Classic text: Trieste and the Far East – a historical perspective

This year, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Suez Canal, which opened in November 1869. Construction took about 10 years, and even before it opened it became pparent that the Mediterranean Sea would get a huge locational advantage. 

The government of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire subsequently sent out one expedition before the opening of the canal. It was one of the last expeditions around the world by a sailing ship and became famous (at least in the German speaking parts of Europe) as the “Novara expedition”. With approximately 30,000 copies of Karl von Scherzer’s book being sold, it is considered the second most successful popular scientific work in the German language in the 19th century. After the opening of the canal, a second expedition was launched that went to India and China. From this book, the following text is taken. 

Text and illustrations are an example of European thinking during the imperialist age and should not be mistaken for a contemporary statement. However, locational advanages persist, not only for Trieste, but also for the other places depicted here in an early stage of integration to the world trade. 

“The way from Trieste and Fiume (now: Rijeka) to India is shortened by the new world traffic passage by 37 days when using steam power, to China even by 57-60 days. For traffic with East Asia thereby the Mediterra-nean ports, namely Trieste and Fiume, have a heavily weighting advantage against all North Sea ports, and now that the impacts of the new route slowly surface, it appears less than ever surprising the English politics has for so long resisted cutting the isthmus of Suez. 

Wares from southwestern Europe, which so far take the route via England and Holland or Hamburg and Bremen eastwards around the Cape, will surely prefer to take the new route, as soon as a saving not only in time, but also in freight cost and insurance can be proven. This however will not be difficult, once the most important connecting lines will be established and put into operation. 

According to a comprehensive economic study of Dr. W. Zenker about the Suez Canal (Bremen 1870) it came out that a large share of the goods going to East Asia can be considered canalworthy, and that in future most articles of world trade will take this shorter though somewhat more costly way, by saving in interest and insurance what transport by steamer costs more, while for goods of higher value the canal passage is even more advantageous. 

Once there is a direct connection between Trieste and the East and by attracting enough foreign manufactured ware enough export freight, then the success of the project appears fully secured. Because there will never be a lack of return freight (the writer then lists many natural products, now obsolete, and especially debates the silk trade with Japan). 

But the existence of a direct link will result in the further and incalculable advantage to make Trieste and Fiume stacking places of Indian and East Asian products for the whole Danubian empire, as well as for southern Germany, Switzerland and the Italian and Levantine markets, and will give the larges two warehouses of the Austro-Hungarian monar-chy the same role in southwestern Europe as Liverpool, Hamburg and Bremen so victoriously keep in the north of our continent. [ … ] 

During our stay in India, China and Japan we have made all inquiries to prepare the ground for a direct steamship line from Trieste and Fiume to Bombay, Hong Kong and Shanghai and to interest the relevant circles for it. [ … ] 

Indispensable for the prosperity of the projected steamer line would be the reduction of transport fees on the Austro-Hungarian railways, since only in the case that the fees are low enough to stand competition with the other routes, the new undertaking would accumulate flows of goods from domestic production areas as well as from neighbouring countries; only a moderate rail and steamship tariff will enable an Austro-Asian line to gather a respective amount of the produce destined for India and East Asia.”