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Mariners, Migrants and Military

– Norwegians in the Customs Service

Ho Chao-Huin and William Coucheron-Aamot, in William Coucheron-Aamot, Gjennom De Gules Land og Krigen i Østasien, 1895.

Imperial Maritime Customs Service (IMCS) was a Western-style customs system founded in China during the mid-1850s as a response to both internal unrest through the Taiping Rebellion and external pressure from Western powers such as Britain, France and the US. These countries were also so-called Treaty powers. To them, such a system was important as it ensured the revenues collection as China was obliged by the Treaty of Nanking (1842).

The first customs house was opened in Shanghai in 1854, and around 1910 there were nearly 40 customs stations spread all over China. IMCS developed into a unique institution with a complex organisation mirroring its array of functions beyond that of collecting tariffs and duties, from the postal services along the China coast, waterways navigation, conservancy work, meteorological observations to mention a few. The institution became known as the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS) from 1912 onwards, and the historian Donna Brunero argues it was “..[a]rguably the most important institution in China during the Republic”. (Brunero, 2006). The IMCS/CMCS also represented an important career opportunity – primarily to foreigners, rather than the Chinese – at least until 1929.

The historiography of the customs service is predominantly Anglo-centric in its approach. However, during the history of the institution (1854–1950) staff from more than 20 nationalities was involved in the service – amongst them over 300 Norwegians. Hence, we argue that making studies of staff of other nationalities not only represents an important addendum to existing research, but is also an important prerequisite in order to grasp a fuller understanding of the true multinational character of the customs service.

In this subproject, Norwegian officials in the customs service are studied through a wide-ranging selection of Chinese, English, Norwegian and Russian sources. Focus is set on individuals, as well a group through a prosopographic approach. Simplified, the work in the customs service offered two different career paths with clear professional and social separation between the elitist white collar careers as indoor staff and that of the far less prestigious blue collar work as outdoor staff. Amongst the well known Norwegians in the service, who made a career as indoor staff were Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe, who also had an impressive military career under Yuan Shikai`s leadership; Iver Munthe Daae who became Secretary of Charge of Inspectorate General of the Customs Service; Christian Frederik Wyller Schjöth who became the first Honorary Consul for China in Christiania and Erik Tollefsen who was appointed as Co-Director General of Post in China.However, it is also an ambition that this project will contribute to further our knowledge on outdoor staff as well – both in terms of staff who stayed on in order to pursue their career in the service, as well as to investigate the rather high turnover rate amongst outdoor staff.

The overall ambition of this subproject is to expand our knowledge on the customs service as an institution, the Norwegian role within the Treaty system as well has how staff in the customs service were subject to and part of transnational and local networks.