Background to Chinese Immigration in nineteenth century British Guiana
By Tota C. Mangar
March 11, 2004
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The entry of Chinese indentured labourers in Latin America and the Caribbean in the nineteenth century was only one segment of a wider movement of people from other parts of the world. Chinese immigration initially involved countries of South East Asia but as the years progressed new destinations such as Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands of Hawaii, Tahiti and Western Samoa; Mauritius, Reunion, the Seychelles and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean and South Africa emerged. Movement into the New World covered North America, parts of Spanish America (mainly Cuba, Peru and Mexico); Portuguese Brazil and the French, Dutch and British Caribbean.
Interest in Chinese immigration to the British West Indian colonies dates back to June, 1811 when a Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to consider "the practicability and expediency" of supplying "a class of free people so distinguished by their orderly and industrious habits." While it favoured such a scheme in the aftermath of the abolition of the slave trade no serious action was really taken until after emancipation and the termination of the apprenticeship system.
Renewed problems of labour supply organisation emerged in the immediate post-emancipation era of 'crisis, change and experimentation.' Planters fear, uncertainty and uneasiness during this critical period were hastened by the large-scale exodus of ex slaves from the sugar plantations especially after 1838 in so far as the larger territories of the British Caribbean were concerned. This situation was not surprising as several decades of the despicable system of slavery had resulted in the plantation being viewed by the victims as the symbol of dehumanisation, degradation and demoralisation. They quite naturally wanted to rid themselves of planter class social, cultural and political domination and at the same time they wanted to assert their economic dependence. With great enthusiasm and in the face of tremendous odds they started the village movement and peasantry.
Immigrant labour was quickly seen as the answer to the much feared labour problem of the powerful plantocracy and the sugar industry in general. It was this development which was responsible for the several immigration schemes which surfaced including that of Chinese immigration.
Interest in Chinese immigration was revived in May, 1843 when a British Guianese proprietor visited several British possessions including Singapore, Malacca and Penang. He was so impressed by the Chinese that he wrote the West India Committee the following: "During the heat of the day I have seen them cutting canes, digging canals, carrying canes… The men were strong and powerful and are accustomed to toil, industrious and eager to acquire money,"
While the West India Committee was favourably disposed to such a scheme progress in the direction of Chinese immigration was extremely slow. For one the East Indian immigration scheme which started in 1838 was suspended due to problems, associated with the 'Gladstone Experiment' and the first batch and the vigilance of the Anti-Slavery Society. Following the Government of India Act in 1844 and a resumption of East Indian immigration, the colony was gripped with controversy surrounding the Civil List.
With the restoration of some level of normalcy by 1850 the Emigration Agent of British Guiana at Calcutta, Mr James T. White went on a mission to China. He visited Hong Kong, Canton and Macao and by the following year he strongly recommended the use of Chinese immigrants in the British West Indies. It was against this background that the first batch of Chinese arrived on the 12 January 1853 in the colony of British Guiana to be quickly followed by two other batches. The period 1859-1867 was the peak in terms of Chinese immigration. A total of 11,985 immigrants were introduced in the colony during that eight-year period and clearly they formed the bulk of all Chinese immigrants. Based on the available statistical data between the period 1853-1879 the then British Guiana was the recipient of 14,002 contract immigrants. A further 1,718 came as free immigrants during the 1880-1913 period thereby resulting in a total of 15,720 Chinese to have landed in British Guiana. This figure comprised of 13,485 males and 2,235 females. At any rate this figure represents the highest number of Chinese immigrants in any British West Indian colony.