Category Archives: maritime history

The South China Sea and Freedom of the Seas

The Permanent Court of Arbitration has just reached a decision arbitrating the case brought by the Philippines against China in the South China Sea. The court has decided that the ‘9 Dash Line’ drafted by China back in 1947 is invalid. China has angrily rejected the ruling, and there’s really not a blind thing the Philippines can do

about it, no matter how gleeful they may be at present.

South China Sea 9 Dash Line

From US Central Intelligence Agency, would you believe, via Wikipedia

It’s appropriate that this decision as made in The Hague, because international maritime law as we know it began in the Netherlands, 400 years ago, when a Dutchman, Huig de Groot, wrote an unpublished treatise De Indis (On the Indies) in 1604/5, and followed up by publishing Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) in 1609. These laid down the concept of the freedom of the seas, on which the South China Sea decision is based.

Freedom of the Seas sounds both worthy and universal, but even apparently universal legal concepts occur in a particular context. Huig de Groot, better known by his Latinized name Hugo Grotius, was dealing with a very specific event that occurred not all that far from the South China Sea. In 1603, Dutch merchant adventurers seized a Portuguese caravel near Singapore, and subsequently hired a smart young lawyer – Grotius – to provide the legal backing for their action.

Hugo Grotius, legal theorist

Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt, Hugo Grotius (1631), from Wikipedia

To understand the background, we need to go back before Grotius’s birth to 1568, when the Dutch rose in rebellion against their Spanish rulers. The Netherlands had been incorporated in the Hapsburg Empire when the last Duke of Burgundy died on the battlefield, leaving his only daughter Mary the greatest heiress in Europe. After tense diplomatic negotiations, she was quickly married off to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Their son married the heiress of the Spanish kingdoms, so their grandson, Charles V, found himself ruling an empire that stretched from the Netherlands (i.e. Burgundy) to Austria to Spain to Spanish America.

The arrangement worked more or less under Charles V (1500-1558), who was brought up in the Netherlands, spoke Dutch, and spent most of his life racing from Kingdom to County to Duchy around his crazy empire, but his son, Philip II, settled down outside Madrid, a Spaniard through and through. Add in the complexities of the Protestant Reformation, and the whole tottering edifice began to crumble.

Then in 1580, the legitimate Portuguese royal line died out. Philip’s mother had been a Portuguese princess, so he claimed this throne as well. The Hispanic Peninsula was combined under a single ruler – and so were their trade and territories overseas.

During the 16th century, Europe slowly digested the amazing implications of Columbus’s discovery of a whole New World. In a supreme act of European hubris, in 1494 the Pope divided the globe between Spain and Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

tordesillas map

Carved up like an orange – the Treaty of Tordesillas and later modifications. Note that the Portuguese managed to scrape in Brazil. From Wikipedia

Spain (actually Castile) took the Western Hemisphere, while Portugal – which had been expanding down the African coast and soon entered the Indian Ocean – took the Eastern Hemisphere. No one outside Europe, of course, knew that the carve up had taken place – and even within Europe, it took some time for other nations to pay attention. After 1580, the Hispanic domination of the world seemed complete – at least from the European perspective.

Except that, like mammals evolving during the age of the dinosaurs, smaller maritime powers were beginning to emerge.

The Dutch had nothing like the economic or military power of the Spanish/Portuguese Empire – but they were sailors and businessmen, and they knew how to use their maritime power to hurt. The Dutch – and the English under Elizabeth Tudor, who backed the Dutch Revolt – attacked Philip II’s combined empire through its shipping. Dutch and English privateers bled the Spanish state of its bullion, attacking the heavy galleons that brought the gold and silver back to Europe.

They also began to challenge the Hispanic monopoly, setting up trading posts in West Africa and the West Indies to draw trade (including the slave trade) away from the Spaniards. It was Portugal’s bad luck that, from 1580, another dynastic accident meant that its trade in the East Indies was also fair game.

In 1603, the newly created Dutch East India Company [Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC] seized the spice-laden Santa Catarina off Singapore and sailed it back to Amsterdam. The shareholders were delighted, but there were some uneasy consciences amongst them, and Grotius was given the task of demonstrating that the seizure had taken place in open waters and was therefore legal.

Grotius argued that the sea belongs to no one. Any state has the right to sail across it, and in the 1603 context, the Dutch were not trespassers on a ‘Spanish lake’. (As rebels, they were entitled to the seizure as an act of war). Of course, Grotius’s treatise, especially the published 1609 version, has a much wider context, but he was also dealing with a particular situation and its implications.

It was at every level a very Eurocentric perspective. No one in the Netherlands had a clue that Polynesians had sailed the Pacific – the so-called Spanish Lake – for centuries, or that Malays, Javanese, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Filipinos all shared the waterways of South East Asia, including the South China Sea.

This sharing was not, of course, necessarily good-natured. In the South China Sea, for instance, there was a very long history of Cantonese clans and families competing with each other, building levees and planting barriers strategically across the outlets of the Pearl River estuary so that they – and not their neighbours – could hold on to the precious silt that poured down the river. Ironically, perhaps, the Netherlands has a similar tradition of reshaping their estuarine landscape with canals and river mud. Such historic ‘terraforming’ is, of course, very different from the massive earthworks China is undertaking today.

China’s ambit claim to control of everything within the ‘9-dash line’ has now been rejected, but perhaps it is time to abandon Grotius’s doctrine of Liberum Mare. According to Grotius, and by implication in the recent decision in The Hague, nobody owns the open sea, and freedom of navigation should be protected at all costs.

What needs protecting today, though, is not just freedom of the seas, but the seas themselves. The oceans are dying – from overfishing, pollution, acidification and rising temperatures. What belongs to no one is cared for by no one. We need to move on to a new way of sharing a precious common resource.

Note: I’m sorry I’ve been silent for so long. My excuse is a bad reaction to a yellow fever shot, and a broken rib. Normal transmission is now resumed.

Chin Chin!

Chin Chin and other cheerful toasts

Chin Chin: Anglo-Chinese. A phrase of salutation. Also used as a drinking toast Oxford English Dictionary

This is a time for feasting, whether it’s the traditional Christmas dinner that only makes sense in the wintry northern hemisphere at this time of year, or cherries, mango and prawns in our summer heat. Whatever our local traditions, eating together is a sign of friendship. The word ‘companion’, like the French copain, has at its root the word pain, bread, so companions were originally the people we broke bread with. Friendship through food – an excellent idea, but occasionally it involves difficulties when there are serious cultural misunderstandings.

On 2 November 1838 Captain Laplace and the officers of the French exploration frigate Artémise were invited to a grand banquet in Canton [now Guangdong], by Minqua, a senior member of the Hong, or merchant organisation, that controlled trade in Canton. Minqua dealt in particular with French traders, but the invitations went out more widely, and the trader and diarist William Prinsep has given a memorable account of what must have been a memorable occasion:

‘We assembled at about 4 P.M. – a large party. There were seven square tables placed in a semicircle fronting an arcade of three arches at the windowed end of the hall. On the first side of each table hung a crimson drapery embroidered with gold in a dragon pattern. On each of the other sides were two of the party seated, the master of the feast in the centre. In the centre of each table stood a pyramidal kind of dumb waiter turning on a pivot & bearing on shelves down each side small porcelain cups vases & other vessels with the required condiments for a good dinner with a cup of soy at the apex.

‘I kept my eye upon Minqua the host to know how to make the most of the good things before me. For instance, the first thing handed round to each person was a cup with a porcelain spoon of birds’ nest soup. It was pure gluten without any flavour whatever. I noticed that he first put in a little soy, then a little sugar, salt & chilli pepper & some spice. The tables were being constantly turned to supply the condiment required.

‘Now there were 60 different things served to each person ending with the never omitted cup of rice, water & all in most elegant porcelain cups, saucers, bowls, little platters, perfectly clean & brought in on pretty lacquered trays & all like clock work and without any noise or confusion, and some idea may be formed of what the kitchen & pantry must have been like & how organised.

‘I must add that every now & then were carried round Porcelain kettles of hot samshee [Shaoxing] the sour medicine kind of wine of the country. It was poured into little cups with deep rims underneath acting as handle. When challenged you drank it standing & with both hands presented the empty face of the cup to the party you drank with to show you had swallowed all, and with a Chin Chin [ts’ing ts’ing] sat down again. The host kept the kettle going in the liveliest manner among the sailors, & I confess it was lucky that it [i.e. the wine] was hot otherwise it would have been too sour to be palatable.

‘My impression is that as all the dishes seemed to have been prepared with a kind of oil, this hot sour wine seemed to neutralize the effect of the greasiness; – I tasted (for there were too many to eat) of as many as I could for curiosity sake, & I found many of them very nice, especially delicate little legs & wings of poultry & game in a kind of fritter – delicate little bones doubtless of rabbits and puppies, perhaps of frogs or rats were so tinted as to look tempting, and please the taste.

‘Everything except the liquids had of course to be eat[en] with chopsticks, but I had learnt to handle them exactly – Not so an unfortunate officer of the frigate in full uniform sitting near to me whose white trousers bore unmistakable marks of his want of experience in lifting the greasy morceaux to his lips. He swore heartily at the best bits always escaping him.

‘Another man at my table lifted from his cup a thing prepared in sugar which created consternation all around “Mais Mon Dieu qu’est ce que c’est que ça?” [‘My God, what have we got here?’] exclaims the alarmed eater for there was no doubt of its being a preserved centipede. I thought this was carrying the joke against us too far, and I appealed to Dent who sat at the chief table. Up jumped Minqua himself who ran to our table to explain “But number one Good – number one!” meaning that nothing possibly could be better, but remarking nothing but disgust in each of our faces, he seized the chopsticks, balanced the sweet creature at least 4 inches in length & slowly swallowed it, patting his stomach with extreme satisfaction.

‘But the action had quite a different effect upon most of us. The Frenchman who had held it up & was nearest to the Mandarin was compelled to run to the open window when he poured forth his objections in a most undeniable manner – but he was not the only unfortunate at my table. The Doctor of the frigate turning to me to remark upon the peculiarity of the taste of the oil & in the cooking, and doubting what it could be, was quickly assured by me that I knew that which was much used was Castor oil which grew in all their gardens. He turned deadly pale declaring that all his life he had avoided this oil with a hatred never to be conquered. A minute after, his head was also out of the window with a piteous moan. The dinner was an uproarious one from the astonishment & laughter which these many little incidents caused.

‘While dinner was going on, there were jugglers & dancers of a mild kind alternatively exhibiting their performances in the vacant space of the hall between the tables & the three alcoves. When the coup de grace, alas, the rice water had gone round, Minqua rose with his guests & stretched themselves in this same vacant place calling for his pipe & inviting others to smoke. I remarked a peculiarity about his pipe which had a largish bowl of silver in which a servant placed some loose shreds of tobacco which on the light being applied to it was commenced with one long inhale. A quantity of fine scented smoke seemed to come out of the Mandarin’s mouth, nostrils, ears & eyes so completely was he surrounded with smoke.

‘It seemed quite to satisfy him for he handed his pipe to his servant & clapped his hands as the signal for us all to take our seats again, which we had no sooner done than enter the whole cortege of servants & the entire 60 dishes had to be handed round again. The Chinese Gentlemen began again seriously, but it was too much for the Europeans, and Minqua finding that no one partook of the dishes, clapped his hands again & in came 3 tables ornamented with embroidered draperies like our own. One was placed in each alcove & there followed immediately 3 large dishes carried by 2 men each in uniforms. Then entered a cook to each dish in a splendid costume armed with large knives & forks with which they at once attacked the three large joints of Beef, Mutton and Pork.

‘The sailors at one table exclaimed with an oath that now they saw something like a dinner & turned to with much vigour to satisfy appetites which had not been appeased by the many little entremets. But there were many like myself who after so many tastings were quite unable to partake of these grands pieces de resistance which were cooked to perfection.

‘In time however there was an end to this as well as to wine drinking – the evening had drawn on to dark. The whole side of the chamber behind us seemed to open by the removal of shutters & screens & we looked into a Court in the middle of which was exhibited a whole course of miniature fireworks of the most elegant kind, of many colours & contrivances quite Chinese which is as much as to say totally different from anything we had ever seen before.

‘The party broke up at their termination & we were saluted at the door by the most effective feu de joie it was possible to conceive. Conceive the whole Prussian army firing with exact precision one after the other, but this could only be accomplished by the Chinese method. At the door of the Hong two very high poles had been planted & to the very top of each had been hoisted a string of Chinese crackers which are small joints of Bamboo connected by a quick match & strung together by tens of thousands….

‘Every one suffered from the effects of the party and I never was so ill as I was all that night & next day.’

Chin chin, everyone. Enjoy the festive season – and keep clear of centipedes.

Reference: Memoir of William Prinsep, in Prinsep Papers, MSS Eur D1160/3, India Office Records. Transcribed from the original handwritten diary. I have adjusted the punctuation where needed for greater clarity.

Changing Times on Norfolk Island

It’s crunch time for Norfolk Island. Next year the island will lose its independent status as a self-governing Australian territory, and there’s a lot of local anxiety about what comes next. I’ve recently come back from a week on Norfolk Island, a group-painting trip that was a lot of fun, and this was my first chance to see this beautiful speck in the South Pacific.

watercolour of a lone pine at Norfolk Island

‘Lone Pine, Norfolk Island’

Norfolk Island has a rich and strange history. It has been settled four times: once by Polynesians, twice by convicts and their guards, and once by the current inhabitants, who are descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

The Polynesians arrived about 1400, probably from the Kermadec Islands, perhaps following the migratory shearwaters (mutton birds) that used to fly due west from the Kermadecs to breed on Norfolk Island. Archaeologists have discovered obsidian tools at a dig site close to the convict ruins, but eventually the Polynesians left. Nobody knows why. They left behind banana trees and a vegetarian Polynesian ratRattus exulans.

Cook discovered and named Norfolk Island on his second voyage on Resolution in 1774. He managed to land briefly and reported on the pine trees and flax on the island. The French explorer La Perouse had less success. He sailed around the island in January 1788 in search of a safe landing spot, but eventually gave up and sailed away, commenting that the place was fit only for ‘angels and eagles’.

Only a few weeks later, in March 1788, a small group of marines and convicts from the First Fleet landed on Norfolk Island, partly to deter the French (since they knew that La Perouse was sniffing around) and partly because tall trees and flax were valuable resources for a maritime nation, always on the lookout for new sources of masts and canvas. Unfortunately for the Royal Navy, the pines that dominate Norfolk Island are less sturdy than they appear, snapping easily at a weak spot where the branches meet the trunk – so, no masts.

In the early years, the settlement around Kingston (named after the first commandant, Phillip Gidley King) supplied grain to the mainland. This settlement lasted until the mainland didn’t need Norfolk Island’s crops any more, and the residents were moved to New Norfolk in Tasmania. The last settlers left in 1813.

The second convict settlement began in 1825. Like the Moreton Bay settlement at Brisbane, which dates from the same period, this was a place to send convicts who had offended a second time. Like Brisbane, it was brutal. I went on a tour of the convict sites, and our guide described an archaeological dig done some time back, which took samples from one of the underground pits where recalcitrant convicts were confined as further punishment. According to him (and I have no verification, I’m afraid) chemical analysis of the walls and floor show a layer of blood, followed by a layer of whitewash, then more blood, more whitewash….

When convict transportation finally ended in 1852, this settlement was abandoned too, and the final residents transferred to Tasmania in 1856 [see Mr. Baskerville’s comment below].

Meanwhile, far to the east of Norfolk Island, in 1789 the Bounty mutineers, with a number of Tahitian men and women, settled on Pitcairn Island. One of their first acts was to burn the Bounty – allegedly so that it couldn’t be seen by anyone searching for the mutineers, but also making it impossible for any of the party to change their mind and try to leave.

The first years were brutal and bloody – Lord of the Flies, with added sex and racism – and by 1800, only two men survived of the original mutineers, John Adams and Ned Young, together with most of the Tahitian women. By then there were 19 mixed race children, carrying the names of Adams, Young and the other mutineers: Christian, Quintall, Nobbs, and so on.

Life settled down. The last mutineer, John Adams, died in 1829, and any fear of British retribution ended. The population grew, and the island – only 2 miles across – was unable to support them all. In 1856 they petitioned the British government to find them a new home.

Coincidentally, Norfolk Island had just been abandoned – so the British government offered them the island. Most of the Pitcairn Islanders moved to Norfolk Island, and they have been there ever since. They inherited the abandoned roads, mills and dams of the convict settlement, and drew lots for the houses. They reused some of the dressed stone, but most of the convict settlement remains intact.

The New South Wales Government gave each family 50 acres of land, but otherwise left them largely to themselves. The same names recur, in the graveyard, but also in the phone book – Quintall, Adams, Christian, Nobbs. After federation in 1901, Norfolk Island became an Australian territory [See Jack McClintock’s comment below], with its own stamps (as in Pitcairn, stamp collectors have been an invaluable source of revenue) but an Australian administrator and Australian currency.

In 1979 the Fraser Government gave Norfolk Island self-government, but at the end of 2015, that changes. The current Administrator of Norfolk Island, Gary Hardgrave, was a minister in the Howard Government who lost his seat in 2007. Tony Abbott appointed him with a brief to oversee the end of self-government and bring the island under Australian law.

At present, Norfolk Islanders pay no income tax, just a 12% GST, and the island is flat stony cold broke. There is no Medicare, no social security, and the infrastructure is decaying – the potholes in the roads need to be seen to be believed. And the population is falling, as children go to the mainland for further education and work.

Tourism is the only real source of income, but this is down as Australians travel further afield. Cruise tourism throughout the Pacific is up – but cruise ships face the same problem that faced La Perouse, and led to the wreck of the Sirius in 1790. Norfolk Island has no harbour, and no safe landing place for ocean-going ships. Supplies (or tourists) have to be transshipped into small lighters, which is slow and expensive and potentially dangerous in rough conditions.

Demonstration at Norfolk Island

Each hand is named, and represents an objector to the end of self-government on Norfolk Island.

Not surprisingly, the decision to end self-government is controversial. One local told me that some shops won’t serve the Hardgraves, and she had seen people smear the Administrator’s car with cow pats (cows have right of way on the roads). The locals have a history of mutiny, after all. Yet it is hard to see any alternative.

When self-government ends, Norfolk Island will have the status of a local government authority. The residents will pay Australian taxes, but get access to Australian welfare. They have been promised investment in infrastructure – perhaps even the longed for deep-water jetty that might transform their economy. Fixing the potholes would be a start.

With self-government, the role of the Administrator will change, but not disappear. The Administrator has often been a superannuated politician, and it is easy to see why someone might be pleased to take the gig.

Norfolk Island's Government House

Government House, Norfolk Island, first built 1829

Norfolk Island itself is quite achingly beautiful. It has a tight-knit community that is appealingly old fashioned, socially conservative, religious and royalist. The position of Administrator comes with a quite wonderful Government House, within a short walk of the beach at Emily Bay. The surf can be rough, but there’s good windsurfing nearby. The hills are steep, but a really dedicated cyclist would enjoy the challenge.

Update: As a friend points out, Norfolk Island got self-government in 1979 during the Fraser Government – Hawke didn’t come to power until 1983. Now corrected.
The Legislative Assembly has already been abolished (but not as yet Norfolk Island’s duty free status!). An elected Regional Council will be introduced in July 2016. More information available here.

See also Mr Baskerville’s comments below.

A Right Whale in the Wrong Place

Last week a boat strike killed a southern right whale – maybe two – in Moreton Bay. One mangled carcass of a young female finally drifted ashore on Peel Island, where rangers from Parks and Wildlife dragged it above the tide line ‘as high as possible…to allow its natural decomposition to continue.’ Another whale was seen still alive, but with propeller injuries along the length of its body. The calf travelling with the pair has not been seen since Friday, but will surely die as well.

corpse of a right whale

Photograph by Darren Burns of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation

The death of this whale is particularly sad because although the number of humpback whales is rising, and they are now a common sight – even in Sydney Harbour – the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) continues to struggle and the species remains on the endangered list.

The reason for this lies in the evidence of that floating carcass. Continue reading

Political Climate Change

Last Saturday was the coldest morning in Brisbane for over a hundred years – so I was wondering how long it would take for someone to claim it for partisan purposes in the never-ending debate over climate change.

Sure enough someone raised the point during the debate yesterday, as our current government abolished the tax on carbon, at the moment the only legislation keeping us on track to meet our international commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It was really cold in Brisbane (2.6°C) so we don’t need to worry about rising temperatures. What a pity our politicians are such lousy statisticians that they can’t tell the difference between a trend and an outlier. Continue reading

Family Business

Most people I know ignore the business pages of a newspaper – but for those in the know, there is as much vanity, violence and family tragedy in the business pages as anywhere else in the paper – and that’s just Gina Rinehart and family. For sheer vanity and potential for future mishaps, Rupert Murdoch’s succession plans compare favourably with those of King Lear.

Go back 200 years, and things were probably rather similar. Early 19th century Sydney merchants fought with their families (Walter S Davidson), cheated their partners (Robert Campbell), committed suicide (Edward Riley), went bankrupt (Richard Jones). Some even went into politics (Stuart Alexander Donaldson).

Janette Holcomb Early Merchant Families of Sydney

All this turmoil generated plenty of paperwork. In her new book, Early Merchant Families of Sydney, Janette Holcomb takes us in a series of forensic biographical chapters through the early history of Sydney’s mercantile elite, from Robert Campbell from the house of Campbell, Clark & Co, who arrived from Calcutta with a cargo of spirits in 1798, to Ben Boyd of the Royal Bank of Australia, who arrived from England with a cargo of credit in 1842. Continue reading

Lost in the Roaring Forties

So far, says the Air Commodore, the only thing the radar has turned up are whales and dolphins…. 

Like everybody else, I’ve been gripped this last week by the sad mystery of Malaysia Airlines MH370 – not least, I have to confess with shame, for purely selfish reasons: I’m booked on a Malaysia Airlines plane in a few weeks time. Who would have thought that the search for a plane heading for Beijing would end up southwest of Australia, in the Great Southern Ocean?

Map of the roaring forties from 1873

Ship Navigation Chart – Southern & Pacific [sic] Oceans, Charles Wilson, 1 March 1873

The Roaring Forties are my territory, historically if not literally, though I’ve only personally ventured that far south once. A few years ago, I took a boat tour from Adventure Bay, south around the tip of Bruny Island, south-east of Hobart, to see fur seals breeding on an outcrop of rock. As we left the lee of Bruny to sail into the Great Southern Ocean itself, the sailors warned us that we would suddenly experience much rougher conditions, and sure enough we did. Continue reading