Published by EH.Net (July 2022).

Bert Becker. France and Germany in the South China Sea, c. 1840-1930: Maritime Competition and Imperial Power. Paris: Palgrave-MacMillan (Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies), 2021. 484 pp. $149.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-3-030-52603-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Hubert Bonin, Sciences Po Bordeaux and BSE-Bordeaux University.


Bert Becker, a history professor in Hong Kong since 2002, bases his research for this book on the relevant French, Danish, and German archives, particularly those concerning Indochina, especially Vietnam, and Hong Kong. The originality of the book stems from its juxtaposition of the perceptions of various significant stakeholders in the light of their changing geopolitical interests in the face of unfolding events – in particular, the colonization of South Asia and the seizure of concessions in China – as geo-economic competition between the great trading and military powers of Europe, Japan, and America saw a struggle for maritime dominance. In contrast to colonial histories that often provide a historical framework of this process, Becker stresses the role of individual actors who sought to achieve interests often dominated by their commercial objectives.

The original British hegemony – in the form of the China Navigation Company, launched in 1872 by merchant John Swire, and Indochina Steam, established by the trading company Jardine & Matheson in 1881 – faced increasing competition from French and German shipping and commercial companies, notably the Jebsen Shipping Company. The competition ended at the outbreak of the First World War, when German ships on the High Seas were attacked, blockaded, put into receivership, and confiscated, especially after China declared war on Germany and its Central Powers allies in 1917.

Becker offers an alternative view of the history of Indochina, one focused on the German experience. Jebsen Shipping, from its home ports in the Baltic Sea and its bases in Hong Kong, and the trading house Speidel were particularly successful in carving out a niche that saw them participate in the expansion of trade in this region. Their efficiency prompted French merchants to charter Jebsen’s boats for transfers to Hong Kong and for regional tramp shipping. This regional “binational cooperation” contrasted with the anti-German sentiment then prevalent in Paris. With careful precision Becker analyzes how the German government, from Bismarck onward, encouraged this commercial partnership in Asia. On the one hand, in pursuit of a naval base in South Indochina, Germany invaded Kiachow (now Jiaozhou) Bay in 1897 and obtained a long-term lease agreement with China. On the other hand, until the Moroccan crisis of 1905-1906, Germany sought to maintain a balance of influence between itself and France in Asia and Africa.

The book is devoted to weighing such power relations. It first reconstructs the history of maritime flows in Southeast Asia from the 15th to 17th centuries, then the Franco-British breakthrough from the 1840s, the French colonization in Indochina, and the emergence of German merchants in the 1840s. Hong Kong became the platform where they could flourish thanks to their networks of compradores (middlemen) and the branch of the Deutsch-Asiatisch Bank (a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank) that opened in 1900. Their ships developed their Euro-Asian circuits but became specialists in intra-Asian cabotage. In 1909, 735 German ships docked at Hong Kong, well behind the British (4,931) but ahead of the Japanese, Chinese and French (450). Jebsen Shipping did not face the full long-term consequences of World War I because it became a Danish company when northern Schleswig was restored to Denmark in 1920.

The archives allow a reconstruction of the key roles played in Indochinese trade by the entrepreneurs who led the most notable firms, including Auguste Raphaël Marty (1841-1914) and Édouard Jules d’Abbadie (1853-1904) headed Marty & D’Abbadie, an active trading house between Haiphong and Hong Kong; and Denis Frères, originally from Bordeaux, based mainly in Saigon. Surprisingly, the book speaks little of the latter firm, despite devoting a whole chapter to Saigon, which emerged vigorously in 1860-1900. It hosted some dynamic German merchants, such as Speidel (p. 210). It was vital to the development of Chinese commercial capitalism, which saw the rise of steam rice mills (including a Spiedel factory) and a jump in rice exports (365,000 tonnes in 1879, 525,000 in 1883). A chapter is also devoted to port city of Haiphong, which became French Indochina’s principal naval base and a thriving commercial center. Denis Frères settled in Haiphong in 1879-1884. From there rice, silk, tin, tungsten, and oils were exported, while English cotton, opium, and various consumer goods were imported.

Becker constructs a novel and comprehensive history of the internationalization of trade in the South China Sea, led by German and French companies. The 92 German and 86 French ships easily outnumbered the 29 English ships and accounted for nearly three-fourths of the maritime zone’s ships in 1905. Germany’s Speidel was particularly prominent. France’s Marty & D’Abbadie (Marty after 1907) also managed a high volume of river and maritime traffic, after establishing the Tonkin Shipping Company in 1884. The final case study investigates the French Treaty port and enclave of Guang Zhou Wan (now Zhanjiang), between Tonkin, Hainan, and Hong Kong, which had become emblematic of the plans for expansion in Southwest China. But it quickly disappointed its promoters, despite publicity efforts that touted it as a model of urban development.

Becker’s analysis is well documented. Each chapter includes an extensive bibliography and detailed references to archival sources. Although the book is less extensive in its coverage of the 1920s, it describes post-World War I attempts by German companies to regain a foothold in Southeast Asia. At the macro level, this book is a careful and detailed assessment of “open economy growth” based on the development of intensive trade links between Europe and Indochina, which became increasingly French, and Hong Kong. It also explores the commercial and maritime consequences of these Asian ventures. At the micro level, it convincingly emphasizes the role of French and German merchants and companies in this “great powers” competition.


Hubert Bonin ( is a researcher in banking and business history at BSE-Bordeaux University. His recent publications include The Worldwide Legacy of Haute Banque, from 19th to 21st Century (Peter Lang, 2022), edited with Roger Nougaret.

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