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Chpater 2.5
The coolie trade
Contributor: Ting Sun-Pao, Joseph

The living conditions of peasants deteriorated after the Opium War. Rebellions became frequent in the southern provinces of China. Faced with unsettled conditions and increasing poverty, the young generation of Chinese in Guangdong and Fujian were forced to look for opportunities abroad. Thus, when gold was discovered in California (referred to as Golden Mountain or Old Golden Mountain (舊金山) by the Chinese) in 1849 and subsequently in Australia (referred to as New Golden Mountain) in 1851, a wave of emigrants from Guangdong and Fujian left to work in the gold fields. According to the statistics, a total of 14,683 Chinese emigrants were shipped from Hong Kong in 1855, and 15,810 in 1858.[27] E. J. Eitel claimed that a total of 30,000 Chinese labourers were shipped to California in 1852.[28] In the 1860s, the total number of Chinese labourers in California rose to 151,000, the majority of them being Cantonese.[29] According to another set of statistics, a total of 23,928 Chinese labourers were shipped to Cuba from Hong Kong between 1848 and 1857.[30] Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese also emigrated to South-East Asia, Central America and South America in the 1850s due to great demands for workers for rubber, tin, cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and coffee plantations. From 1851 to 1872, the total number of coolie labourers shipped to the Americas, Australia and South-East Asia from Hong Kong amounted to 320,349.[31] Hong Kong was thus the port from which most South China emigrants embarked for foreign countries.

The Chinese emigrant workers could be divided into two categories, namely free emigrants and contract coolie labourers. The latter constituted the majority and had to bear all kinds of hardships. They were kept in closed barracoons prior to departure, and were shipped to various destinations under inhumane conditions. Many of the ships were overloaded, and the mortality rate was high. The ill-treatment of Chinese emigrants generated concerns in Hong Kong and Britain. Thus an Emigration Officer was created in 1854 to deal with the matter, and ordinances were passed by the colonial government from 1855 onwards with a view to regulating the coolie trade and improving the conditions of labourers on board ship. Many local and foreign firms, including two major British firms, Jardine Matheson & Co. and Dent & Co., were involved in this infamous yet profitable trade. The expenses required for an agent to ship a coolie labourer to Peru or the West Indies were on average $117 to $190 silver dollars, but the owner of the plantations would pay $350 to $400 for each labourer. The profit from the shipment of each labourer was therefore around $200.[32] According to the research findings of a leading Chinese scholar on this subject, between 1851 and 1875, a private firm engaged in coolie trade would make a total profit of $84,000,000, averaging $3.3 million each year.[33] As Hong Kong benefited from the coolie trade, there was on average an annual increase of 487 vessels totalling 251,350 tons between 1854 and 1859, representing an average increase of 68%.[34] Migration continued to grow in the subsequent decades, and continued to be a major factor in the growth of shipping in Hong Kong.


  • [27]
    Endacott, An Eastern Entrepot, p. 132.
  • [28]
    E. J. Eitel, Europe in China (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 259.
  • [29]
  • [30]
  • [31]
    Ibid., p. 237.
  • [32]
  • [33]
  • [34]
    E .J. Eitel, Europe in China (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 345.
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