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Trouble on the Rand: The Chinese Question in South Africa and the Apogee of White Settlerism

  • Mae M. Ngai


The importation of more than 60,000 Chinese laborers to work in the Witwatersrand gold mines in South Africa between 1904 and 1910 remains an obscure episode in the history of Asian indentured labor in European colonies. Yet the experience of the coolies on the Rand reverberated throughout the Anglo-American world and had lasting consequences for global politics of race and labor. At one level, the Chinese laborers themselves resisted their conditions of work to such a degree that the program became untenable and was canceled after a few years. Not only did the South African project fail: Its failure signaled more broadly that at the turn of the twentieth century it had become increasingly difficult to impose upon Chinese workers the coercive and violent exploitation that had marked the global coolie trade in the era of slave emancipation. At another level, the Chinese labor program on the Rand provoked a political crisis in the Transvaal and in metropolitan Britain over the “Chinese Question”—that is, whether Chinese, indentured or free, should be altogether excluded from the settler colonies. Following the passage of laws limiting or excluding Chinese immigration to the United States (1882), Canada (1885), New Zealand (1881), and Australia (1901), Transvaal Colony and then the Union of South Africa, formed in 1910, likewise barred all Chinese from immigration—making Chinese and Asian exclusion, along with white rule, native dispossession, and racial segregation the defining features of the Anglo-American settlerism.



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1. The scholarship on the Chinese labor experiment in South Africa is scant, comprising a handful of monographs and articles. The present work is indebted to this literature while aiming to correct certain limitations (such as an exclusive use of British/South African sources) and placing the experience and politics of Chinese mine labor in South Africa into global perspective. Representative works include Richardson, Peter, Chinese Mine Labour in the Transvaal (Macmillan, 1982); Bright, Rachel, Chinese Labour in South Africa: Race, Violence and Global Spectacle (London, 2005); Higginson, John, “Privileging the Machines: American Engineers, Indentured Chinese and White Workers in South Africa's Deep-level Gold Mines, 1902–1907”, International Review of Social History 52 (2007): 134 ; Huynh, Tu T., “We are not a Docile People: Chinese Resistance and Exclusion in the Reimagining of Whiteness in South Africa”, Journal of Chinese Overseas 8 (2012): 137–68.

2. Chinese labor importation to the Transvaal was sanctioned by the Sino-British convention of May 15, 1904, with regulations provided under Transvaal Ordinance no. 17 of 1904.

3. Higginson, “Privileging the Machines.” Chinese observers in Johannesburg also likened the refusal of blacks to return to the mines as a “strike.” An Account of the Miserable Conditions of the Chinese in South Africa” (Nanfeizhou huaqiao canzhuang ji), Xinmin Congbao 3 (1904), 9498 . It would not be until after 1910 that South Africa would aggressively sever Africans from means of subsistence and crowd them into reserves too small to support them, and perfect their transition to migratory-industrial labor. The mines also lengthened the minimum term of contract to seven months in 1919 and 9 months in 1924. Legassick, Martin and de Clerq, Francoine, “Capitalism and Migrant Labor in Southern Africa: The Origins and Nature of the System”, International Labor Migration: Historical Perspectives, ed. Marks, Shula and Richardson, Peter, Commonwealth Papers 24 (London, 1984), 148149 . For discussion of the uneven process of dispossession and persistence of African peasant farming and share-tenancy in rural Transvaal, see Higginson, John, Collective Violence and the Agrarian Origins of South African Apartheid (Cambridge, 2014).

4. Elgin to Selborne, January 5, 1905, British Parliamentary Papers (1906) Cd. 2788 document 15 (hereafter BPP); Selborne to Elgin, January 29, 1906, BPP (1906) Cd. 2819/39; Table 4.1, “Mines Utilizing Chinese Labor,” in Bright, Chinese Labour in South Africa.

5. Transvaal Chamber of Mines, report for 1900–1901, xxxviii–xxxix; Richardson, Peter, “Recruiting of Chinese Mine Labour for the South African Gold-Mines”, Journal of African History 18 (1977): 85109, at 89.

6. Ordinance no. 17 of 1904.

7. Swatow (Shantou) Daily News, May 29, 1903, quoted in Yap, Melanie and Man, Diane, Colour, Confusion & Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa (Hong Kong University Press, 1996), 100 .

8. “An Account of the Miserable Conditions.”

9. Richardson, Chinese Mine Labour in the Transvaal, 85–88.

10. E.D.C. Wolfe, Transvaal recruiting agent at Chefoo (Yantai), quoted in Richardson, Chinese Mine Labour in the Transvaal, 130.

11. Richardson, Peter, “Coolies, Peasants and Proletarians: The Origins of Chinese Laborers in the South African Gold Mines”, in Indentured Labor in the British Empire, 1834–1920, ed. Saunders, K. (London, 1984), 272 .

12. W. Evans, “General Report on Chinese Labour,” February 13, 1905, BPP Cd. 2401/49.

13. Ordinance no. 17 (1904); Report by Eugenio Bianchini, Chinese controller, Witwatersrand Gold Mine, October 28, 1905, BPP (1906) Cd. 2819/29.

14. Allen, Robert C., Bassino, Jean-Pascal, Ma, Debin, Moll-Murata, Christine, and Van Zanden, Jan L., “Wages, Prices and Living Standards in China, 1738–1925, in Comparison with Europe, Japan, and India”, Economic History Review 64 S1 (2011): 838 . One Chinese yuan (or silver dollar) was slightly more than two shillings in 1904. FLD files generally used a conversion of 1 yuan equals 2 s/-. See, for example, sundry affidavits in TAD/FLD 240, no. 76–76/15. See also (accessed January 24, 2017) and Morse, H.B., The Trade and Administration of the Chinese Empire (Shanghai, 1908), which makes a similar calculation. Xie Zixiu, who cited the use of scrip, reported that nothing could be had on the Rand for less than three pence and, moreover, that prices for everyday goods at the stores on the mines were ten times higher than in town. Zixiu, Xie, “South Africa Travel Journal” (Youli nan feizhou ji), in Documentary History of Chinese labor Emigration (Huagong chuguo shiliao), vol. 9, ed. Hangshen, Chen (Beijing, 1985), 278 . I have found no British or South African documents that admit to the use of scrip, and it is unclear if the practice extended beyond the mines of ERPM, where Xie worked; but that alone was a huge company that contracted more than fifteen thousand Chinese workers during the indenture program. Table 4.2, in Bright, Chinese Labour in South Africa.

15. Selborne to Lyttleton, October 7, 1905, BPP (1905) Cd. 2786/25; FLD superintendent Jamieson conceded that some workers were recruited who had no knowledge or experience in mining, including artisans and others unaccustomed to manual labor. Translation of “Repatriation notice,” reprinted in Manchester Guardian, June 15 1906.

16. W. Evans, “General Report on Chinese Labour,” February 13, 1905, BPP (1905) Cd. 2401/49; Report of Eugenio Bianchini, October 28, 1905, BPP (1906), Cd 2819/29.

17. W. Evans, General Report on Chinese Labour, Feb. 13, 1905; “Memorandum on Chinese Labour in the Transvaal,” (no author), January 2, 1905, FO 2/971/233, National Archives UK (Kew); A People with Nowhere to Turn” (Wu gao zhi min), Xinmin Congbao, 3 (1904), 99106 .

18. Xie Zixiu, “South Africa Travel Journal,” 280.

19. Chinese controller, New Heriot to Sir John Walsham Bart, Inspector FLD, Apr 29, 1909, TAD/FLD 251 83/32, NASA.

20. Selborne to Elgin, March 29, 1906, FLD 17 147/83, Transvaal Archival Depot (TAD), National Archives of South Africa (NASA); Phillips, Lionel, Transvaal Problems: Some Notes on Current Politics (London, 1905), 104 .

21. Phillips, Transvaal Problems, 113. These activities would become controversial and associated with moral disorder among the workers. In 1906 authorities shut down theater groups, claiming they were dominated by “catamites” (male prostitutes) and other “bad characters.” Report of Committee of Mine Managers, May 28, 1906, TAD/GOV 990 PS 37-17-06 Part I, NASA; “Memorandum on the Prevalence of Unnatural Crime amongst Chinese Indentured Laborers on the Witwatersrand,” August 11, 1906, CO 537/540, National Archives UK (Kew). The FLD and attorney general also changed their minds about gambling, once considered “natural” among Chinese and impossible to prohibit. “Notes on Northern China” (1904), TAD/FLD 276, 356/04, NASA. Authorities blamed gambling rackets for forcing laborers into debt, leading to desertions and burglaries committed against local farmers. Report of Special Committee on Control of Chinese Labor, BPP (1906) Cd 3025/101/5; Report of Committee of Mine Managers, May 28, 1906; Selborne to Elgin, May 21, 1906, and passim, TAD/GOV 990 PS 37-17-06 Part I, NASA. Finally, the colonial government banned gambling on the compounds. Ordinance no. 12 of 1906, sec. 1.

22. Yap, Melanie and Man, Dianne Leong, Colour, Confusion and Concessions: The History of Chinese in South Africa (Hong Kong, 1996), 123 .

23. W. Evans, General Report on Chinese Labour, February 13, 1905.

24. Attorney General, Report, May 2, 1907, TAD/GOV 1076 file 37/5-19, NASA; sundry correspondence, TAD/LD 1436 file 1596-07. Chinese who frequented brothels were liable for arrest for violating the Immorality Ordinance of 1903, which forbade “any White woman to have ‘unlawful carnal connection with any ‘Native’’” (defined as any “person manifestly belonging to any of the native of Coloured races of Africa, Asia, America, or St. Helena.”) See also Harris, Karen, “Private and Confidential: The Chinese Mine Laborers and ‘Unnatural Crime,’South African Historical Journal 50 (2004): 115133 .

25. W. Evans, General Report on Chinese Labour, February 13, 1905, BPP Cd 2401/49; Selborne to Lyttelton, October 7, 1905, BPP (1905) Cd. 2786/25; FLD annual report 1905–1906, App. 8.

26. Phillips, Transvaal Problems, 96; Report by Eugenio Bianchini, October 28, 1905, BPP (1906) Cd. 2819/29.

27. Yap, Colour, Confusion and Concessions, 110; Bright, Chinese Labour in South Africa, 81; Zhang Deyi [Chang Da-Jen] to Foreign Ministry, June 19, 1905, File 022900304018, Qing records, Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei); Liu Yulin to Foreign Ministry, April 11, 1906, file 0229900108002, ibid. On death benefits, see Zhang Deyi to Foreign Ministry, October 14, 1905, doc. 374, “Chinese Labor Emigration during the Qing Dynasty, 1863–1910” (Qingji huagong chuguo shiliao). (Taipei: Institute of Modern History Series, Academia Sinica, 1995); sundry correspondence between Liu and the attorney general, TAD/FLD 21, NASA.

28. Xie Zixiu, “South Africa Travel Journal.” When EPRM managers heard Xie was going to London they tried to compel him to sign a document approving of conditions at the mines (which he refused to do) and then scrambled to discredit him to the London offices of Farrar Brothers and the Chinese Legation. Xie stood his ground as a “Progressive Chinese” but it is unknown if he was able to meet with Zhang. W. Bagot to F. Perry, April 6, 1905; interview at Farrar Brothers offices, March 29, 1905; Thomas Ah See to WG Higgins, April 3, 1905; Halliday Macartney to F. Perry, May 26, 1905, FO 2/971/241–258, National Archives UK (Kew).

29. Reported by Naylor, Thomas, “Yellow Labour: The Truth about the Chinese in the Transvaal”, (London, October 1904), Center for Research Libraries, dds-22487.

30. W. Evans, report, December 1904, BPP (1905), Cd. 2401/28.

31. W. Evans, report, February 1905, BPP (1905), Cd. 2401/38.

32. Ibid; see also Sergeant Lloyd, Cleveland police, to Inspector “D” Division, Johannesburg, September 18, 1905, TAD/FLD 19 AG 10/05.

33. For example, all 3,000 Chinese at Witwatersrand Mine refused to work in October 1905. “In Minor Key. Wit. Chinese Dissatisfied. Trouble all Over,” Rand Daily Mail, October 7, 1905.

34. W. Evans, report, December 1904, BPP (1905), Cd. 2401/28; Lawley to Lyttelton, April 6 and 18, 1905, BPP (1905), Cd. 2401/59; Richardson, Peter, “Coolies and Randlords: The North Randfontein ‘strike’ of 1905”, Journal of South African Studies 2 (1976): 151–77. The inspector-in-charge at Krugersdorp commented on the tactical prowess of the Chinese: “Each time we charged them they waited for us and threw their missiles when we were almost on to them. All the horses and men were hit several times.” Lawley to Lyttelton, April 6, 1905.

35. Joint petition of SP nos. 9077, 9049, 9011, et al., Laborers of the South Nourse mine to Superintendent FLD, April 2, 1906, TAD/FLD 240, 76-76/15, NASA. See also Telegram, Governor to Secretary of State, March 11, 1905, on arrest of 32 workers at Simmer and Jack for forming of a “secret society.” No punishments were ordered because the group was not deemed to be “in the nature of a Trade Union.” TAD/FLD 4/147-147, NASA.

36. Col. SB Steele to CSO, SAC (South African Constabulary), March 23, 1906, TAD/GOV 990 PS 37-17-06 Part I.

37. Jamieson to Solomon, February 16, 1906, TAD/FLD 24 AG27/06, NASA. For more on desertions, see Huynh, “We are not a Docile People.”

38. N. Audley Rose to Private Secretary, High Commissioner [1906], TAD/FLD 210/31-51-27, NASA; Acting Secretary for Native Affairs to Private Secretary to the Lt. Governor, Jan. 17, 1905, TAD/SNA (Secretary of Native Affairs) 248 NA 3158/04-NA 3169/04, NASA.

39. Secretary, Association of Mine Managers, to High Commissioner, May 19, 1906, schedule of desertions and sentences, TAD/GOV 990 PS 37-17-06 Part I, NASA.

40. Manager, Nourse Deep Mines, to Capt. Gibson, FLD Inspector, re: Coolie No. 30407, April 14, 1906, TAD/FLD 240, 76/18, NASA.

41. “The Mining Problem. The Handling of Unskilled Labour,” by “underground contractor”; Johannesburg Star, February 8, 1906, in clipping album; “History of Chinese Labour, Jan to June 1906,” George Farrar Papers, Weston Library, University of Oxford (hereafter Farrar Album).

42. Petition by Miners in West Rand Mines (Xilande jin kuang huagong qing yuan shu) sent to Chinese government, 1907, in Li Anshan, Social History of Overseas Chinese in Africa: Selected Documents, 1800–2005 (Feizhou huaqiao huaren shehui shizi liaoxuanji, 1800–2005) (Hong Kong, 2006).

43. Transvaal, Labor Importation Amendment Ordinance [no. 27], 1905. See also Kynoch, Gary, “‘Your Petitioners are in Mortal Terror’: The Violent World of Chinese Mineworkers in South Africa”, Journal of South African Studies 31 (2005): 531–46.

44. BPP (1905) Cd. 2401; BPP (1905) Cd. 2563; BPP (1907) Cd. 3338/app. 2; BPP (1907) Cd. 3528.

45. Jamieson to Solomon, March 6, 1906, TAD/FLD 24 AG32/06, NASA.

46. Van Onselen, Charles, “The Main Reef Road into the Working Class”, in New Babylon New Nineveh (Jeppestown, South Africa, 2001 [1981]), 309–26.

47. On South Africans’ reliance on the state, see Evans, Ivan, Cultures of Violence (Manchester, UK, 2009).

48. Selborne to Lyttelton, November 11, 1905, enclosure with resolutions from public meeting held Potchefstroom, October 4, 1905, BPP (1906) Cd. 2819/06.

49. Selborne to Elgin, April 18, 1906, BPP (1906) Cd. 3025/101.

50. Higginson, “Privileging the Machines.”

51. Phillips to Eckstein, March 5, 1905, in All that Glittered, Selected Correspondence of Lionel Phillips, 1890–1924 (Capetown, 1977).

52. The first large introduction of Afrikaners into the mines was as strikebreakers during the 1907 strike by English-speaking miners. Van Onselen, “Main Reef Road,” 347; Higginson, Collective Violence, 129, 189.

53. Dobbe, I., “Chinese Labour”, in Macmillan's (London, 1906), 787800 .

54. Headlam, Cecil, ed., The Milner Papers (London, 1931), 458–59.

55. Creswell, FHP, The Chinese Labour Question from Within: Facts, Criticisms and Suggestions. Impeachment of a Disastrous Policy (London, 1905), 2434 , 56–58; “Chinese Labour Speech by Mr. Cresswell [sic]. Meeting at Potchefstroom. Repatriation Resolution,” Rand Daily Mail, October 6, 1905, 8, Farrar Album. For criticisms of Creswell, see, for example, “Chinese and Whites. Chamber of Mines Memorandum. Creswell Controverted,” Transvaal Leader, January 5, 1906, ibid. A letter from “Worker,” published in the Johannesburg Star, criticized Creswell's proposals for an “open labor market” as laissez-faire doctrine that had brought impoverishment to the English working class. “Chinese Labour,” Star, March 3, 1906, Farrar Album.

56. Creswell, The Chinese Labour Question from Within, 66, 88, 102, 110.

57. Lionel Phillips to Selborne, January 24, 1906, in All that Glittered.

58. “White Unskilled Labour,” letter from “Rand Pioneer,” in Johannesburg Star, February 26, 1906, Farrar Album.

59. Van Onselen, “The Main Reef Road into the Working Class,” 326–41.

60. “GME's” Report for Last Administrative Year. Wages and Salaries. Outside sources of Protection,” Transvaal Leader, January 24, 1906.

61. Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and Empire (Chicago, 1999); Lake, Marilyn, “Challenging the ‘Slave-driving Employers’: Understanding Australia's 1896 Minimum Wage through a World-History Approach”, Australian Historical Studies 45 (2014): 87102 .

62. L.E.M., “About Indentured Labour, the Best System,” Transvaal Leader, January 27, 1906, Farrar Album.

63. Dobbe, “Chinese Labour.” See also Bederman, Gail, Manliness and Civilization (Chicago, 1995).

64. Cutting the Painter. Loyalty and Chinese Labor,” South African News (Capetown), Jan 10, 1906 , Farrar Album.

65. Pelling, Henry and Reid, Alastair Jr., A Short History of the Labour Party (New York, 1996), 12 . Tanner's, Duncan Political Change and the Labour Party (Cambridge, 1990) does not mention the Chinese labor question in South Africa at all. It might be observed that by dismissing the Chinese Question, British political history has had difficulty in explaining why free trade, education, nonconformism, and the Irish question—the standard planks of the Liberal platform—failed to result in Liberal electoral victories for more than a decade but found success in 1906. Recent work aiming to correct this lapse includes Auerbach, Sascha, Race, Law and the “Chinese Puzzle” in Imperial Britain (London, 2009), and Bright, Rachel, Chinese Labour in South Africa, 1902–1910 (London, 2013).

66. Hyslop, Jonathan, “Imperial Working Class Makes itself ‘White,’Journal of Historical Sociology 12 (1999) 398421 .

67. Central Federation of Trade Unions, “White Labour or Yellow Slaves? Analysis of Division,” March 9, 1904, Center for Research Library, dds-22478.

68. The most incendiary was the article by Frank Boland, “The Price of Gold,” published in the Morning Leader, September 6, 1905. The various “tortures” were again described and illustrated with lurid drawings in a book published by an anonymous “Eye Witness,” who was probably Boland, and introduced by Dr. Clifford, John, a nonconformist minister and politician. John Chinaman on the Rand (London, 1905).

69. “The Government and Chinese Labour,” Speaker: The Liberal Review, June 16, 1906.

70. Mr. Lyttelton and Chinese Labour,” Times (London), September 27, 1905 ; Chinese Labour in the Transvaal,” Anti-Slavery Reporter, vol. 25 (August 1905).

71. “The Undesirable Ordinance,” Westminster Gazette, September 7, 1905.

72. See, for example, “South Africa and Party Politics,” Saturday Review, February 24, 1906.

73. “Chinese Labour. Five Reasons for Supporting the Government on Chinese Labour.” Imperial South Africa Association Pamphets no. 60 (1904), Center for Research Libraries. The ISAA, formed in 1896 to advocate for British intervention in the Boer republics and the subsequent South African War, was the main domestic mouthpiece for Tory policy in the South African colonies.

74. Blyth, Herbert C., letter to editor, Times (London), October 31, 1905 .

75. Sydney Buxton, MP, Chinese Labour. The Transvaal Ordinance Analysed Together with the British Guiana Ordinance (London, 1904).

76. John Burns, “Slavery in South Africa,” Independent Review, May 19, 1904.

77. Ibid.

78. On Canadian exclusion of Chinese and Indians, see Chang, Kornel, Pacific Connections (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2012); Mar, Lisa, Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada's Exclusion Era (Oxford, 2010); on Australia, see Curthoys, Ann, “Men of all Nations, Except Chinamen”, in Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects, ed. McCalman, Iain, Cook, Alexander, Reeves, Andrew (Cambridge, 2001); Lake, Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry, Drawing the Global Color Line: White Men's Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (New York, 2008); Marilyn Lake, “Challenging the ‘Slave-Driving Employers.’”

79. Hyslop, “Imperial Working Class Makes Itself ‘White.’”

80. Tarbut to Creswell (1903), cited in Central Federation of Trade Unions, “White Labour or Yellow Slaves?” (London, 1904) (emphasis in original); also cited by Lord Coleridge in remarks in the House of Lords, March 18, 1904, Parliamentary Debates.

81. Pearson, Charles A., National Life and Character: A Forecast (Macmillan, 1893). See also Neame, Laurene, The Asiatic Danger in the Colonies (London, 1905); Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Color Line, esp. chapter 3; Auerbach, Race, Law and the Chinese Puzzle, 20.

82. Stobart, M.A., “The Asiatic invasion of the Transvaal”, Fortnightly Review 81 (1907) 292300 .

83. Hyslop, “Imperial Working Class Makes Itself ‘White’.” Hyslop writes that white laborism traveled along three vectors: Australian trade unionists, Cornish miners, and the union of mining engineers.

84. “Liberals and Chinese Labour,” Times (London), February 28, 1906; Creswell, F.H.P., “Unskilled White Labour In the Transvaal”, Times (London), March 27, 1906 ; London Daily Telegraph, February 8, 1906.

85. Rand Daily Mail, September 28, 1906.

86. For example, see “Yellow v. White Labour. Protest from Johannesburg,” Western Daily Press, January 2, 1906, Farrar Album.

87. (accessed March 17, 2016).

88. BPP (1908) Cd. 3887/81 and passim; Waijiao Bao (Diplomatic Review), May 14, 1908; Anhan, Li, A History of Overseas Chinese in Africa to 1911 (New York, 2012), 157–62.

89. Higginson, Collective Violence, 189; on Smuts see also Mazower, Mark, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, 2009), chapter 1.

90. Burns, “Slavery in South Africa.”

91. Approximately 32,500 Indians in Natal, 25,000 in the Caribbean (Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad), 20,000 in Mauritius, 8,600 in Fiji, 4,000 in the African Gold Coast. There were also only 4,000 Indians and Chinese working on short-term (one-year) contracts in the Straits Settlements and Malay States. “Coolies in the British Colonies,” Anti-Slavery Reporter, January–February 1907, 10–14. Chinese population statistics,, (accessed February 15, 2017).

I thank Zabeth Botha, Cathi Choy, Jack Neubauer, Alexandra Smith, and Chengji Xing for research assistance. Research for this essay was supported in part by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC.

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Trouble on the Rand: The Chinese Question in South Africa and the Apogee of White Settlerism

  • Mae M. Ngai


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