Daily Archives: 17 September 2017

Chinese Overseas Labor Recuitment, 1800s

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2328-68:

During the nineteenth century, in seaports along the China coast, … it was not a good idea for a Chinese man then to walk alone along the waterfront, especially after dark. “To be Shanghaied” entered the English language to signify the kidnapping that occurred, not for service at sea—unless it were pirates desperate for additional crew—but for labor ashore. A ship would simply be the vehicle bearing the victim to his new life. He would be headed for some overseas destination, sometimes Singapore, as a contract laborer, and a virtual slave in many cases.

Customarily brokers would not resort to kidnapping. Instead they would advance a variety of approaches to their quarry: cajolery and threats. Crimps would receive a bounty for every victim delivered to a holding pen, the so-called barracoon, a word taken directly from the African slave trade. The Chinese shipped all the way across the Pacific received treatment as bad as Africans in the Atlantic Middle Passage. Many would die at sea….

In the barracoon, the man would be given a cursory physical examination and if passed, which was highly likely, he would be handed a contract to sign specifying the number of years he must work and the amount of pay he would receive. A governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, saw this process for himself: “hundreds of them gathered together in barracoons, stripped naked, and stamped or painted with the letter C (Cuba), P (Peru), or S (Sandwich Islands–Hawai’i) on their breasts .” They would be held there until a ship was ready for them. Some did escape from the barracoon, Bowring said, “by going through an opening in the water closet into the mud and water of the river,” which might mean survival—for those who could swim.

Driven by poverty, many Chinese also left the mother country voluntarily. The 1849 gold rush in California encouraged those looking for a new life promising prosperity. The mines and plantations of Southeast Asia beckoned others. Treatment of those bound for Singapore was marginally better than those heading for forced labor elsewhere. Their numbers were heavily male; the few females who came, often kidnapped or deceived, were mostly prostitutes whose services an all-male society craved.

From the China coast the seaborne flow of emigrants to Southeast Asia lay in Chinese hands. The official Qing attitude toward this human traffic, free or forced, was analogous to its attitude toward the opium trade. Many in authority deplored it; but no one took consistent action to stop it. Too many local officials found such activities personally profitable.

Those who went to mine tin in Malaya, tough as it was, were more fortunate than those taken across the Pacific, either to shovel acrid bird dung, guano, prized as fertilizer, in a treeless environment on a desolate island off the coast of Peru with hot sun beating down all day, or to equally disagreeable toil on sugar plantations in Cuba. The tin miners in Malaya were often able to complete a work contract and then find something better to do.

For them, Singapore served as a gathering spot, a free port for people as well as objects. Unlike so many other countries, Singapore welcomed immigrant Chinese, most of whom came as contract laborers who passed through the city to work in the nearby staple industries that were crying for labor. Those who stayed and failed to climb the economic ladder pulled the rickshaws, or carried sacks of rice on the docks, working a long day in the tropical heat. Immigrants were overwhelmingly male until the twentieth century. When females began to come in number after 1918 and the Great War, family life could begin, transforming the immigrant community.

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Filed under Britain, Caribbean, China, Hawai'i, labor, Latin America, migration, Pacific, piracy, slavery, Southeast Asia

The Era of Canals, Cable, and Coal

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1992-2009:

The Suez Canal also encouraged a far greater Atlantic presence in Southeast and East Asia, stimulating the development of intercontinental port cities, a phenomenon hitherto rare in the region. Before the Europeans, local polities had placed their capitals inland for greater security. Europeans brought an ocean-consciousness that many Asian elites had previously lacked, with Singapore typical of the newly created seaport city, part of a network that would spread along Asian coasts, from Mumbai (Bombay) to Yokohama, cities forming spearheads for modernization on Atlantic models, linked to one another and to a wider world by cable and the coal-burning ship.

Everyone dreaded the inevitable time-consuming and dirty task of loading and stowing coal on shipboard, a task grueling for the worker and disagreeable for all aboard. On warships, officers as well as enlisted men were obliged to participate. Moving coal raises a gritty dust, throat-choking and eye-stinging, leaving a dark film on every surface it touches. To handle the coal aboard, ships carried among their crew a “black gang,” which was divided into two groups. Typically firemen on most ships watched and fed three fires, burning down one at the end of each watch, shoveling the coal into the furnace, using long pokers to aerate the flames and periodically cleaning it of clinkers. Trimmers kept the firemen supplied, wheeling coal in steel barrows from bunker to furnace. They called it “being on the long run.” Often these men were Bengali or Gujerati but the British shipping world applied the term “lascar” to them and uniformly to Asian seafarers, from Chinese to Yemeni.

Fireman or trimmer, the tasks were difficult and dangerous work in an airless environment thick with dust. In the tropics the temperature could soar to excruciating heights. The men wore heavy leather boots and not much else except a rag around the neck to mop sweat and grime from eyes and noses. Burns were frequent as was heat exhaustion. Working on the black gang was comparable to the arduous labor of the coal miner in the pits but at least the miner got to go home every night. A black gang might be away at sea for an entire year.

By the time the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, oil was replacing coal as the source of energy on steamships.

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