Author Archives: Joel

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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Emancipation Proclamation Blowback

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863.

From Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1796-1812:

On January 12, 1863, the [Confederate] president [Davis] issued a proclamation stipulating that captured officers and men of black Union regiments would be turned over to states to be tried for inciting or participating in slave insurrections. Congress enacted legislation endorsing this policy but substituting military courts for state courts. This change would have made no difference in the likely punishment—execution. But carrying out this policy proved to be impracticable. Union secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton ordered all exchanges of Confederate officers stopped so they could be held as hostages for retaliation if the Confederacy executed Northern officers. The Davis administration decided to restore captured ex-slave soldiers to bondage instead of putting them to death—though in fact many were killed by enraged Southern soldiers rather than allowed to surrender. “Captured slaves should be returned to their masters” if they could be found, Davis informed one Confederate general. “Until such time, they might be usefully employed on public works.”

On July 30, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued an “Order of Retaliation” stating that for every Union captive executed, a Confederate prisoner should be treated likewise; for every captive reenslaved, a Confederate prisoner would be placed at hard labor on public works. This order was effective in preventing the official (but not unofficial) killing of black prisoners and their officers. But it did not completely stop reenslavement, because few Southern prisoners were remanded to hard labor in retaliation. The Confederates refused to exchange black soldiers under the exchange cartel negotiated in 1862. This refusal caused exchanges to cease, and the prisons of both sides began the descent toward overcrowding and tragic mortality that debased the last eighteen months of the war.

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Assessing Prospects for Negotiated Peace, 1864

From Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2125-42:

The apparent stalemate in front of Atlanta compounded the sense of futility and failure that spread through the North in the summer of 1864. Grant had bogged down before Petersburg and Richmond after the Army of the Potomac suffered sixty thousand casualties in two months with little to show for all the carnage. “Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed at the beginning of Grant’s campaign?” asked a New York newspaper on July 12.

Northern war weariness revived the prospects of Copperhead Democrats, who hoped to nominate a peace candidate for president and defeat Lincoln’s reelection. A clamor for negotiations with the Confederacy became insistent. Lincoln had no faith in such a parley. He was running for reelection on a platform calling for “unconditional surrender” by the Confederacy and an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery in a restored Union. But the United States president could not ignore the pressure for peace. When Confederate agents in Canada convinced New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley that they were empowered to open negotiations, Greeley in turn pressed Lincoln to respond. He did so, specifying Union and emancipation as preconditions for any such negotiations. This proviso gave Confederates a propaganda victory by enabling them to accuse Lincoln of sabotaging the chance for peace by laying down conditions he knew were unacceptable to the Confederacy. So long as the war seemed to be going badly for the North—as it did in July and August 1864—this impression dimmed the prospects for Lincoln’s reelection.

Jefferson Davis had no more faith that negotiations could achieve peace with independence for the Confederacy than Lincoln believed they could achieve peace with reunion. But while Davis did not have to face a reelection campaign, he too was subject to pressure from Southerners who longed for peace. Vice President Alexander Stephens led an informal coalition that urged Davis to cultivate Northern Peace Democrats by agreeing to negotiations without insisting on Confederate independence as a precondition. Davis rejected this approach. Since independence would be an ultimate goal of negotiations, he maintained, it would be dishonest and useless to pretend otherwise.

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Assessing Confederate Military Options

From Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2566-2603:

Where could we get a better or a wiser man” than Jefferson Davis for commander in chief? wondered Josiah Gorgas in 1865. There was of course no right or wrong answer to that question. Nobody can say whether Robert Toombs, Howell Cobb, or any other potential Confederate president would have been more successful. What we do know about those gentlemen elicits skepticism. Most delegates to the Montgomery convention in 1861 believed Davis to be the best man for the job, and no clear evidence exists that they were wrong. The fact that the Confederacy lost the war does not prove that it could have been won with a different commander in chief. And under Davis’s leadership, the South appeared to be on the cusp of success on at least three occasions when Confederate victories had caused deep demoralization in the North: the summer of 1862, the winter and spring of 1863, and the summer of 1864. But Union victories at Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Atlanta blunted Southern momentum and revived Northern determination to fight through to ultimate triumph.

Could Jefferson Davis have done anything different on those three occasions or at any other time during the war to produce Confederate victory? That question too is ultimately unanswerable, but this has not stopped historians from speculating. Such speculation focuses mainly on two subjects: military strategy and military commanders. Would a different strategy have brought Confederate success? The political necessity to defend all frontiers of the Confederacy produced a strategy of dispersed defense in 1861. Davis would have preferred a strategy of concentration for an offensive-defensive campaign (as he termed it), but demands from state governors and other officials required dispersion. The initial poverty of weapons and logistical capacity precluded large offensives.

Union success in breaking through the thin gray lines of dispersed defenses in 1862 forced a revision of Confederate strategy. With new commanders of the two principal Southern armies, Robert E. Lee and Braxton Bragg, the Confederates embarked on their most ambitious offensive-defensive campaigns in the late summer of 1862, with a reprise in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. After experiencing initial success, these campaigns ultimately failed. Subsequent Union offensives compelled the Confederacy to fall back to an essentially defensive strategy for the rest of the war.

The two principal exceptions to that defensive strategy were Jubal Early’s raid to the outskirts of Washington in July 1864 and John Bell Hood’s invasion of Tennessee in November. They resulted in the virtual destruction of these two Southern armies in the Shenandoah Valley in October and at Nashville in December. These two campaigns were clearly beyond the Confederates’ capacity to execute by that stage of the war. Lee’s prosecution of offensive-defensive operations in 1862 and 1863 may have represented the Confederacy’s best chance for victory, but Hood’s effort to repeat that strategy in 1864 was wrongheaded, and Davis’s approval of that invasion may have been his worst strategic mistake.

Two other options were available to the Confederacy. The first was a “Fabian” strategy of yielding territory to the enemy until the moment came to strike at his most vulnerable tentacles. Like the Roman general Quintus Fabius in the Second Punic War, or George Washington in the American Revolution, or the Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov in 1812, Confederate commanders could have traded space for time, kept the army concentrated and ready to strike enemy detachments dangling deep in Southern territory, and above all avoided destruction of their armies. Such a Fabian defensive strategy, so the argument goes, might have worn out the will or capacity of the Union to continue fighting, as the Americans and Russians had done to the British and French in 1781 and 1812–13. To a considerable degree, this was Joseph Johnston’s apparent strategy in Virginia in 1862 and especially in Georgia in 1864. But Johnston seemed prepared to yield Richmond and Atlanta rather than risk his army—and he did stand by while Vicksburg fell. To Davis this was a strategy of surrender that would have had fatal consequences for the Confederacy. He was probably right. In the end the strategy of the offensive-defensive did not work either, but as practiced by Robert E. Lee it probably came closest to success.

Another strategic alternative was guerrilla war. Confederate partisans were active behind Union lines in several theaters, and quasi-guerrilla cavalry commanders like Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan also carried out many successful raids. Although Davis approved of these activities, he showed relatively little interest in guerrilla warfare as a primary strategy. In this lack of interest his instincts were probably sound. The Confederacy was an established polity with the institutions of a nation-state and an organized army with professional commanders. Conventional warfare supplemented by auxiliary guerrilla operations or cavalry raids behind enemy lines represented its best strategic mix. Guerrilla actions as the main strategy are most appropriate for a rebel force trying to capture the institutions of government, not to defend them. And a slave society that practices guerrilla warfare is playing with fire, for it opens up opportunities for the slaves to carry out their own guerrilla actions against the regime.

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How Singapore Became Chinese

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 620-40, 679-703:

In this cosmopolitan but overwhelmingly Malay maritime world of the straits, how did modern Singapore become three-quarters Chinese and what does this mean? To begin to answer that question we can take a look at the motherland to see where the impetus came for the Chinese diaspora, a unique maritime-based mobile culture. This is one of the greatest and most consequential human overseas migrations in history, forming an engine for the flow of people, goods, and ideas, not simply to and from China but building a network of interconnected communities sprinkled throughout Southeast Asia, for which Singapore would function as a synapse, perceived as “the western junction of a Chinese commercial empire.”

Most emigrating Chinese ended up in Southeast Asia on the edges of the South China Sea. The Chinese called the region Nanyang or “Southern Ocean,” connoting both a saltwater space and its fringes. The concept was more commercial than political or geographical and applied to people, the ethnic Chinese of that region, as well as place. Leaving China, emigrants took their culture with them but usually abandoned their political attachments. Ultimately the diaspora would reach much farther than the Nanyang. Is there today anywhere in the world any major seaport city without its Chinatown?

The broken coast and many harbors of South China encouraged taking to the sea and spawned China’s continuing, unauthorized, and largely unrecorded maritime history in which many foreigners also participated. In south Chinese coastal towns, Arabs, Persians, and Indians, sailors and merchants walked the waterfront.

The Chinese government, preoccupied with nomad incursions on land frontiers to the north and west, paid little heed to these seaborne foreigners along the coast, content for them to govern themselves. Nor were local fishers, merchants, and pirates of interest, either to government officials or recorders of history at the capital. To the Chinese official grinding his ink and wielding his brush in Beijing, the imperial capital, the sea seemed both far away and a natural boundary, a great saltwater wall, useful only for keeping unwanted strangers away.

But local people readily leaped into maritime life, even to invest their skills and savings in overseas enterprise. Many Chinese would move to maritime Southeast Asia and become familiar figures along the Melaka Straits. Family ties and ancestor veneration tended to bind people to the homeland. Nonetheless many did leave China forever.

The junk furnished the vehicle for the Chinese overseas trading network, taking on an iconic identification with premodern maritime China. But the word is actually of Arabic or Malay origin, reflecting the influence of outsiders along the China coast where the ship type originated. Versatile vessels, junks carrying heavy cargo ventured out upon the open sea, but always chose if possible to hug the shoreline, taking advantage of seasonal winds, south in the winter, north in the summer.

The name “junk” would be applied to a wide range of vessels, large and small, which evolved over centuries of steady improvements. A familiar sight in the Melaka Straits and throughout Pacific Asian waters, these ships were sailing in some numbers until recent years. They were to be seen in commercial use moored in Singapore harbor as late as the eve of World War II.

More than a millennium ago, with the junk the Chinese had achieved a maritime technological complexity not equaled by Europeans until much later. Chinese mariners used rudders that could be raised or lowered to accommodate varying depths of water; they sailed ships with hulls of double-planked thickness and watertight bulkheads for compartmentalization. Fishers were the innovators there, wanting tanks to take their catch live to the market. Europeans did not build such compartmented ships until they began to use iron hulls in the nineteenth century.

Able to operate in rivers as well as on the open sea, brown water as well as blue, junks proved sturdy and versatile craft, joined together with nails, their timbers varnished with water-repellent tung oil, their sails slatted like Venetian blinds with bamboo battens; their sailors using compass and sounding lead. Characteristically the stern loomed higher than the bow. Whereas Europeans built their ships in the shape of a fish, bulging out from the bow and tapering to the stern, the Chinese built theirs in the shape of a water bird, swelling at the stern. Like today’s giant oil tankers, the superstructure rose far aft, well behind (“abaft” in nautical lingo) any masts, leaving ample space forward for freight stowage.

From the great population reservoir in south China, junks bore passengers who intended to stay abroad, perhaps for a while, perhaps forever. These people did not bring high culture with them; most were the underprivileged at home looking for a better life abroad. But those who settled permanently would form a nucleus for the Chinese community in Singapore, joining earlier arrivals, who might have lived along the straits for generations.

Although emigrants brought their culture with them, they had no reason to carry any political attachments. The imperial government had discouraged or even forbidden them to leave, seeing those who did so as disloyal, forever lost to the realm, and therefore of no future interest or responsibility. Had it been otherwise, Singapore, a city of immigrants, today might well be part of China, a far-flung overseas province chafing for independence from Chinese rule, just as at mid-twentieth century it would crave independence from British rule.

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Melaka, Asia’s “Gullet”

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 552-76, 592-600:

The fleeing rulers of Temasek found a new home in Melaka, almost exactly as far from today’s Singapore as Albany is from Manhattan (127 miles). The name Melaka proved highly appropriate, deriving as it does from the Arabic meaning “meeting place” or “rendezvous.” Its origins are hazy like those of its predecessors Temasek or Singapura being the stuff of legend, but early in the fifteenth century a Hindu kingdom emerged there, soon to become a Muslim sultanate, the faith brought in by itinerant merchants traveling from the west.

Melaka was not a new kind of settlement but was in the pattern of other Southeast Asian cosmopolitan maritime entrepôts, a place for trading. Here on the straits a tiny fishing community evolved into a hangout for those wanting a center to conduct commerce or to exploit a strategic position to exact fees from passing ships, and, more crudely, we might say a place to fence stolen goods.

Unlike most Southeast Asian trading towns, which placed themselves defensively upriver to discourage maritime marauders, Melaka sat boldly at the mouth of a muddy stream where moored vessels rolled gently in the current or rode offshore in a sheltered spot on an easily navigable approach where ships could find safe anchorage.

The city that arose there depended almost totally on trade even, with the exception of fish, needing to import its basic foods to fill the rice bowl as well as to provide most other sustenance. Its land, hacked out of dense jungle, was ill-suited to growing grain although fruit orchards flourished at hand. Fruit does not travel well, especially in a hot climate. If you wanted to eat it, you had to grow it. Melaka, with its back to untamed jungle, lacked continental hinterland and we have no indication that anyone was interested in clearing and farming land beyond the outskirts of town.

Without an easily accessible hinterland, trade furnished Melaka’s life stream. Although not situated at the straits’ narrowest point, the city could control a navigable passage through which much oceanic traffic passed. It lay on the direct route between the Maluku islands (the Moluccas), the heart of Indonesian spice growing, and Alexandria, the Egyptian feeder port for Venice, the European distributor. Melaka would become the metropolis of the straits for more than a century, a flourishing maritime state presumably never as populous as Venice, but comparable to London at the time. Like other trading cities in the region, it was largely independent of any bigger territorial authority. Saltwater space formed its true sphere, “the axis of the realm.”

At the peak of its power in the fifteenth century, Melaka made itself master of both sides of the straits and the islands within, but its empire was less a matter of territory than situation, its purpose being to protect trade streams and sources of manpower and foodstuffs.

The cast of characters in Melaka at its peak illustrates the multiethnic, multicultural character of maritime life. Giving it color and pulse were Chinese, Javanese, Tagalogs, Persians, Tamils from South India, Gulf Arabs, Gujerati Indians from the far northwest of the subcontinent, and even a few of the great cosmopolitan traders, Armenians and Jews. In short, people from the whole of the Asian maritime littoral and beyond crowded the streets and bazaars of the city, all intent on doing business.

An early European visitor would call the straits, a place of cultural and commercial convergence, Asia’s “gullet,” and, mindful of its wide-ranging significance in the spice trade, declared “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” the center for distributing spices to consumers throughout Europe. If Venice were the “hinge of Europe,” so Melaka might have been described as the hinge of Eurasia.

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