Russian Commercial Shipping and Singapore, 1905-1916

Article excerpt

In the second half of the nineteenth century Russia's political and economic horizons expanded eastwards with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the building of the Trans-Siberian railway in the 1890s. While the Suez Canal facilitated the passage of Russian ships from the Black Sea through Southeast Asia to the ports of China and eastern Siberia, the railway provided a land link between European Russia and the Far East. Ships and trains brought settlers, soldiers and goods to spur the colonization and economic development of Siberia, and made possible Russia's imperialist venture into Manchuria at the end of the century.(1) From the 1890s ethnic Russian Consuls were placed in ports along the sea route between the Black Sea and the China Seas to represent Russia's interests on issues effecting trade, shipping and the maintenance of good relations with the colonial or local rulers in the region. These Consuls, in turn, spurred government interest in the potential for trade in the region, and encouraged the commercialization of Russia's shipping lines between 1905 to the First World War.

The following article utilizes consular reports from Singapore to explore this relatively unknown aspect of Russia's expansion eastwards, and the circumstances which affected the direction of Russian shipping and trade in the East during this period. Singapore was Europe's gateway to the East, a major trading centre within Southeast Asia and a coaling, supply and cargo station for Russian ships traversing the waters from Odessa to the East.(2) In 1890 V. Vyvodtsev became the first ethnic Russian General Consul appointed to Singapore.(3) Along with preparing for the visit of Tsarevitch Nicholas (later Tsar Nicholas II) to Singapore in 1891, when he was enroute to Vladivostok to inaugurate the TransSiberian railway, Vyvodtsev was expected to look after Russia's economic interests in relation to trade and shipping. Between 1890 and 1905, a period of heated rivalry between Britain and Russia, he sent back numerous reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding Britain's colonial government and expansionist alms in Malaya, and the interests and activities of other European powers as well as Japan in Southeast Asia.(4) One of Vyvodtsev's successors as General Consul was N.A. Rospopov, whose reports from 1912 until 1916 are a valuable source on shipping matters. As the number of Russian ships to the East increased following the opening of the Suez Canal and the further expansion of Russian shipping, consuls appointed to important transit points such as Singapore became increasingly preoccupied with enforcing shipping regulations, resolving conflicts between shipping agents and captains or crew, and maintaining good relations with colonial government officials.

Although the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) has been regarded as a "water-shed" in Russian imperialist policy in the Far East because "thereafter, Russia was in retreat in Asia"(5), retreat on an imperialist level did not mean Russians became indifferent towards trade and shipping in the region. Russia's more reckless and adventurist policies in the East were put aside as government ministries concentrated on constructive and productive relations with Eastern powers. For example, between 1907 and 1910 a cooperative policy was moulded between Japan and Russia as agreements were reached delimiting their spheres of influence in Manchuria and Mongolia.(6) Russia was, in Central Asia and Siberia, an Eastern empire, and development of Siberia as well as the defense and security of the Eastern frontier required a Russian presence in the Far East and in Southeast Asia. After the fiasco of the war, the Ministries of Finance and Trade and Industry focused their attention on shipping matters in the East which were vital to economic development and Russia's national prestige.

Development of Russian Shipping to the East

From the mid-nineteenth century up to 1905 the progress of Russia's shipping eastwards was slow but steady. …