The Civil War in Southeast Asia: Trade and Privateering in Singapore

The Civil War in Southeast Asia: Trade and Privateering in Singapore

The sectional conflict in North America coincided with vast upheavals around the world, including the wars of unification in Central Europe (Italy from 1859 to 1871, and Germany from 1864 to 1871), whose impact Civil War historians have done some work to illustrate. In Asia, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), with its twenty million dead (one of the deadliest wars in human history), also coincided with the Civil War. However Civil War historians, both transnational and diplomatic, have paid very little attention to events in Asia. Yet for U.S. diplomatic and economic representatives, the war’s impact on trade, and even more, the threat posed by Confederate privateers, was an ever-present issue requiring them to protect the commercial and maritime interests of the United States, even in far away places like Singapore.

So far, the only work on Civil War relations with Asia highlights the offer of war elephants by the Siamese king to President Abraham Lincoln.[1] If this sounds somewhat reminiscent of some early Roman history with Hannibal crossing the Alps, there are some possible similarities. A blogger at The National Interest hypothesized what the 1st Ohio Pachyderm Battalion would have done at the Battle of Gettysburg, suggesting the use of the animals in the opening engagement with the Iron Brigade and the destruction of the advancing Confederates of A. P. Hill’s Corps.[2] While certainly humorous as a counterfactual exercise, to U.S. consuls in Singapore, the Civil War was all too real.

Singapore, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, sprang into existence in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles established the city and port for the British East India Company. As a stopping point en route to China, the port gained importance with the opening of China as a result of the Opium War (1839-1842). The city was, and remains, an essential trade center in Southeast Asia.

View of the Harbor of Singapore, c. 1860, Leiden University Library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For the United States, trade in Singapore was initially of only limited importance. In January 1852, U.S. consul W. W. Shaw reported that demand for U.S.-made cotton products was “moderate.” Nevertheless, he assumed that, “the consumption of American Cotton Goods is likely to increase in this market judging from the more frequent enquiries for them of late.” Furthermore, in 1852, ships tended to leave for the U.S. Pacific Coast, especially San Francisco, if their destination was the United States. With the aftereffects of the California Gold Rush, captains had to recruit new crew members in Singapore since recruiting sailors in San Francisco was extremely expensive, which had a detrimental impact on shipping costs.[3]

By the end of the 1850s, commercial activities in Singapore boomed again. Singapore’s location “as a commercial sea-port” was the result of “being situated on the great highway to India, China, Japan, and South Eastern Asia.” Over a hundred U.S. merchant vessels visited the port annually. Consul J. P. Sullivan used the commercial importance to point out that his salary was woefully inadequate to handle the trade, pay for a building to run the consulate in, and hire staff, a common complaint among U.S. consular agents at the time.[4]

The Civil War soon had an impact on the trade in Singapore. Whereas U.S. merchants represented the second largest group of ships in port prior to the war, the conflict allowed German merchants to assume second place. The change was in part the result of Confederate activities in Asian waters.[5]

One particular incident speaks to how Confederate naval operations complicated the U.S. presence in Asia. On December 8, 1863, U.S. consul Francis W. Cobb reported the departure of the U.S.S. Wyoming in search of the raider C.S.S. Alabama, an infamous Confederate ship that roamed the oceans for nearly two years.[6] Only two weeks later the Alabama arrived in Singapore. Captain Raphael Semmes had made his way across the Indian Ocean from the Cape Colony. The Alabama overnighted in port, and as Consul Cobb wrote in his report, took on coal for its continued voyage.[7]

The CSS Alabama. Courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Cobb’s attempts to communicate with the crew of the Alabama failed, as port authorities did not allow anyone near the ship. Like all U.S. representatives overseas, Cobb wanted the ship brought to justice and he frantically tried to locate the Wyoming’s exact whereabouts. He knew the U.S. vessel was on its way to Batavia to repair its boiler.[8] Unfortunately, the Wyoming did not receive the honor of bringing down Semmes. In accordance with British neutrality laws, which required belligerent vessels to depart port again within twenty-four hours, the Alabama put to sea on December 24. Despite Cobb’s failure to reach the vessel, others were luckier. Cobb explained that many Singaporeans visited the ship out of curiosity, which, he thought, should not be confused with sympathy.[9] Sadly, on the day of the Alabama’s departure from Singapore, the raider destroyed a British and U.S. merchant vessel, the latter probably the Texas Star.[10] Thankfully, after only three destroyed ships, Semmes departed the region for refits in France, where its career eventually ended outside of Cherbourg.

Ever so briefly the Civil War reared its ugly maritime face in Singapore, but merely the threat of Confederate privateering had an impact on U.S. trade in the region. While elephants at Gettysburg is a hair-brained counterfactual, much less crazy is the possibility of the Wyoming bringing the Alabama to battle in the Straits of Malacca. British colonial authorities around the empire faced difficult decisions when Confederate vessels put into port—a topic that is finally getting attention within the Atlantic context, but still needs more attention in Asia.[11] Similarly, the threat of these vessels had an impact on U.S. trade in Singapore, which was still on the margins of the U.S. trade network during the 1850s and 1860s. However, only once Civil War diplomatic and transnational historians start to integrate the far flung places of empire will we get a full understanding of the impact of the war around the world, and not be stuck with the decision makers in London and Paris.

 

[1] William F. Strobridge and Anita Hibler, Elephants for Mr. Lincoln: American Civil War-Era Diplomacy in Southeast Asia (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006).

[2] Angry Staff Officer, “What Would Have Happened If Lincoln Had Used Combat Elephants in the Civil War?” The National Interest, September 29, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/what-would-have-happened-if-lincoln-had-used-combat-elephants-civil-war-73481?page=0%2C1.

[3] W. W. Shaw to Daniel E. Webster, January 30, 1852, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 3, January 21, 1852-August 20, 1855, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereafter cited as NARA).

[4] J. P. O’Sullivan to Lewis Cass, January 23, 1859, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 5, February 1, 1858-November 16, 1859, NARA.

[5] Percy E. Schramm, Deutschland und Übersee: Der Deutsche Handel mit den Anderen Kontinenten, insbesondere Afrika, von Karl V. bis zu Bismmarck (Braunschweig, Germany: Georg Westermann Verlag, 1950), 88-90.

[6] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 8, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[7] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 22, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[8] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 22, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[9] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, January 8, 1864, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 7, January 8, 1864-December 31, 1869, NARA.

[10] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, January 8, 1864, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 7, January 8, 1864-December 31, 1869, NARA.

[11] Beau Cleland, “Between King Cotton and Queen Victoria: Confederate Informal Diplomacy and Privatized Violence in British America During the American Civil War,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Calgary, 2019).

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War, was published by LSU Press in 2019. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

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