Churchill and the ‘Chinese Slavery’ Issue in South Africa (1905)

 The New Punch Library volume 1, page 44, published in London in 1932. The Rand mine-owners’ employment of Chinese Labour caused much controversy and had a good deal to do with the Liberal victory in the 1905 elections.

Author’s Note: Some years ago, I wrote a published article about Hakka Chinese martial arts as commonly viewed through the filter of traditional Hakka Chinese cultural viewpoints (which often differ from established and objective academic views). I was contacted not long after by a young man living in South Africa whose Hakka Chinese martial arts master liked what I had written, and confirmed his family held similar traditional viewpoints. What I did not known then, was just how many Chinese men had arrived in South Africa and just how long the Chinese people had been living in that country. Below is an extract from a biography of Winston Churchill and records that conditions were so bad in the British-owned Rand Gold Mines, that even Churchill had trouble justifying its existence. It was the British Conservative Party which had instigated this virtual Chinese slavery in early 1904. ACW (1.7.2019)

The second issue, that of the employment of indentured Chinese labour in the Rand mines, authorized by the Conservative government in early 1904, became politically even more dominant because of its exploitation by more Liberal candidates (although not by Churchill) as a general election issue second only to Free Trade. This was compounded by battered Conservative counter-exploitation of the difficulties of the Liberal government in bringing to a quick end the system against which Liberal candidates had so loudly fulminated.  

The Chinese labourers were not formally in a condition of slavery, in spite of a free Liberal electioneering use of the word. Indeed Churchill, in response to a Conservative amendment to the Address on 22 February, invented one of his most famous early phases by saying that, while there were many objections to the conditions under which the Chinese worked in South Africa, ‘it cannot in the opinion of His Majesty’s government be classified as slavery in the extreme acceptance of the word without some risk of terminological in exactitude’. Nonetheless the conditions under which, by the time of the change of government, 47,619 Chinese (nearly a third of the total mining workforce) had been brought to the Transvaal were, even bearing in mind the contemporary conditions in British coal mines or Lancashire cotton mills, distinctly shocking. They were required to work ten hours a day for six days a week. There was at first no minimum wage, then one of two shillings a day (not, pace Lloyd George, one shilling). They lived in compounds around the mines which they were forbidden to leave without rarely given forty-eight-hour passes. They were not allowed to engage in business, own any property, or seek access to any court of law. They were liable to special punishment for fourteen specified offences. And in practice although not in strict theory it was made impossible for them to be accompanied by their families. What differentiated the system from slavery was that they were not bought or sold, and that they could return to China provided they could raise £17 (the equivalent of thirty weeks’ wages) for the return passage. 

Roy Jenkins: Churchill, MacMillan, (2001), Pages 111-112 

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