Mr. Williams to Mr. Seward
Sir: I have the honor to transmit to you a despatch from Prince Kung, (enclosure A,) covering a copy of a set of regulations, (enclosure B,) which have been agreed upon between him and the representatives of Great Britain and France to prescribe the mode of hiring Chinese laborers to go abroad. The English and French versions are both enclosed. In my reply (enclosure C) I have mentioned the law of February 19, 1862, which I am almost sure is the only ordinance on this subject in the statute book of any nation, as the reason for not notifying them to our countrymen. I may also add that before they appeared, Baron Rehfues, the Prussian minister to China, had refused to allow Prussian vessels to carry coolies pending a reference to Berlin.
The history of the coolie traffic since 1849, when the Peruvians came to Canton to get laborers to dig guano on the Chinchas islands, is a sad result of the foreign intercourse which has been forced upon China and its people. In carrying it on, the most flagitious acts have been committed by the natives upon each other, under the stimulus of rewards offered by foreigners to bring them coolies, while the character of all foreigners has been covered with infamy [Page 496] among the inhabitants of Canton province, especially in the rural districts. The cruel treatment suffered by many of these deceived people in the barracoons to force them to sign contracts and embark, is too well authenticated to be doubted; and especially has this evidence deepened the opprobrium which has fastened upon Macao as the place where the worst deeds were done. In 1859 the terror of kidnappers was so great among the natives in that city and neighborhood that they durst not venture abroad by night; and I printed a small tract for circulation in that region, warning the people of the wiles practiced to entrap them “like pigs in a basket.” Out of the cargoes which have left Macao during the last fifteen years, consisting mostly of men between the ages of eighteen and thirty years, only a few scores have returned.
The records of this legation contain so many statements going to prove these remarks, that I need not enlarge. Since 1861 less has been written to the department, partly because our flag has not been used, and partly because the trade itself dwindled to a few ships carrying the coolies to Peru, Trinidad, and Cuba during the civil war in the United States. It has revived within the last fifteen months, especially to Cuba. In the year 1859 emigration offices were established by the provincial authorities in Kwang-tung province, to protect the lives and rights of their people emigrating as laborers; but a large majority of the coolies have gone from Macao, where the delay, expense, and surveillance which attended their engagement in the emigration offices were greatly diminished or avoided, so that the laudable efforts of Chinese rulers were, in a great measure, neutralized. All those taken to English colonies (chiefly to Trinidad) have, I believe, been engaged in the emigration offices; but the enterprise of thus supplying labor there is said not to pay, though the emigrants and their families are reported to be satisfied with their lot.
The failure to effect the exchange of the ratifications of the treaty with Portugal in 1864, has apparently led the Macao authorities to put the settlement in a state of defence; but the Chinese have no wish to provoke hostilities. However, being unable to exercise any supervision over the emigration thence, they disallow it altogether in these regulations, and I hope their people will soon learn that it is illegal, and that ere long the supply will be altogether cut off. No coolies have been shipped from Hong Kong for several years; indeed, it is well understood in all that region that emigrants go from Hong Kong and coolies from Macao.
I am somewhat skeptical how far these regulations will prevent the evils now complained of, until a year or so of trial has proven whether the energy of those who make gain by the traffic will not overcome the remedial measures now to go into immediate operation. Even the most disinterested officials cannot at once remove the ignorance which is imposed upon by specious tales, or the poverty which is tempted by the bounty offered; and, after all, these two facts, poverty and ignorance, underlie the whole business, and are worked upon by crafty agents to fill their own pockets. Yet I think it altogether probable that the largest proportion of the coolies go willingly, though stupidly ignorant where they are going and what they are to do.
My expectation is, however, that though other flags can be obtained to carry on the trade from Macao, the Portuguese authorities will not persistently set themselves against these reasonable rules to protect every emigrant leaving his native land as a hired laborer.
I am indebted to the British minister for a copy of his despatch accompanying the regulations, (enclosure D,) which he furnished me at my request. Its perusal will repay you, especially the remarks on the appointment of consuls from China to countries with which she has treaties. Such a functionary would do much to reconcile the laborer to his new condition by sending letters and funds home, interpreting for and counselling him in cases of accusation for crime, aiding him to return to his friends, &c. It seems to me to be quite plain [Page 497] that the Chinese government has a reciprocal right to appoint consuls upon this point, as it is not unlikely to come up after the return of Pin-tajin. Almost all the treaties stipulate for the reception of ministers from the Emperor of China, but none of them specially mention consuls; yet the lesser privilege is doubtless involved in the greater.
I regard these regulations as an index of progress. They show some solicitude for the welfare of subjects who have gone abroad, and form the first recognition from the Emperor that his people emigrating to other lands are not expatriated or forgotten. If carried out honestly, the obloquy heretofore attendant upon the trade, and the bad reputation of the foreign name, will both soon cease.
If Congress sees proper to repeat the law of 1862, laborers could be taken to California, where railroads and other public works will demand thousands on hands to complete them; though if high wages and good treatment were offered, as many free emigrants might go as were needed.
I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.
P. S.—Information has just reached this place of the destruction of an Italian vessel, the Napoleon Canevaro, bound for Havana from Macao. It is reported by a part of the crew, who were picked up not far from Hong Kong, that symptoms of insubordination appearing among the coolies, the captain drove them below and battened down the hatches. Flames soon appeared, which the crew vainly endeavored to extinguish, and they soon left in their boats, without even opening the hatches.
In January the British ship Price of the Ganges, bound to Guiana, with between three hundred and four hundred emigrants, was captured by them. They threw the captain and purser overboard, and compelled the mate to land them on Hainan island, after which he brought the vessel back to port.
In February the French ship Hong Kong, bound for Havana with over three hundred coolies, was captured by about a score of them, who had armed themselves at Whampoa. These, aided by the rest, possessed themselves of what little treasure was on board, and nearly all escaped to the land, where they were in turn plundered by the fishermen.
These things show the necessity of the regulations which have now been adopted to prevent, if possible, wrongs and violence by both those who go as laborers, and those who hire them.
S. W. W.