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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Australian-Chinese junks and sampans

Trinity Bay junks

Chinese junks, made in Australia. This photograph, suggested as being taken around 1907, shows three junks on Trinity Bay, Cairns, in Queensland. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 16203

Every Sunday and Wednesday mornings we would watch for the sails of the Chinese junks to come sailing up the river one behind the other. Red, white & black beacons guided them. Some sails were snowy white, some had …huge patches on and some were old and yellow.

D.E. Griffith ‘A Little history [of Cairns]’ 1959

When we think of the history of ship building in Australia, Chinese junks probably don’t spring to mind. Yet for a period from the 1870s to the early 1900s a fleet of junks operated in northern Queensland. At least some, if not all of the estimated ten to fifteen known junks, were made locally, in places such as Cooktown.

And in terms of smaller boats, it may surprise many maritime historians that hundreds if not thousands of sampans – smaller, often poled, barge-like vessels – were made across the north of Australia, particularly around Cairns and in Darwin.

My interest in these vessels began when I came across reference to a ‘Water Picnic’ that was held at Innisfail (then known as Geraldton) for Federation celebrations in 1901. News reports mention that the centre-piece of the water picnic was to be a flotilla of ‘around 400 sampans’. That’s a lot of sampans gathered together for one small north Queensland country town festival.

With further research it became clear that junks and sampans (often mislabelled by European observers who sometimes used ‘junk’ and ‘sampan’ as a catch-all for any Chinese vessel) were not just a common sight on northern Australian coastal waters and rivers, but were in fact critical to the development of the north. But why were they there? Who were these Chinese shipwrights? How and why did they make junks and sampans in Australia?

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