Shipping, East Asia and Pacific

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Shipping, East Asia and Pacific

Western imperialism and colonialism took diverse forms in East Asia, from the formal colonies of the Dutch East Indies and French Vietnam to the multinational "informal empires" established by commercial treaties in China and Japan. Shipping was the lifeline of Western involvement in East Asia, as it both linked European metropoles and East Asian possessions and created new routes and relationships within East Asia itself.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European powers entered the spice and luxury goods trades with Asia. In the 1500s, Portuguese merchant ships traveled along a network of trade settlements secured by the Portuguese navy, from Goa in western India, to Malacca (Melaka) in Malaysia, to Macao in southern China. The Portuguese were joined in the 1600s by Dutch ships journeying between the East Indian archipelago, Taiwan, and Japan. Later the "East Indiamen" of the British East India Company voyaged to India, the East Indies, and the China coast. By the early eighteenth century, British merchant sea power had outstripped its competitors, and would continue to dominate trade with Asia for the next two hundred years.

The withdrawal of the British East India Company's monopoly on trade with China (1834) introduced greater competition into Asian trades and drew greater numbers of merchant ships from Europe and the United States to Asia. Under these new conditions, the speed and efficiency of ships could have a much greater impact on trade profits. From the late 1840s, British and American clipper ships carried opium from India to the China coast, and delivered the freshest crops of China teas to London.

Although oceangoing steamships still burned too much coal to be viable for commercial shipping, a few lines such as the British Peninsular and Oriental Company and the French Messageries Maritimes received subsidies from their home governments to carry mail to colonies and settlements in Asia. Technological improvements in steamships and the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 opened the routes to Asia to private steamship companies.

Steamship lines also traversed the Pacific to connect the ports of the western United States and Latin America to East Asia. After the American (1869) and Canadian (1885) transcontinental railways were completed, goods could be shipped via the Pacific and across the North American continent to Europe. British companies were the largest presence on these routes, challenged somewhat by German and Austrian companies in the late nineteenth century and by Japanese companies in the early twentieth century.

Shipping did not only intensify communication between Western countries and their interests in Asia, European ships also participated in intraregional and domestic carrying trades within Asia. Steamship companies established routes among the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago, carried agricultural goods and immigrants from China to settlements throughout Southeast Asia, and developed lines between China and Japan and later between East Asia and Australia. After the opening of multiple treaty ports in China, European shipping companies participated in China's domestic carrying trade by transporting goods among the open ports along the coast and Yangzi River. In some cases, these steamships displaced traditional carrying trades, but in others, steamships stimulated the demand for junk shipping between treaty ports and other places.

European domination of shipping in East Asia made it a significant field for contestation by emerging Asian nations. Japan's shipping industry saw the earliest and most dramatic success: while in the 1870s, 90 percent of Japan's foreign trade was carried in Western ships, a program of cooperation between government and industry developed Japan's merchant marine to the point that it participated not only on routes within Asia but also the Suez, Pacific, and Australian routes. By World War I (1914–1918), Japan was recognized as a world shipping power.

In China, officials of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) established the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company in 1872 to compete with Western shipping companies in Chinese waters, and "take back" some of the profits of the domestic carrying trade for China. Although Western steamship companies (joined by Japanese in the late 1890s) continued to hold the largest share of China's coast and river traffic until the second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company maintained a consistent presence on domestic routes, and was joined by several private Chinese companies in the 1920s. China, however, was not able to establish its own overseas lines until after World War II.

see also China Merchants' Steam Navigation Company.


Headrick, Daniel R. The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850–1940. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Hyde, Francis E. Far Eastern Trade, 1860–1914. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1973.

Wray, William D. Mitsubishi and the N.Y.K., 1870–1914: Business Strategy in the Japanese Shipping Industry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

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Shipping, East Asia and Pacific

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