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Silk, spice and pirates

Hong Kong in the mid-19th century

Written with a quill, the florid cursive inscribed on the pages of a ship’s logbook was still legible: “Tuesday March 1st – 1796. Light winds…, weather fair and pleasant, a smooth sea.” These were the words of Captain Charles Christie on the East Indiaman Belvedere, then engaged in the lucrative China trade.

To walk the darkened galleries of Hong Kong’s Maritime Museum is to step back into the conditions that drove the foundation of the modern city. Centuries before the Portuguese pioneered the sea route from Lisbon to India and Malacca, trade and commerce had formed the basis of long-standing links between Asia’s coastal communities.

On display were models of not just Chinese junks but also Japanese and Korean ships, alongside two Indonesian vessels. One was taken from a famous relief on the 8th century monument of Borobudur; recreated in full scale for a 2003 expedition from Jakarta to Accra, Ghana, it is a testament to the seafaring abilities of ancient Javanese sailors, who crossed the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and beyond.

Another section was dedicated to Zheng He, a celebrated Muslim explorer, admiral and eunuch, who sailed as far as East Africa as an envoy of the Chinese Emperor. Between 1405-1433 Zheng He embarked on seven epic voyages aboard a majestic “Treasure Fleet”, and traces of his legacy are still visible around Southeast Asia.

Here too, were many allusions to the European Age of Discovery, including models of a Portuguese carrack (or nau), and a Spanish galleon that made the run between Manila and Acapulco, exchanging luxury Chinese goods for Mexican silver.

At one end of a gallery stood a collection of well-worn pots, simulating cargo lost on the sea bed. Four jars were laden with dried spices – peppercorn, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon – and I leaned in close to take a whiff of each one. The fragrant scent of nutmeg transported me to the swaying palms and white sand beaches of Indonesia, as I mulled over the lengths to which European sailors went to procure these precious spices.

And where there was money to be made, pirates were never far behind. Among its collection of historic paintings, the museum’s star exhibit is “Pacifying the South China Sea”, a Qing Dynasty scroll narrating the events leading to the navy’s eventual victory over local pirates in 1810. A key player in the saga was legendary figure Cheung Po Tsai, chieftain of the pirate squadrons who controlled the three sea trade passages of Guangdong. Local lore maintains that he once stowed his treasure in a small cave on the island of Cheung Chau, a site that can still be visited today.

Inside the museum, canvas after canvas of junks and sailing ships captured my imagination, as did the bustling harbour of a 19th century Hong Kong, then a nascent British colony with bald hills and a coastline not yet altered by reclamation. Growing up, I often dreamed of adventure on the high seas; perhaps it was not surprising for someone accustomed to islands, born in a tiny nation at the southern end of the Strait of Malacca.

Fortuitous timing on this visit meant that I was in for a treat – minutes after ascending to the main floor, two excited teenagers alerted me to an unusual sight on the harbour. Like a phantom resurrected from the pages of history and the canvases I had just seen, a replica of a European tall ship sailed gracefully into view. Several other visitors flocked to the window, and we watched, spellbound, as it manoeuvered into position at the adjacent pier. What we saw evoked the magic of a bygone era – before the advent of air travel – and it stirred a deep desire that perhaps someday, I too would follow the fabled Spice Route.

A 19th century model of a Fujianese junk

A 19th century model of a Fujianese junk

The 8th century Javanese 'Borobudur Ship'

The 8th century Javanese ‘Borobudur Ship’

Junks and European ships on the Pearl River

Junks and European ships on the Pearl River

Macau in the late 18th century - a city of churches

Macau in the late 18th century – a city of churches

Hull of a Portuguese carrack

Hull of a Portuguese carrack

An 18th century plate, made for the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies

An 18th century plate, made for the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies

Model of a 16th century 'Perahu Makassar' (or 'padewakang'), native to Indonesia

Model of a 16th century ‘Perahu Makassar’ (or ‘padewakang’), native to Indonesia

Record from a ship's log

Record from a ship’s log

Dragon boat races in the 19th century

Dragon boat races in the 19th century

A painted folding fan with ivory sticks, c.1780

A painted folding fan with ivory sticks, c.1780

The opium clipper Sylph off the China coast, c.1830s

The opium clipper Sylph off the China coast, c.1830s

A scene from 'Pacifying the South China Sea'

A scene from ‘Pacifying the South China Sea’

Blast from the past

Blast from the past

Sails up in Victoria Harbour

Sails up in Victoria Harbour

Bullseye from the Waglan Island Lighthouse, 1950's

Bullseye from the Waglan Island Lighthouse, 1950’s

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. It’s such a nice surprise to see Indonesian ship replicas on display in the museum. Really fascinating to be reminded about how interconnected the world has become back then. James, the next time I come to HK, I would love to see this museum. 🙂

    August 27, 2013
    • I was really not expecting so much regional coverage – but then again such is the nature of maritime trade! For someone who loves history and all things nautical, this was the perfect place to spend an afternoon. I’ll definitely bring you here the next time you’re in town, it’s quickly become one of my favourite local museums. 🙂

      August 27, 2013
  2. It definitely evokes your imagination, it was a tough life but at the same time could be a very lucrative life.

    August 28, 2013
    • You’re right – sometimes we romanticise a sailor’s life without really thinking about all the hardships they faced. Pirates, being shipwrecked, months at sea away from their families… it makes you wonder what drove them to such far-flung, distant shores.

      August 28, 2013
  3. The last image is absolutely stunning. I have never been to Hong Kong but I would love to visit some day. Following your blog.

    August 28, 2013
    • Thank you, Anwesha. And likewise, I have never been to India either, although I hope to change that soon enough…

      August 28, 2013
  4. Jaden #

    Thanks for sharing! Once I read the ocean is ofcourse a sort of place but above all when you cross the sea you come into a different time zone. Personally I truly felt like that when coming to different islands from the sea. Especially Sumatera. As if 50 to 300 years back in time, the crowds in the ports.
    Another thing …. being close to the ocean is feeling close to the opportunity that life can change. A kind of sense of relief. Bye! Greetz ”Seagull”

    August 28, 2013
    • You’re welcome Jaden! I couldn’t agree more… there is something about travelling by sea that is still timeless and romantic, to know that you’re retracing the same routes that have been traversed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And the sea often stands for both freedom and the unknown.

      August 28, 2013
  5. Thanks for an awesome write up!

    August 29, 2013
    • It’s my pleasure – I loved the displays so much I ended up staying three hours until closing time. Truly an afternoon well spent!

      August 29, 2013
  6. Reblogged this on triotriotrio and commented:
    I love to see our visitors posting and sharing about the museum!

    August 29, 2013
  7. When I was little, my grandmother used to take me to the Tall Ships Festival in Baltimore where we would step back in time like this – thank you for the memory, and for reminding me to add that to my son’s future adventure list!

    August 31, 2013
    • You’re welcome, Shanna! I wish we had a similar festival here in Hong Kong – tall ships are such beautiful reminders of a past age.

      September 1, 2013
  8. Thanks for these wonderful photos of museum gems. Just a month ago, we were at the Maritime Museum in Victoria BC which is the maritime history for Canadian Pacific coast. There was a special museum exhibit of the Chinese immigrants and workers on the Canadian Pacific ships (same company of the Canadian Pacific Railway company)..

    September 2, 2013
    • Glad you enjoyed them, Jean. Sounds like the museum’s counterpart in Victoria BC is well worth a visit, I’ll have to put it on my list for a future trip! As for the special exhibit, it must have left quite a deep impression…

      September 3, 2013
  9. What a marvelous collection James! And what a bonus in that tall ship! Your reference to the fragrance of cinnamon brought to mind ancient spice chests in the castle in Sintra, Portugal, that still carried hints of the spices they had held!
    I always wonder what different turns South Asian histories would have taken, if our spices had not been so coveted by European powers. Our architecture, food, culture, even language has been impacted by that early quest for spice!

    September 2, 2013
    • It was an unexpected treasure trove, Madhu! And to hear of the spice chests of Sintra… I was there back in 2010 but we ended up spending most of our time at the estate of Quinta da Regaleira. Now I wish I hadn’t given the castle a miss!

      I guess you could say the same for Southeast Asia – in effect that hunger for spices triggered the European Age of Discovery. An unexpected result was the globalisation of food: it’s mind-boggling how New World products such as peanuts and chilli were adopted as staples across India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

      September 3, 2013
  10. Reblogged this on EnDeKaN JaYa 14 and commented:
    HONKONG WISATA

    September 5, 2013
  11. Thanks for sharing! I’m definitely going to visit this museum, next month!

    September 5, 2013
    • You’re welcome! I couldn’t recommend it any more highly – especially if you have an interest in all things nautical!

      September 6, 2013

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