Chinese junks and Australian sampans

A section from a panorama of Hong Kong, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

A section from a panorama of Hong Kong, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Celebrating maritime connections between China and Australia

On July 11 in the year 1405 Admiral Zheng He’s Grand Fleet of over 300 ships with 28,000 crew departed China on the first of several expeditions through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The expeditions were aimed at establishing Chinese influence over long established trade routes, now often referred to as the ‘Maritime Silk Road’.  The 600th anniversary of the date of the commencement of the first of these massive expeditions – July 11 – was chosen in 2005 as the annual China National Maritime Day. The Institute of Ancient Chinese Ships has led a conference on Chinese maritime history on this day for the last ten years, with a different international focus each year. Last year was the UK, and this year it was Australia’s turn. The Australian National Maritime Museum’s director Kevin Sumption was invited to deliver a keynote presentation on ‘Chinese Connections at the Australian National Maritime Museum’ and I was invited to give a paper on my research into Chinese watercraft built in Australia between 1870 and 1910.

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Travelling the Maritime Silk Road in Ningbo, China

Chinese junk from the David Waters collection, Royal Museum Greenwich, circa 1930.

Chinese junk from the David Waters collection, Royal Museum Greenwich, circa 1930.

Ningbo is a smallish city near Shanghai of just 7 million people. It was once one of the five ‘Treaty Ports’, when colonial powers were forcing China into trading concessions during the 19th century. Ningbo had always historically been an important juncture of trade networks between China, Korea and Japan – and beyond. Its maritime history was the focus of a conference I recently attended, exploring what is now called the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ – the incredible trade routes that stretched from China to Africa over the past one thousand years or so. The sight of Chinese junks and Sampans in the Indian Ocean is now reasonably well known and forming the basis of a possible World Heritage listing for the maritime silk road. However, there was little knowledge and some interest at the conference in my research paper on the history of Chinese junks and sampans that were built in Australia between 1870 and 1910.

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