Race to Hong Kong

Race To Hong Kong 

Following the Treaty of Nanking and the ceding of Hong Kong to Great Britain, Western nations saw this colony as an opportunity for economic profit. The British Navigation Acts were repealed in 1849, allowing for free trade, which stimulated an increased competitive world-trading environment (Chamber’s Journal). Trade routes and ship development drove competition among Western nations including Great Britain, America, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. The desire to reach eastward with economic power had long existed prior to the British rule of Hong Kong, but competition dramatically increased when Britain controlled this booming port. This is exemplified by the struggle to control and obtain various ports and straits throughout the Indian Ocean and South China Sea (Boxer).

An example of an American ship traveling to Hong Kong in search of economic advancement is documented in Cornelius Gold’s journal in which he writes extensively about his journey. Cornelius B. Gold, describes the competitive attitude and mentality in what was the “Race to Hong Kong.” On Monday April 28, 1862 Gold writes, “Our nine companions show their beauties finely, tacking to and fro in this narrow space all trying to beat each other as well as the wind, in getting first within the strait: Norwegian, British, Yankees” (Gold 9). The Sunda Strait was one of the final obstacles that lay between Western merchants and the much anticipated port of Hong Kong and its economic opportunities.

The Sunda and Malacca Straits were two of the most coveted trade routes during this time connecting the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea (Boxer). These ports provided security from rough seas and monsoon-winds and a safe checkpoint to rehabilitate ships and store trade goods, while affording the commanding nation a competitive advantage (Boxer 189). Early on the Portuguese managed to obtain control over the desired Malacca Strait. In 1606, the Dutch attempted to take control over the Malacca Strait from the Portuguese but failed. After this failure, the Dutch took over Jakarta, a small Javanese port, which allowed them to control the Sunda Strait (Boxer 189).

Not only were the straits filled with Western ships en route to trading ports, there were also pirates looking to disrupt their transactions. According to Andreas Zangger, author of The Swiss on Singapore, the Malacca Strait maintained a reputation of "being a 'hotbed of pirates'" (14). The presence of pirates in this Strait was exacerbated by the large amounts of capital sailing through this area to and from Hong Kong (Zangger 14). These factors affected the time and manner in which ships could successfully reach Hong Kong’s ports and begin trade.

Another factor contributing to the competitive atmosphere surrounding the "Race to Hong Kong," was the development of ship models in concordance with speed and efficiency. Ideal ships, at the time, were fast and compact allowing them to swiftly navigate through Straits and outmaneuver competing nations (Illinois Edu). The ship industry grew in unity with the demand to reach Chinese goods first, encouraging British ship manufactures to create what was know as the 'Tea Clipper' (Chambers 42). Western nations felt a sense of urgency to develop their fleets in order to secure their position as a trading partner with Hong Kong.

Having the first claim on goods and lower prices in Hong Kong provided an advantageous position for Western traders. Many resources, including state-of-the-art ships, were devoted to reaching Hong Kong first. The Americans based the manufacturing of their ships in Baltimore and their knowledge and experience in ship-building grew tremendously. During this time, the Americans possessed the most competitive fleet of ships that, according to Robert and William Chambers, "no British vessel afloat could rival" (42). The authors acknowledge Britain’s inferiority in ship development but also point out that the British began to improve their own clipper-building to compete with the Americans and effectively maneuver the straits leading to Hong Kong.

Today, the Malacca, Sunda, Lombak, and Makassar straits still serve as important routes for East Asian nations’ imports and exports by water. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these bodies of water as well as two thirds of Korea’s energy supply and 60% of Japan and Taiwan’s energy supplies (Business Insider). These straits also provide a pathway for 80% of China’s crude oil imports (Business Insider). It is also noted that in 2013 Hong Kong exceeded $600 billion in imports and ranked seventh in total imports globally (OEC). Today’s global competitive economy, specifically in East Asia, has continued to encourage technological and nautical navigation advancements.

- Carter Laible and Alex McDevitt


Works Cited

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"The China Sea, Singapore, and the Straits of Sunda." Friends' Intelligencer. Friends' Intelligencer, 22 Nov. 1873. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

"Dutch Fear Japan Will Seize Strait." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Apr. 1916. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Chambers, William, and Robert Chambers. Chamber's Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts. London: W. & R. Chambers, 1858. Web.

Boxer, C. R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800. New York: Knopf, 1965. Print.

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Ken, Wong Lin. "The Strategic Significance of Singapore in Modern History." The Great Circle 4.1 (1982): 25-40. Web.

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Zangger, Andreas. The Swiss in Singapore. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2013.