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  • Coolie Ships of the Chinese Diaspora (1846 - 1874)

Coolie Ships of the Chinese Diaspora (1846 - 1874)

John Asome

English , 2020/11 Proverse Hong Kong

Tags: History

210 x 140 mm , 464pp ISBN / ISSN : 978-988-8491-98-8

  • US$50.00

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BETWEEN 1846 AND 1874, OVER 290,000 CHINESE were embarked as indentured labourers destined mainly for Peru, Cuba and the British, French and Dutch West Indies. Of these, 15.13% did not reach their destination. 

The demand for labour was high. Among the poor, penniless and destitute of southern China, the search for remunerated work was also high. When demand outran the initial willing supply, trickery and misrepresentation, even kidnapping, came to be used in obtaining recruits. These were among the  several factors contributing to onboard suicides, attempted insurrections and successful mutinies when captains and some crew were killed or tortured, ships set on fire and sometimes entirely destroyed. There were also occurrences when recruits signed on, intent on piracy, which was occasionally successful.
Authorities in the ports of departure introduced legislation to counter abuses. Receiving countries also introduced legislation related to imported labour.
In this study, John Asome provides data on 732 voyages and commentary on a good number of these. As an expert in the field, Walton Look Lai, says, John Asome  has filled, “an enormous gap in our knowledge of the Chinese coolie trade....He has enabled readers and future scholars to distinguish fact from myth, reality from exaggeration, in the understanding of this vast and complex experience.”
By Walton Look Lai, retired History Lecturer, University of the West Indies, St Augustine,Trinidad & Tobago

        Scholars of the nineteenth century Chinese migrations have justifiably seen the “coolie trade” to Latin America and the Caribbean (1846-1874) as the dark side of the diaspora experience. Organised and operated mainly by Western plantation and shipping interests, its cruelties and contradictions at the embarkation and destination ends have been described and analysed by contemporary official reports as well as by diaspora scholars. From the 1874 Cuban Commission Report compiled by the Chinese delegation of Chen Lanpin and others, to modern studies by Yen Ching Hwang and Arnold Meagher, supplemented over the years by a variety of single country studies, we have learnt all about the mechanics and motivations of this ethnic version of the worldwide indentured labor experiment, as well as about official Chinese state responses to it while it was happening.

A missing ingredient of these studies until now has been the voyages themselves, the story of what actually transpired on these seven hundred plus vessels traversing the long journey from the China coast to the Western Hemisphere. Conventional doctoral research would normally shy away from this task, not only because of the difficulties involved in amassing this vast material, but also because of what many would consider its dubious value in helping us to understand the totality of the trade itself.

Unshackled by these academic inhibitions, John Asome, a retired seaman and Australian economics graduate with his ancestral and family roots in Trinidad-Tobago, England, Hong Kong and Australia, has spent the better part of twenty years going where others dared not go before, and in the process has succeeded in filling an enormous gap in our knowledge of the Chinese coolie trade, the “transportation” dimension to supplement the “recruitment” and “work experience” dimensions of this unique diaspora story. Here, described in great detail, is the story of what actually happened on many of these seven hundred voyages to Cuba, Peru, the British, French and Dutch West Indies over the almost thirty years of its lifespan. In the process of chronicling these voyages, John Asome has enabled readers and future scholars to distinguish fact from myth, reality from exaggeration, in the understanding of this vast and complex experience. The concluding chapter – the Coolie Trade in Review – is an especially valuable summation. Whatever minor inconsistencies may inevitably emerge in this vast assemblage of data, all will be inspired by this brave project, all the more so because it is the result of one man’s single-minded devotion over the years, rather than the work of a collective body.

JOHN ASOME was born in Hong Kong and educated in Hong Kong and Australia. His working life has been spent in the UK and Australia, with many years at sea. His first position—as a Radio Officer for the China Navigation Company—took him throughout East Asia, from China and Japan to Thailand and Indonesia, as well as to Papua New Guinea and Australia. Later, after some years spent in different positions in the UK, he had four years in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service (RFA)—the civilian arm of the Royal Navy—and served on ships based in Malta and Singapore as well as on patrol duties in the West Indies and both East and West Africa. When he retired, John pursued his interest in the Chinese diaspora—stirred first by finding Chinese people in many of the places he visited—and the related topic of the indentured trade to Cuba, Peru and the West Indies. This has taken him to various archival collections in the UK, and to many online encounters. He has communicated with many scholars in the field and been published on the subject in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong.

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