Several lucky breaks provided a huge push for Singapore growth, escalating volume of east-west trade, and raising the importance of Singapore as a trading hub. For 50 years from 1830, the world saw several significant changes that changed the global economic conditions and the shifting political weights leading to further entrenchment of Singapore’s position a major global port.
Improvements in seafaring technologies
Seafaring technology was improving rapidly after the emergence of Singapore as a port; the first experimental steamships started in the early 1800s and then by 1830s, regional steamboats were running around in Europe as well as along the coasts and rivers of United States of Americas. Ocean-going steamships followed and the first steamship (by Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Co.) carrying mails (passengers, and parcels) arrived in Singapore in 1845.
Steamships shortened the voyage between the east and west significantly, whilst it used to take months (and would vary according to seasons) to sail from London to Singapore, the advent of steamships reduced this journey to approximately 40 days throughout the year. Improvements in the next decade would shave the time down to a single month. This drove up not only the trading activities but also encouraged more visitors to Singapore who would hang around for a short-term stay.
Opium Wars & opening of China market
The end of the first Opium War concluded in 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking that forcibly opened up the Chinese market to imports from the west. The Chinese market proved attractive to the Europeans and even the Americans who were (unfortunately) buying huge volumes of opium in Turkey to be sold in China. Some of these opium of course ended up within the Singapore market but that is a story for another day.
The ceding of Hong Kong to the British provided a permanent base in the South China sea, further providing for this whole string of territories that help to connect the west to the east for British merchants. Trade between the west and the east grew significantly as a result and these trade flows all will have to pass through Singapore at least for some services.
The turmoil during the First and Second Opium wars also contributed to mass immigration of Chinese in search of more stable lives and also jobs. This particular wave of immigration ensured the dominance of the Chinese ethnic group on the island and also provided a huge youthful workforce with a taste for hardship and hunger for improvements. This labour base ensured that trade services develop and there were sufficient crew to service the incoming vessels.
Opening of Suez Canal
The opening of Suez Canal in 1869 provided further push to east-west trade through shortening of the voyage between Europe and Asia. Trading ships no longer had to sail down to the Cape of Good Hope and up again towards the Gulf of Aden. Trade volume through Singapore almost doubled just within the single year progressing from 1869 to 1870.
The status of a free port continued to attract trading ships as well as merchants. The rival ports of Jakarta (then called Batavia) and Manila levied tariffs and thus were less attractive. American, Jewish, Armenian, Indian, Chinese and Arab traders started setting up trading houses in Singapore. The diversity and multiculturalism was at the heart of this colony; just as its growth and development was powered by the world events. In that sense, Singapore was never quite ‘left-behind’ nor ever unplugged from this world system after the British established themselves.