Posts tagged ‘indentured labour’

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.