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Merchants

A. J. Ingersoll, Steamer. Built in 1866, Mystic CT

Norway witnessed a rapid and intense commercial expansion in China during the 1890s driven by its shipping sector hunger for new markets and ventures. Agents, brokers and ship-owners alike were all seeking to reap the benefit of a buoyant market in the East, and especially in the coal trade in and out of Chinese and Japanese ports. Profiteering from both the Sino-Japanese war (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05) permanent offices were established in the major ports of Hong Kong and Shanghai. From just a handful of arrivals in the early 1890s, Norwegian shipping in China temporarily peaked in 1905 with more than 1,200 arrivals of vessels being registrated in public trade figures.

It is an ambition that the research conducted as part of the Merchants and Missionaries will make a significant contribution to furthering our knowledge on Norwegian shipping in the Far East during the period through their roles as charterers as well as shipowners. This research faces particular challenges as several of the company archives are lost or destroyed. However, drawing upon new and heavily underutilised archival and newspaper material, we offer new knowledge not only on Norwegian, but also on foreign shipping interest in China at large during the period in question.

The project also aims at underlining and investigating the close interconnecting ties between the development of shipping in the Far East with the development of shipping on the North Atlantic - arguably the most important and innovative shipping route in the world. This is reflected not least by the simultaneous emergence of transnational conferences designed to limit competition and create barriers of entry for possible newcomers, and close interaction with governments by way of direct and indirect subsidies.

The project group has already started the construction of a major purpose-built database designed in order to shed new light on Norwegian shipping and merchant networks in China as well as transnational business links and horizontal networks. Included in this database is information on vessels, captains, cargoes, ports, consignees at selected major ports in China.

Ongoing research is focussing on the Bergen ship-owner Haakon Johan Wallem (1870-1951). In 1903 Wallem founded his own company in Shanghai. Within the subsequent decades he built a shipping empire with a lasting legacy – today, the Wallem Group is amongst the world’s largest provider of ship management and maritime services. The study reveals how Wallem depended on networks forged at his hometown of Bergen for his investments, whilst a successful access to the multinational web of shipping firms, agents and agencies in Asia was the key to his success in the freight market. The study shows how these networks worked in different ways, and how Wallem adopted to both of them. Wallem’s networks in the freight market demonstrate how intra-firm transactions not only entailed costs, but also offered large rewards – whilst his investment networks rested on co-operative ethos and social capital.