Posts tagged ‘Boers’

Nov 10, 2022

The land of lies: Britain’s Chinese indentured labourers

The land of lies – Winston Churchill (1905)

He was talking about South Africa. The lies were bad enough but the truth was worse.

They were kept like dogs in a kennel; they were treated as very few men treated their beasts, and if you treated a man as a beast, he became a beast.

Greed and racism. A despicable mix of attributes levelled at Britain’s proud empire and its insatiable pursuit of vulnerable areas of the world to exploit for profit. Profit to the capitalist is an addiction that’s never satisfied as we see today with oil and gas companies up to the gunwales in yields undreamed of even by them – but they’ll hold onto them despite the impact on the poorest of the world’s citizens reduced to spending the winter in freezing cold, damp homes – unable to afford to turn on a heater or cooker. It’s a funny old world.  

Simply put profit is the difference between what a business earns through manufacturing, mining or whatever and what is left after its costs, including wages. The less a worker is paid, the greater the profit. Slavery was the ultimate turn-on for business owners; no pay just basic upkeep of labourers yielded immense profits. Look around Britain at those country estates with their ginormous homes paid for by obscene profits made off the backs of slaves – or indentured labour and workers of every description.

Indentured labour – a person is forced into servitude for a specified time for tiny wages. Sometimes this involved being shipped to a different continent, to one of the British colonies. And sometimes the colonies came to Britain, in a sense. And sometimes we’re not talking about centuries ago, but the last century.

In southern Africa rivalry over control of land intensified between the British and Boers with the discovery of diamond deposits in 1868. In 1877 Britain annexed the Transvaal further antagonising the Boers resulting in their declaration of independence from Britain. On the outbreak of war the Boers defeated Britain, nevertheless, the peace settlement accommodated British sovereignty over parts of the Transvaal.

Matters might have rested there but in 1886 gold was discovered. A lot of it. And that ignited British greed. Already brittle relations between the UK and the Boers worsened over fears of a total British takeover and loss of Boer independence. The racist imperialist, Cecil Rhodes organised an armed raid, the Jameson Raid, to claim back the Transvaal with its immense gold wealth for Britain. This smash and grab attempt failed but so desperate were both sides to benefit from the region’s immense underground wealth a second war broke out between Boers and the UK during which Britain established the world’s first concentration camps, to contain their enemy, the Boers, and this time Britain came out on top.

War depleted the large numbers of native workers available or willing to go into the goldmines. This was dangerous, hazardous work excavating, blasting, drilling and extracting the ore. It was mostly unskilled labour that was needed but it was physically exhausting and the accident rate extremely high, deaths ran to thousands through accidents and sickness. Blasting, drilling and cave-ins resulted in crushed bodies and severed limbs, noxious dust led to slower death from lung disease. And because profit was always the motivating factor there was no compensation paid to victims. Survivors who couldn’t work were dismissed.

Alfred Milner, Lord Milner, a Liberal, was High Commissioner for Southern Africa at the turn of the century. In 1903 he and the Chamber of Mines were behind turning to China’s population to supply work gangs for the mines. Trafficking of ‘Chinese coolies’ was looked on as any other trade arrangement.  

Winston Churchill, then a Liberal MP, would say of Milner –

 “Having been for many years, or at least for many months, the arbiter of the fortunes of men who are ‘rich beyond the dreams of avarice’, he is today poor, and honourably poor.”

Milner had created a midden. Took decisions that caused deaths. Then simply vanished into whatever paradise awaits peers of the realm once their active years destroying lives is over.

Lives are not wrecked by UK peers alone. South Africa’s religious organisations were right behind this devilish commerce and viewed the Chinese, like South Africa’s native population, as barely human and certainly not civilized making their exploitation all the easier to stomach among whites attending church. The Bishop of Pretoria and other religious leaders stood firmly behind the ‘white working man’ and saw the importation of Chinamen as –

“…a great opportunity for Christianising effort.”

In March 1904, the British parliament debated this controversial policy. The quality of speeches might be summed up by these examples –

“Members who talk about shutting out white labour might turn their attention to the injury done to white labour in this country by the dumping down of 80,000 foreign aliens, the riff-raff of Europe” …[who take] “the bread out of the mouths of our struggling working men.”

I am reminded of Keir Starmer’s comments that the UK is recruiting too many foreigners to work in the NHS. (6 November 2002)

While some MPs likened the indentured Chinese workers to slaves thereby risking “Britain’s reputation as the mother of the free” others disagreed, insisting they were having ‘the time of their lives”.

“The life of a Chinese indentured labourer will be a paradise to what some of our fellow-citizens go through.”

Strange conception of paradise. In the real world the Chinese in the Transvaal were largely confined to their camps when not underground in the mines. The mainly very young men grew bored and increasingly frustrated by so many restrictions on top of the dangers inherent in their work. Diseases were rife and often fatal. The food was poor. It was a miserable existence with little hope of a way out before the end of their three-year contract. Many resorted to opium to relieve stress of their hazardous occupation and the tedium of their contracted existence. Where did the opium come from in such tightly controlled conditions? The whites supplied it. Opium was used as a device to control the Chinese. It was sold to them at sky high prices, leading to debt, borrowing to pay off debts or theft from fellow-workers or breaking out of camp to rob members of nearby communities. Lurid newspaper stories created fear of a Chinese menace threatening law-abiding white farmers and communities. A law was passed that allowed whites to arrest any Chinese person found outside their compound – a £1 plus expenses was paid for every Chinaman detained. Not all of them lived long enough to be arrested, with whites shooting dead any suspected of theft.

In the House of Commons in November 1906, Donald Smeaton, MP for Stirlingshire, stated –

“two pounds of opium allowed to each Chinese coolie under the recent Transvaal Ordinance is enormously in excess of the maximum consumption and leaves a large surplus in the possession of each coolie…”

Churchill contradicted him –

“I would point out that it is not correct to say that two pounds of opium are allowed to each Chinese coolie under the recent Ordinance …coolie not allowed any opium …unless he can obtain a permit signed by an Inspector of the Foreign Labour Department …”

Smeaton asked if the government was aware of the harmful impact of opium at which point the Speaker shouted him down –

“Order! Order! The honourable member is making a speech.”

Straight out of Alice and the rabbit hole. Speakers don’t change their spots.

Officially, opium smoking by the Chinese in the Transvaal was condemned and was certainly punishable by flogging – between five and fifty lashes, according to Aberdeen People’s Journal. A man found guilty got his ‘gruel’ or ‘licking’ after being stripped, held face down and soundly whipped. Then he was literally booted out the door. Not everyone was flogged. A man might be confined in jail, handcuffed to a wooden beam and forced to squat for up to eight hours.  But flogging was commonplace in the goldmine camps to impress upon the Chinese workers who was ‘top dog’. This was humane British justice in practice. A motion in the House of Commons in 1906 condemned Milner for failing to outlaw corporal punishment for minor offences in the compounds.

Over 60,000 Chinese youths and men were shipped into South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century – one of the practical exigencies of the British Empire was its ability to raise labour gangs and move them to wherever industries were short of workers. China with its large and mainly impoverished submissive people was attractive to industries within the empire. British society’s ingrained racism a useful adjunct to the Empire’s insatiable demand for cheap labour. And so their agents in China scoured the countryside for workers, or ‘coolies’ as they referred to them. ‘Coolies’ were not regarded as quite civilized so could be confined within camps, like dogs, as was pointed out at the time.  That one of the compounds was formerly used by the British as a concentration camp during the Second Boer War was further testament to the British disregard for life and a signal of the brutal nature of the indentured system.  

British and American companies with strong trading links to China enabled this official twentieth century people trafficking – simply another column in their registers of interests along with opium, tea, silk, cotton etc. Scottish companies such as Jardine Matheson & Co. and Gibb, Livingstone & Co. in conjunction with American William Forbes & Co. whose name alludes to the Scottish roots of its founder and the English Butterfield and Swire swung into action to supply the goldmines of South Africa with thousands of young workhands.

Controversial from the start, opposition to the policy grew and for as many arguing the men were volunteers there were others who documented the less than voluntary recruitment of them in China and the appalling working and living conditions that confronted them in South Africa.

In March 1904 Lord Coleridge said –

“The idea of importing Chinese, under conditions of servitude seems first to have occurred to the mind of Mr Rhodes, who desired to introduce them into Rhodesia…”

Mr Rhodes being, of course, Cecil Rhodes, once a great British hero, now seen for the wicked racist imperialist he was. For the likes of Rhodes and Milner, the ‘not quite civilized non-whites’ were appealing because of their cheapness to hire and the ease by which they could be manipulated and exploited, unlike white workers used to organising themselves to protect wages and working conditions.  As Milner said in a speech to the White League –

“We do not want a white proletariat.”

Henry Forster, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks in Kent said in the Commons on 22 February 1906 –

“Gentlemen opposite were wrong in asserting with so much confidence that the conditions were tantamount to slavery. Business men, working men engaged in the mines, trade union officials, ministers of religion, the members of the British Association visiting South Africa last autumn, and even some supporters of the present Government themselves who had been out there, all said there was no element of slavery in the conditions under which the Chinamen worked, and that the arrangements were healthy, humane, and admirable in every way.”

He was objecting to descriptions of this kind from the President of the Board of Trade, David Lloyd George (Liberal)  

“They were kept like dogs in a kennel; they were treated as very few men treated their beasts, and if you treated a man as a beast, he became a beast.

Those who argued that treatment of the indentured Chinese was remotely like slavery pointed to a clause in their contracts that said any man could return to China for a payment of £17. 10 shillings, the equivalent of £1500 today. As the average wage paid was about 35 shillings per month out of which they had to pay for their keep and the many fines imposed on them by mine management – e.g. in July 1905 fines among the  Chinese amounted to £2,000 (today’s £157,000) and in October were the equivalent of £400,000. Churchill (Undersecretary for the Colonies) said he calculated ‘a coolie could save by the most rigid self-denial …20 shillings a month” meaning it would take a labourer eighteen months to earn his passage home, barring accidents, illness or whatever.

Transvaal’s white proletariat added to the growing condemnation of the policy. At the same time resistance from the Chinese (and Indians) in the Transvaal over their employment conditions led to the system of indentured labour being abandoned by 1910.   

For far too many Brexit has lent legitimacy to British society’s inherent racist attitudes. It is abhorrent. Vilifying foreign people is abhorrent but both the Tories and Labour have leapt onto this vile bandwagon – and that of Johnson’s repugnant opinions of British exceptionalism – the best in the world. Windrush? In the past. Send them home has been the slogan coming out of Westminster for several years. Soon it will be – get foreigners in to do the work we don’t want to do. But don’t let them stay here. 1904 or 2022 nothing much has changed.

Sep 20, 2022

Africa has been the footstool of colonialism and imperialism, exploitation and degradation – one small incident in a land far away

Bechuanaland (Botswana) in Southern Africa once was a British protectorate. That means that for intents and purposes not much happened in Bechuanaland without permission of government in London. This was during the period of the British Empire, of which many in the UK are so very proud, when the continent of Africa was divied up between the more powerful European powers to be plundered, and Bechuanaland was brought to the notice of that rapacious old coloniser, Cecil Rhodes, for its potential as an economic link north and south, the fact it was not already coloured pink on world atlases as a British possession but most importantly, Rhodes believed it contained gold and diamonds. So, Botswana – renamed Bechuanaland by the British because of their laziness (and indifference) over mastering the pronunciation of the name of its native people, the Tswana, was made a British protectorate in September 1885.

Before the country had the union jack run up on its flagpoles British influence was at work. Education, that great moulder of character and opinion was making an impact. In Bechuanaland as in so many other places across the Empire, schools were set up by missionaries and many of them were started and run by Scots teaching Church of Scotland values. John Mackenzie from Knockando in Moray was an early missionary in southern Africa, from the 1830s, and while in Tswana territories he encouraged the British government to adopt the region as a protectorate in order to defend its people from racist Boers settling there. Mackenzie was made a Deputy Commissioner by the British government and he was replaced by Rhodes.

Students at Lovedale in 1892

At Lovedale in Cape Province, Tshekedi Khama attended the Missionary Institute secondary school that had been educating children of all creeds and including rescued slaves from its inception in 1841. A Church of Scotland missionary school, it was a non-sectarian and non-racial and open to all boys, including rescued slaves. This open policy continued until 1955 when South Africa’s apartheid system kicked in. A girls’ school followed much later, in 1868.

Scottish doctor and missionary, David Livingstone, lived and worked in southern African from the 1840s until his death in 1873, along with his family. He became a close friend of Shehele, an ancestor of Tshekedi, and when a memorial was planned to Livingstone in his home town of Blantyre, the Banangwato people in Bechuanaland were invited to contribute towards it. They gladly obliged and sent £150 that was used to create an illuminated tableaux, called the Last Journey, The Last Journey depicts Livingstone’s corpse being carried by native Africans to the east coast, a distance of 1500 miles, from where his body was shipped home to Scotland.

Bechuanaland was one of several African regions where horses were bred and when Tshekedi and a group of his fellow countrymen visited the Blantyre museum they asked to see the cavalry horses at Redford Barracks. For whatever reason they weren’t given access to the Barracks but instead were taken to Edinburgh’s Corporation Cleansing Departments stable of Clydesdales. The visitors were much taken by these large, docile animals – far larger than the horses bred in their own country – and spent a long time with them, stroking them and whispering into their ears, to the consternation of their British hosts.

Back in Livingstone’s day in Bechuanaland, mistreatment of native people by European settlers was rife. Livingstone detested this behaviour and that of the Boers in particular for they were infamous for outrageous acts of oppression and cruelty perpetrated upon peaceful villagers and he warned that people were arming to defend themselves from such assaults. Gun traders were everywhere so weapons were relatively easy to get hold of. Livingstone observed that attempts at halting the purchase of weapons was a failure.

…might as well have bolted the castle gate with a boiled carrot.

Boer leaders resented Livingstone and threatened to have him kicked out of their region. Livingstone explained in a letter to his brother, Charles, in 1849 –

The Boers or Dutch emigrants oppress these tribes and treat them almost as slaves. They would have contrived to do so to Sechele (his friend) too, but I succeeded in freeing the Bakwains (Bakens.) A considerable number of guns were purchased, and as this is the source of power of the Boers over the other tribes they began to be afraid that the other tribes would follow his example.

In 1850, Livingstone wrote to his father-in-law, Robert Moffat –

Can you get the bullet mould (perhaps 2, & ramrods to fit) of 8 to lb. or rather fit 8 to the pound bore but conical, from Birmingham? Those which have an indentation behind fire much further, the dotted line marking the indentation. Sechele is very anxious to get the seven-barrelled gun. You seem to have forgotten it.

   He was helping arm his friends among the Batswana.

*

By the 1930s Botswana’s younger people had become frustrated with Britain’s grip on the country, with all that entailed with racist views of superior and inferior races and, consequently, lack of respect for native rights.

Tshekedi was already in power, having been made regent of the Bamangwato in 1926 following the death of his brother, Sekgoma II, whose son was too young to become chief. Twenty-one-year-old Tshekedi set about consolidating his authority as leader. Alarmed by this, the British commissioner in the area, Sir Charles Rey, attempted to rein him in. When in 1933 two white men were taken before the native court accused of assaulting (raping) native girls, Tshekedi sentenced them to be flogged in public, as any native perpetrator would be. Rey was outraged by a black man overstepping himself and judging a white person.

Top – Vice-Admiral Evans arrives to conduct the inquiry into the actions of Regent Chief Tshekedi, accompanied by a hundred marines and another hundred seamen from Cape Province.
Bottom left -The inquiry. Evans announces the suspension of Acting Chief Tshekedi of the Bamangwato, he’s the small man on the right of the group of Africans facing the whites.
Middle bottom – Phineas McIntosh, left with pipe, and McNamee, right.
Bottom right – Tshekedi a year or two earlier
 
 

The British government reacted with a show of strength. A Vice-Admiral Edward Evans was sent in to investigate the incident. He arrived with 200 royal Marines and seamen brought in from Cape Town along with howitzers to make it crystal clear to the natives that their laws were one thing but Britain was in charge and no native chief had a right to judge any white person.

Buglers bugled as representatives of the British Crown and government assembled under a fig tree. Before them, unshaded from the sun, stood 15,000 native men and women, to witness legitimate justice. Under Britain’s superior justice Tshekedi was not permitted to have anyone speak in his defence. He was found guilty of overstepping his power by not providing the white men accused of assaulting native girls, McIntosh and MaNamee, a choice over which type of court judged them. Tshekedi was stripped of his powers and banished from Francistown by the Acting High Commissioner, Vice-Admiral Evans. During the proceedings several white women in the crowd shouted, “Stop this” and they and other whites rushed to shake Tshekedi’s hand. Tshekedi’s removal proved fairly short-lived. Evans had him reinstated following a public outcry.

The British press were predictably racist – ridiculing Batmangwato’s ‘comic opera’ army. A sneering W. J . Makin of The Sphere (23 September, 1933) wrote –

500 members dressed in cast-off uniforms of Drury Lane and other musical comedy shows of London …Some even wear kilts, with dirty white spats over their black feet.

More serious journalists, especially among the South African press, ridiculed Britain’s high-handed actions of sending in marines and howitzers, calling it –

…a mere melodramatic gesture as useless as it must have been expensive.

Around this time the British government was getting jittery over the rise of nationalism in South Africa. That a black leader took it upon himself to flog a white man was unacceptable to many in Britain. Tshekedi was a symbol of the growing confidence of black Africans and so he had to be put in his place. He argued that both of the white men were notorious for their brutal behaviour and they had lived among the Batswana for some time and this was the reason he thought it appropriate to deal with them as he would any native guilty of a similar crime. One of the men, Phineas McIntosh had, in fact, accepted his punishment but Commissioner Charles Rey was determined to drive home the message of Britain’s supremacy over him and his people. Britian’s play of strength was considered far more important than the rape of native girls and punishment of the perpetrators. The British moved the convicted men, McIntosh and McNamee, to Lohatsi to the dismay of its resident white people who petitioned to have them removed, over fears for their daughters’ safety.

The Batmangwato army

The flogging episode and its aftermath highlighted the tensions that existed between native autonomy and British control. Tshekedi was never antithetical to the British, his own father having accepted ‘British protection’ in the late 19th century under threat from the Boers but those times had gone. His son Tshekedi having had a western education became the acceptable face of a native chief and trusted by many whites but he was no British lackey. Tshekedi was proud of his people and his country. He was a nationalist who well understood the injustices at the heart of colonialism – the leash that could and would be tightened as a reminder of where power really lay. He recognised that the protection offered to his father in the nineteenth century came as a double-edged sword – protection on the one hand and threat on the other. Westminster passed the Foreign Jurisdiction Act in 1890 that legalised the British monarch’s supremacy over native laws, rights and obligations. The British Crown’s agent was, of course, the British government. In other words, the British Crown was superior to any native power in its Empire and could countermand any court decisions. And given that the area fell under total control of Westminster, it could decide its future – whether that meant retaining Batswana chiefs or handing their country over to the British South Arican Company – and always racism was at its core.

Clearly when the protected territory is inhabited by native tribes the amount of internal sovereignty assumed by the protector is much greater than in cases where the protected State has a civilised government.

(Justice Watermeyer. A Boer judge and supporter of British imperial control in southern Africa).

So, Tshekedi was reinstated because of a backlash but his movements were restricted and he had to accept he would not act in any cases against whites. The autocratic Rey was replaced as Resident Commissioner in 1937 but his career was not harmed. Tshekedi’s Rengentship ended when the nephew he was acting for, Seretse Khama, became chief in 1949. That’s another story involving racism that resulted in both Seretse Khama and Tshekedi being exiled by the British in 1950, and subsequently banned from participating in politics.  

A correspondent to the Perthshire Advertiser in April 1952 complained about the harsh treatment meted out to Seretse and Tshekedi by the British government as a

… blot on our British sense of justice and fair play.

In 1952 Tshekedi was allowed to return to Bechuanaland as a private citizen and he helped organise the return of Seretse. The pair plus a third man eventually brought about Bechuanaland’s independence, as Botswana on 30 September, 1966. Tshekedi was dead by then. He died in London in 1959, following treatment there for kidney failure. He was 54 years old.

The title of this blog is a quote from Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana, 1960,