the preserve of the FBI. We were allowed however to have informers in US manufacturing plants producing munitions for shipment to the UK.

I was transferred to work with the BSC in Washington DC. In this position I spent the balance of the war in highly sensitive task of analyzing and processing decoded messages between the Japanese government in Tokyo and their embassies in Moscow and Berlin. As with the Germans the Japanese were unaware that their code had been broken which called for utmost secrecy for those of us involved. Few knew it and in the British Embassy we worked behind locked steel doors.

During the few months between the fall of Germany and Japanese surrender, the messages sent by Tokyo made it increasingly clear that Japan was on her knees. Toward the end the tone grew almost hysterical as Tokyo pleaded with the Russians to intervene for a negotiated peace. In fact this was a wasted effort for despite the existence of a non-aggression pact between Russia and Japan, Stalin had promised Roosevelt that Russia would join the Allies against Japan which in fact she did a few days before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

The war having ended we opted against returning to the Far East (we had four young children) so I resigned from Butterfield and Swire. There followed several stressful years of unemployment and stints of temporary employment. Mostly I was away from home at work or seeking it. For some months I was in Sweden being looked over for work in Vancouver BC.

My British nationality and lack of local knowledge was a handicap to finding work in the USA when middle-aged. Furthermore the same reason which had made it difficult for me to find work in London after the First World War, preference properly being given to returning veterans, hit me again after the Second World War. In London employers had to establish absurd standards to narrow the choice - I recall that one bank rejected me for insufficient chest measurement.

During those post war days I worked for a time in the Wall Street area in an import/export business. My claim to fame was in the exploitation of the invention of the ball point pen, of which I sold thousands to customers in South America for $12.50 each! Then I became the Traffic Manager in the New York warehouse of the Greek War Relief Association, from which I was abruptly fired for telling a visiting Greek movie mogul (Spyros Skouras, head of MGM) that it was against regulations to smoke in the warehouse.

I tried selling on commission but found myself not cut out for it. Finally I worked for Lister-Blackstone in New York selling diesel engines. A senior lawyer representing the company introduced me to Axel Johnson, the son of the owner of the Swedish Johnson Line of ships. After a visit to Stockholm I was taken on and moved to Vancouver BC in 1952.

Douglas Campbell Brodie

"Maiden voyage of the M.S. Canada at Vancouver BC July 13, 1953. Left to right: Mr. Douglas C. Brodie, Mr. Ralph Pybus, Chief Officer Holme. (Photo from John Brodie collection.)

I succeeded as Manager of the firm (C. Gardner Johnson Ltd.) in 1953 and retired in 1967 as President. The firm took its name from Charles Gardner Johnson who established it in 1886. He was the Mayor of Vancouver who established the firm which became a major shipping and insurance enterprise. During those years I engineered the acquisition of the agency for the Mitsui-O.S.K. Line, to add to the Grace Line and Johnson Line agencies that we already held.

Editor’s Note: The Job of a Shipping Agent

The work carried out by Douglas Brodie and his colleagues requires some explanation in the modern world. There are still active shipping agents but they do not enjoy the public prominence of earlier times.

Moving cargo around the world is a complicated series of business transactions. Ensuring that it is carried safely, economically, and in a timely fashion requires a system of transferring responsibility from hand to hand throughout the process.

A shipping agency or shipping agent is the designation for a person or agency responsible for handling shipments and cargo at ports and harbours worldwide on behalf of shipping companies. In some parts of the world, these agents are referred to as port agents or cargo brokers. Shipping agents will quietly and efficiently take care of all the regular routine tasks of a shipping company. They ensure that essential supplies, crew transfers, customs documentation and waste declarations are all arranged with the port authorities without delay. Quite often, they also provide the shipping company with updates and reports on activities at the destination port so that shipping companies have up-to-the minute information available to them at all times while goods are in transit.

The responsibilities of shipping agents include:

  • – ensuring a berth for the incoming ship;
  • – arranging for the pilot and the tugs, if necessary
  • – drawing up the documents for the customs and harbour services;
  • – assisting the Master in making the necessary contacts with the local authorities and the harbour authorities;
  • – arranging for the necessary ship provisions;
  • – arranging for storage bunkers if these are needed;
  • – arranging for any necessary repairs;
  • – conveying instructions to and from the ship owner;
  • – organizing the supply, transport and the handling of the goods;
  • – organizing the necessary contacts with the stevedores;
  • – collecting and assembling freight and cargoes;
  • – contacting shippers and the receivers of the goods.

Breakbulk cargoes sit on wooden pallets or consists of materials that might be moved in and out of the ship in nets. Most cargo today is carried in containers.

Ships don’t arrive in port in a regular pattern. A group of two or three might arrive one after another, and then a hiatus of several days. So the work could be intense interspersed with much less activity. Some ships were regular arrivals and others might only be handled once. The shipping agents are mainly located in Vancouver with King Brothers in Victoria and North Island Agencies in Campbell River. Ships from all British Columbia ports are handled from Vancouver. It is a highly competitive business where once many small independent firms were involved today firms have a worldwide focus - there are 3 or 4 big chains of agencies with offices in many countries who handle affairs. They are also big enough to handle financing and to discount fees.

Some shipping companies use Supercargoes, a specialized cargo management professional who was previously a Master Mariner with deep sea experience. They were sometimes necessary for break bulk and liner cargoes. All cargoes have peculiarities. For example, newsprint and pulp are easy to damage. At one time their services were required in Vancouver but their compulsory use has been taken out of the regulations and they are slowly disappearing from the marine scene except for very unusual and tricky cargoes. The Chief Officers of freighters tend to supervise cargo handling and arrange for the certification of deck cargoes of lumber by Transport Canada who declares them safe to sail with a Certificate of Fitness to Proceed.

To quote from this article please cite:

Brodie, Douglas Campbell (2013) Douglas Campbell Brodie – Vancouver Shipping Agent and Businessman (1902–2006). 2013.

New Nauticapedia Book Just Published!

Volume Four in series

The Nauticapedia List of British Columbia's Floating Heritage Volume Four

Book — British Columbia's Floating Heritage
For more information …

Site News: March2nd, 2019

Databases have been updated and are now holding 56,584 vessel histories (with 5,550 images) and 58,184 mariner biographies (with 3,673 images).

© 2002-2019