I In the late 19th century, colonial powers Britain and France held grand ambitions to exert control over the Southeast Asia region. The construction of highly ambitious railway lines to access Chinese markets was deemed the answer, and the “Race to Yunnan” was on

By Christian Gilberti



In the late 19th century, the rapidly-expanding global empires of Great Britain and France were locked in a race to exert their influence over the markets of China. With the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, travel times between Europe and Asia were cut in half, and China represented a massive new market for European manufactured wares. Except there was a problem.

The fastest way to carry goods in and out of the “Middle Kingdom” was via the four-thousand mile-long Yangtze River, and the Chinese imperial government extracted tolls called likin all along its length. The universally-acknowledged solution was to build a railroad, but railway construction required large up-front investments, and that kind of capital was hard to come by without official backing.

Enter the British and French governments, which would end up spending vast fortunes building impressive railways in the hopes of one day accessing the markets of Southwestern China. The destination was Yunnan – a massive, ethnically diverse province with its capital at Kunming – an area all but inaccessible from the Chinese coast.

In their offices in the British colony of Burma (today’s Myanmar) and the French colony of Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), civil servants and merchant bankers dreamed of beating each other to the prize. The “Race to Yunnan” was on.



British Bravado

Cartographers and armchair explorers in London had long noted the proximity of British India’s Northeastern frontier to China, but it would take a class of particularly zealous colonial explorers on the ground to make trade between the two Asian giants a reality.





A Tragic End – the explorer Augustus Raymond Margary was murdered along with his entire staff whilst trying to find an overland route from Burma to Yunnan in 1875. Source: The Royal Collection Trust.



The diplomat Augustus Raymond Margary (1846-1875) was one such man, and in 1874 he undertook an expedition from Shanghai to Burma overland in order to find a suitable trading route. It took Margary six months to reach the border, and on the return leg he and his entourage were murdered in a dispute with local Chinese officials (in the ensuing diplomatic crisis China would be forced to make a host of unequal trading concessions to the British). Margary’s expedition (despite its tragic end) went on to inspire a new generation of explorers – men like Archibald Colquhoun and Holt S. Hallett – who in the 1880s would travel the region with the explicit goal of surveying a railway line from Burma to Yunnan. Hallett and Colquhoun noted that an ancient caravan route linked the Burmese border town of Bhamo with Kunming, but that the road, which was little more than a dirt track, wound its way through mountain ranges studded with dozens of peaks in excess of eight thousand feet. Labour was scarce, and tigers and malaria not uncommon. The only way to penetrate the Chinese border from Burma, they concluded, was to run a line from Moulmein, on the Indian Ocean, to Szimao in China via Northern Siam (Thailand) – a longer, but less punishing route…  Continue reading Christian Gilberti ‘s article for Southeast Asia Globe HERE














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