It is difficult to know exactly when trade between Middle East, India, China, Australia and the Indonesian Archipelago started. We know, from the Chinese sailing ship measuring 72 feet long and 27 feet wide recovered in the old harbour of Houshu in Quanzhou Bay in 1974, that during the Song Dynasty of 960-1279, they were trading in peppers, and sandalwood from the cargo on board. The sea silk route had been operating long before this Song period. Wescorp has seen the sandalwood cargo from this ship of over 800 years ago.
The use of sandalwood in the Middle East and India goes back further. Some historians have revealed that Sandalwood and Agarwood oils were used for embalming of the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Hundreds of years ago, members of the royal family of Thailand who committed crimes were placed in silk bags and beaten to death using Sandalwood clubs.
We know the Portuguese were the first Europeans to trade out of Malacca from 1511. Portuguese merchants were sending their ships down to Timor and Flores to buy sandalwood for trade in China.
The famous English buccaneer William Dampier reported seeing sandalwood in the Pacific in his voyages of the late 17th century.
Around the start of 1800, the Sydney merchants started to trade indirectly in sandalwood to China. Ex-convict and famous merchant Simeon Lord (1771 to 1840), is accredited as possibly being the first Australian to start the Pacific sandalwood trade with his schooner “Marcia” in 1803. This was the start of the Chinese referring to “Sydney sandalwood”, which actually came from Fiji, not Australia.
Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, China was almost the sole source of tea, and tea was becoming a necessity to the English. During 1811 to 1819, the total value of goods imported to England through the East India Company from China was over seventy two million pounds, of which tea imports accounted for over seventy million pounds.
This pushed the merchants to find Sandalwood in the Pacific and English trade commenced at the end of the eighteenth century. When the East India Company monopoly was finally broken in 1834, the Australian merchants from Sydney openly traded in Sandalwood from the Pacific to China.
By 1843 news of the high prices being received for Sandalwood in Singapore reached Perth in Western Australia. Explorer Ensign Dale had documented the existence of sandalwood in 1832 in the Swan River colony. The Santalum spicatum from Western Australia was tested in England and confirmed to be “equal to the East Indian Sandalwood”.
In 1844 a group of settlers from the Avon Valley set about establishing a Sandalwood trade with a trial shipment of 4 tons of Sandalwood logs to Bombay in the schooner “Champion” and received an excellent price of $20 per tonne. The Western Australian Sandalwood Industry had commenced.
By 1848, Sandalwood exports were 1335 tonnes and valued at over $26,000. In the same period, the colony had total exports of over $59,000. Western Australian Sandalwood became known as “Sydney Sandalwood” because the market had not heard of Perth or Fremantle. Later it was recognized as “New Mountain Sandalwood” in China which rivalled the Indian Sandalwood which was known as “Mysore Sandalwood” or “Old Mountain Sandalwood”, translated to “Lau Shan”.
By 1848, the Chinese market was flooded with Sandalwood from Western Australia, the Pacific and Indonesia and prices crashed. Western Australia had priced itself out of the market with Government export tax, tolls and licence fees. Trade from Perth in “New Mountain Sandalwood” did not resume until 1857 when 280 tonnes were exported.