Coolie Ships of the Chinese Diaspora (1846-1874) by John Asome, Proverse Hong Kong During his career as a shipboard radio operator, Hong Kong-born John Asome discovered Chinese communities in port cities worldwide, which inspired an interest in the Chinese diaspora. Twenty years of retirement spent poring over the copperplate of 19th century British Colonial Office records, ship’s logs, and trading-house archives has produced Coolie Ships of the Chinese Diaspora (1846-1874) – part catalogue of vessels transporting Chinese labourers, and part mix of Two Years Before the Mast and Mutiny on the Bounty . Comprehensive information on ship technicalities is considerably enlivened by tragic accounts of kidnapping, torture, flogging, beheading, piracy and shipwreck. During nearly 30 years, a total of 732 voyages carried 291,484 indentured labourers from Chinese ports mainly to Cuba, Peru and the West Indies. But an average of more than 15 per cent of this human cargo failed to arrive alive. Causes included brutal treatment, inadequate or poor-quality supplies, disease brought on board or as the result of crowded and insanitary conditions, as well as opium deprivation, suicide and fighting. These coolies were the 19th century equivalents of the 39 Vietnamese found dead in the back of a truck in Britain last year, seeking to escape poverty at home. But there were also those coerced or kidnapped, or planning to commit piracy. About one in 10 voyages suffered what were called mutinies, but were more commonly passenger rebellions against ill-treatment, fighting between groups whose hatreds predated their embarkation, plots hatched while at sea to acquire riches imagined to be on board, or preconceived plans by groups of conspirators with sufficient nautical experience to take command of the ship. Rebels frequently set their vessels on fire with disastrous results, such as those on board the Dutch vessel Banca in 1856: “The magazine blew up with a tremendous explosion. The ship was hurled into fragments, and a vast number of poor creatures, who had climbed on to the two chains, perished with her.” Only 150 of 400 passengers and crew survived. Demand for cheap Chinese labour was driven by the demise of the African slave trade and the active role of the Royal Navy in its suppression. The British were sensitive to accusations that conditions on board coolie-carrying vessels were little different from those on slavers, and so the Chinese Passengers’ Act of 1855 set minimum standards for space – maximum one labourer for every two tons capacity – quality and quantity of provisions, ventilation, sanitary conditions and medical supplies, and even prescribed a certain amount of opium for the relief of addicts. How do you tell the story of China? Chinese subcontractors to foreign labour brokers often earned their bounties through lies, threats and torture, deceiving or forcing their fellow citizens into heading overseas to an uncertain future. Even willing emigrants frequently found themselves deposited in a destination other than the one they had chosen, and forced to work in conditions other than those promised. After the passage of the act, British coolie carriers departing from Chinese ports were required to submit themselves and their cargoes to inspection and interrogation in Hong Kong before setting sail across the Pacific. Passengers were required clearly to indicate their desire to emigrate, and that they had neither been kidnapped nor otherwise coerced. The British forced the Qing emperors to legalise emigration as part of the Convention of Peace and Friendship (Peking) that ended the second opium war in 1860. But even before imperial sanction was obtained some officials in Canton had accepted that emigration would help relieve poverty in their overpopulated province, and acted in concert with the occupying foreign powers to suppress kidnapping and enforce relatively humane conditions. Emigration still remained risky, and return was rare.