E11: Trade With China

Once the Europeans gained regular access to the Far East, they were astonished to find how much commerce was already going on. From 1460 to 1680, China embarked upon an “Age of Commerce”, during which time Chinese junks and other sailing craft transported silk, porcelain, ivory, spices, sandalwood and jewels throughout the South China Sea, the Indonesian Archipelago, and the Indian Ocean.

At first, the only Chinese port available to European traders arriving by sea was Guangzhou (Canton). The Europeans found trade with China very difficult for the Chinese saw no advantage in it. They wanted silver, but not much else from the Europeans. On the other hand, the Europeans wanted to exchange goods, rather than pay in silver for the porcelain and tea they sought.

The single most important factor in the rapid development of the entire region was the flow of silver, which was slow at first, but accelerated rapidly when new mines were developed in Japan, and by the Spanish in Mexico and South America. The great influx of wealth in the form of silver fuelled great change for the Ming dynasty in China, but the Spanish had a big input to the silver supplies through dominance of the Pacific from the Philippines in the west to South America in the east. This began to impact upon the interests of the other European countries. Yet despite their apparent strong hold over the Pacific, the Spanish had singularly failed to map it. Their trans-Pacific voyages were made more arduous than they need have been because they had failed to discover many of the important island groups and were unaware of the important discoveries to be made in Australasia. It was left to the British explorer Captain Cook to map the Pacific during several epic voyages that spanned the entire ocean from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and resulted in major strategic gains for the British [11].

All Europeans developed practices that were at best unethical and at worst barbaric by the standards of today. In contrast, the Chinese, whose culture was based on thousands of years of philosophy, considered the Europeans as inferior and undesirable contacts. Parry writes, “The government of China, with its highly organised, deeply cultivated official hierarchy, barely condescended to notice the uncouth foreign hucksters in the Canton River.” [3] The Chinese policy of ignoring the Europeans would later prove costly.

The Portuguese, on the other hand, developed a reputation for brutal behaviour towards indigenous peoples and were ultimately expelled from China, except for the small enclave of Macao. They had first made contact with China in 1516, but by 1557 Macao had been founded and was declared a city in 1586. Although the Chinese agreed to the settlement that allowed the Portuguese to use Macao, they did not agree to Portuguese sovereignty over it. Perpetual occupation was recognised by the Chinese government in 1887 by the Protocol of Lisbon. Three islands make up the colony, Macao being the most northerly and linked by bridge in the south to Taipa, and thence by causeway to Coloane Island. It occupied a strategic location as the main destination for ships entering the South China Sea from the south. It dominated the trade of the region until the British developed the nearby port of Hong Kong and overtook Macao in trade in the mid-19th century. MacIntyre says that the British were “feeble latecomers in trade with China”, for they did not attempt to trade with the Chinese until 1637 [5]. Indeed, all attempts were unsuccessful until the first British factory was established in Canton in 1699. Once they had begun to trade, the British involvement in China was to grow enormously.