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“The Horrors of The Coolie Trade” by New York Journal of Commerce, February 22, 1860

November 26th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

In response to my prior article where I mentioned Napa Valley was destination of the first wave of laborers from China (and later became the driving force behind the Chinese Exclusion Act), reader perspectivehere reminds us there were in fact much more horrifying atrocities against the poor Chinese. perspectivehere digs up a piece of history from February 22, 1860.

We typically think of the Opium Trade as one of the great evils perpetrated by British Empire on China. However, another great evil was the Chinese Coolie Trade, which the British started in 1806 with an “experimental” shipment of 200 Chinese from Macau, Penang, Calcutta and to Trinidad on the vessel Fortitude. (See Walton Look Lai, The Chinese in the West Indies, 1806-1995: A Documentary History.) Over the next century, hundreds of thousands of Chinese were kidnapped, tricked, or enticed to enter into a relationship of indentured servitude, which in many cases ended in death, injury or poverty. Profiting from the trade were coolie traders, agents, shipowners, suppliers and plantation and mineowners who employed the coolies in slavery-like conditions. The sufferings of these laborers is part of the tragic story of Chinese in the nineteenth century, and mistreatment at the hands of British and European traders.

This newspaper article (scanned copy below) from 1860 tells the story of a shipment of 850 captured Chinese coolies, picked up from Macau on the way to Havana, who all died in a shipwreck, after being abandoned by the British crew. The treatment of these poor Chinese is heartrending.

The Horrors of The Coolie Trade by New York Journal of Commerce (February 22, 1860)

  1. perspectivehere
    November 28th, 2012 at 10:10 | #1

    This slide presentation, Hong Kong Economic History” has some interesting facts about the important role the Coolie Trade played to the early British colonial economy in Hong Kong.

    Slide no. 16: “Good Business”
    * 1851 – 1872, around 320,000 coolies were exported from Hong Kong
    * Shipping company made $90,000 for each trip
    * Coolie trader made $160-283 per coolie sale
    * 1851 – 1875, the annual revenue of coolie sale was 3.4 million

    Slide no. 17
    * 1841-1843: British military used Hong Kong as a entry port to supply military resources during the Opium War
    * 1844-1848: After the Nanjing Treaty, Hong Kong trade decreased because merchants could enter freely into the 5 ports in China.
    * 1849-1860: capital accumulated from illegal opium and coolie trade were reinvested in Hong Kong. Hong Kong become the transit trade center (轉口貿義中心)

    The presentation is by Y.C. Chen, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The presentation shows that the main items of trade in the British colony was opium and bonded laborers. In other words, Hong Kong’s early economy was built on the revenue and profits derived from poisoning of and kidnapping/exploitation of mainland Chinese.

    Keep that in mind when people say things like “The British built Hong Kong to be the great city it is today”.

    Note that many articles on British Hong Kong history completely ignore the colony’s key role in the coolie trade, like this Wikipedia article or Lonely Planet history of Hong Kong.

    This ignorant and smug attitude is frequently heard and often expressed in letters like this one to the South China Morning Post:

    It is a fact that Great Britain built HK

    “I’m compelled to respond to Paul Lee’s letter (“Unfair treaty no cause for celebration”, September 2) in response to Stuart Heaver’s excellent article on the Treaty of Nanking (“Big deal”, August 26).

    While it is widely agreed that it was indeed an unfair treaty, nobody can refute that Great Britain built Hong Kong.

    The British built the infrastructure, banking industry, legal environment and political institutions that made Hong Kong the great city that it is, not the early Chinese settlers. That’s why Taipei and Macau, both the recipients of many mainlander refugees, can’t hold a candle to Hong Kong.

    Sorry Mr Lee, read the article again; the author approached no less than five mainland academics and they were too scared to comment.

    That’s not the mark of a society that can accomplish great things.

    The question for Hong Kong people now is: are they going to acknowledge the past and help the mainland build a better society, or are they going to distort the past and acquiesce to mediocrity?

    Graham Williamson, Cheung Sha Wan”

  2. July 2nd, 2015 at 15:09 | #2

    It may be worth noting that as late as Feb 18, 1890, the London Times published an article describing the then current practice – largely unchanged – of coolie abduction and trafficking in an article entitled, The Chinese Coolie Traffic from Hongkong.

    The actual article can be found in the Times archive or at http://www.gsmichaels.blogspot.com/2015/05/don-aldus-man-of-mystery-literary.html.

    According to the clipping, “An incident which has recently occurred at Singapore shows the practices by which Chinese coolies are in effect still kidnapped. A German steamer from Hongkong arrived outside Singapore Harbor and signaled for the police. On the arrival of a force the Captain explained that he had over 200 coolies on board bound for Medan, in Sumatra, and that he was afraid of an outbreak when he passed Singapore. The coolies’ story was that they had been engaged to work at Medan, which was described to them as a British possession and as ‘in Singapore,’ whereas it was a Dutch possession and in Sumatra, and they protested against being taken beyond Singapore. One of the officers of the Chinese protectorate in Singapore went on board and found that the men had been willfully deceived in Hongkong by statements that Medan was in the Straits Settlements…”

    More details about coolie trafficking are disclosed in two, more or less contemporaneous books:

    1) Coolie Traffic and Kidnapping. By Don Aldus. LONDON: McCorquodale & Co., “THE ARMOURY.” 1876. 253 pages. Collection of Oxford University. Digitizing sponsor: Google.

    2) Don Aldus, the Rover. By George D. Donald. Published by McCorquodale. 1886

    A discussion of these texts will also be found at http://www.gsmichaels.blogspot.com/2015/05/don-aldus-man-of-mystery-literary.html.

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