The turn of the 20th century was a heady time to be a lord of international finance and industry, as Herbert Hoover was.
Developments in finance, technology, organization, and transportation meant that millions of dollars, mountains of resources, and thousands of men could be set in motion across the face of the earth in the service of an idea.
Even a bad idea.
Like the program that exported 50,000 coolie laborers, most of them under the aegis of the China Engineering and Mining Corporation--which, with Herbert Hoover’s connivance, had previously wrested the immense Kaiping colliery from imperial Chinese control-- to South Africa in beginning in 1904.
The basic concept was simple enough: to put a cap on the wage demands of local mine workers by importing low-cost labor from abroad.
The South African gold mines had traditionally relied on local manual labor.
However, the Boer War had apparently broadened the horizons and raised the expectations of the black laborers, who had been employed extensively in logistical functions supporting the British forces.
The profoundly hostile and unfortunately less than reliable Hoover biographer, John Hamill, quotes from the correspondence of a director of a mining company with one of his managers who had experimented with white labor for surface work:
...the feeling [of the board-ed.] seems to be one of fear that if a large number of white men are employed on the Rand in the position of labourers, the same troubles will arise as are now prevalent in the Australian Colonies, i.e., that the combination of the labouring classes will become so strong as to be able to more or less dictate not only on questions of wages, but also on political questions by the power of votes when a Representative Government is established. (John Hamill, The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover under Two Flags, New York, William Faro, Inc. 1931, hereinafter Hamill, pg. 152)
A solution was found—in China.
In 1906, an observer wrote:
It is now well understood in England that it was part of the policy of the mineowners ...to depress Kafir wages by the introduction of Chinese labor when the war should come to an end...From my own investigations...I know that [in 1902] the labor agency of the Chamber of Mines was making only half-hearted efforts to get a full complement of “boys” for the mines...( Edward Porritt, Party Conditions in England, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2. (Jun., 1906), hereinafter Porritt, pg. 217).
Importing Chinese labor into South Africa’s volatile, multi-racial society, in which Great Britain was seeking to institutionalize its dominance over the recently-defeated Boers and the black population, presented significant risks and challenges.
In a fascinating sidebar, a fact-finding mission was dispatched to California to try to learn from and avoid the mistakes and conflicts that had bedeviled U.S. exploitation of Oriental labor.
In their article Atlantic and Pacific Crossings: Race, Empire, and the Labor Problem in the Late Nineteenth Century, Matthew Guterl and Christine Skwiot (Radical History Review, Issue 91, Winter 2005) look at the anxieties and attitudes that drove the global search for cheap labor:
Thus the Johannesburg Chamber of Mines sent H. Ross Skinner and Herbert Noyes to the Bear Flag State to learn where crucial mistakes had been made and to develop policy alternatives that would stave off those same problems in the Transvaal. California had suffered, their 1903 report concluded, from an “absence of restrictive legislation.” by which they meant control over the inflow of immigrants and their movements once inside. California—and by extension the entire United States—had erred not just in allowing the Chinese to compete with white workers as settlers, or even just temporary visitors, but also in allowing them to ever leave the site of their labors.
A great deal of ingenuity was expended in order to make the program a state-of-the-art exercise in wage busting.
First, as we have seen, the labor force would have to be non-white, so it would be bereft of the legal rights and expectations that had roiled the Australian gold fields when Italian laborers had been introduced.
Secondly, the privileges, responsibilities, and opportunities of the labor force would be defined strictly and completely by the terms of its labor contract with the mine owners.
Workers would be indentured: brought to South Africa for three year contracts, housed in work camps, and forbidden to reside locally or work in other occupations, or even leave the camps without prior written permission.
Third, the expense of importing and housing workers brought from afar would be mitigated by scientific management. The workers would bring no distracting and expensive family members with them and would be housed in efficient, high density residential facilities whose resemblance to a sinister technological innovation of the Boer War—the concentration camp--was perhaps not coincidental.
Again, from Hamill:
...these young men...would be herded in compounds not half an acre in size, two thousand men to a compound, where there was hardly standing room for them, these compounds being enclosed by the huts where the Chinese were to live, twenty in a hut, twenty seven feet by nineteen and a half and twelve feet high, sleeping on wooden shelves, two men to a shelf. (Hamill, pg. 159)
The final measure—indeed the raison d’etre for the whole operation—was to optimize the mine owner’s contractual, legal, and coercive advantages and pay low wages.
Really, really low wages, according to Hamill:
They were to work ten hours a day on two meals a day and for a minimum wage of twenty-five cents a day to be paid after thirty days work... twenty-give cents in the Transvaal was not worth more than five cents in China, nor that it would take a month’s wages to buy a new suit of jeans. (Hamill, pp. 157-8)
The scheme required an enabling Ordinance to become operative, and the usual suspects were pressed into action to obtain the approval of key politicians and sell the idea to the public.
Hamill waxes indignant:
Meetings were held all over the country, addressed by officials, some of whom had been bribed and others subjected to political pressure, with the object of showing that there was not a sufficient supply of Kaffir labor and that the importation of the Chinese was necessary for the salvation of the mining industry.
This was denied by Sir Godfrey Lagdon, the Commissioner for Native Affairs, by Mr. W. Wybergh, the Commissioner for Mines, and by the South African Press. At this, the mine owners became “tough.” Lawley [High Commissioner for the Transvaal-ed] dismissed Mr. Wybergh, Mr. Monypenny, the editor of the Johannesburg Star, was forced to resign and the whole staff of the Johannesburg Leader was fired. The other newspapers had to fall inline. Employees were forced to sign petitions stating that calamity would befall if the Chinese did not come. Clergymen...were purchased. The Chinaman was needed to save the Transvaal!
...The propaganda campaign was carried on even more extensively in England, many of the leading newspapers and even several pious bishops referring to the necessity of saving the Transvaal by means of the Chinaman...
...Meanwhile, Joe Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary...put through a deal with the mine owners, whereby he offered the Government support to the scheme for introducing the Chinamen in consideration of the mine owners subscribing $150,000,000 in three yearly installments towards a loan for the reconstruction of the Transvaal. (Hamill, pp. 154-5)
The first shipment of almost 2000 coolies, organized by Hoover’s Chinese Engineering and Mining Corporation, arrived in Durban from Qinhuangdao in July 1904. By 1906, the total number of Chinese coolies had swelled to 50,000, almost entirely recruited and shipped by CEMC.
The program quickly degenerated into a fiasco and public relations nightmare.
The Chinese workers were not docile, productive drones.
Instead, they were a major industrial and administrative headache, as documented in Peter Richardson’s study of one of the largest of the labor upheavals, Coolies and Randlords: the North Randfontein Chinese miners’ ‘strike’ of 1905 (Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 2 No. 2, Apr. 1976).
Though there were attempts to attribute their dissatisfaction to the fact that the many workers had been recruited from Boxer strongholds in the north and were therefore militantly hostile to westerners, the truth apparently lies in the fact that the conditions of their work were appalling.
The Chinese labored under the most grueling conditions: the underground work, whose rigors they could not have imagined when they signed their articles of indenture in China. They worked ten backbreaking hours per day, often in an atmosphere of “perpetual rainfall” in the dripping mines, then climbing ladders up 1000 feet to the surface at the end of their shifts.
Conditions were exacerbated by a concerted push by the mineowners and the government to reduce the cost of Chinese labor further in order to successfully exploit poor and marginal ore reserves.
They actively colluded in finding new ways to reduce wages by manipulating and reinterpreting the work rules, culminating in a successful effort to impose an onerous piecework system (superseding the munificent 25 cents per day daily rate guaranteed in the indenture contract for only the first six months) on the Chinese laborers for the 30 month balance of their three-year contracts.
Conditions topside were, in some ways, worse.
The camps were abysmal pens. They were under the control of the Chinese mine police, recruited largely from British units at Weihaiwei, who were often given the run of the camps by administrators unversed in Chinese language and customs and totally at a loss as to how to handle the work force.
The Chinese mine police, also indentured, were despised by the laborers and mistrusted by the owners. They dealt opium, demanded sexual services of workers on occasion, ran gambling operations, reportedly forced laborers to gamble, then lent money out at 50% per month interest to the unfortunate losers, collected on debts with fearsome brutality, and were considered responsible for provoking the majority of defections from the mining camps by debtors desperate to escape their unpayable obligations.
An idea of the happy, productive atmosphere at the camps can be given by this description of a savage attack on the Chinese mine police by a group of indebted coolies:
Chinese Coolies raided the rooms of the Chinese Police, assaulted the occupants, and robbed them of about English Pounds 324...The assailants were armed with hammers, hatchets, pick hafts, etc. and their attack was so severe that some of the Police Boys were rendered unconscious... (quoted in Gary Kynoch. ‘Your Petitioners are in Mortal Terror’: The Violent World of Chinese Mineworkers in South Africa, 1904–1910, Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 31, Number 3, September 2005, hereinafter Kynoch)
Parenthetically, English Pounds 324 is pretty impressive bankroll when one considers the rock bottom wages that the miners (and presumably the police as well) were paid.
Ironically, the same oppressive social and legal controls meant that a Chinese worker convicted in a civilian court of offenses was liable to deportation—a dead loss for the employer. The hapless mine owners resorted to the crudest form of incentive and intimidation—flogging—in a futile attempt to inculcate obedience and productivity into the Chinese workforce.
Flogging administered by the mineowners, and not by the civil authorities after due process, was supposed to be illegal. However, the abuse was widespread.
World Corporate Punishment Research reproduces some remarks made in Parliament in 1905 concerning illegal flogging of Chinese coolies.
Lord Coleridge quoted from an eyewitness account recorded in that perfidious organ of South African bleeding heart liberal defeatism, the Licensed Victuallers' Gazette:
Let us take one typical morning's work. Twenty coolies are lined up outside the compound manager's office. They are marched in one by one by Chinese policemen and charged. The charge may be anything -- from malingering to opium-smoking, or failing to report after a shift. The sentence usually varies from five to fifty strokes. These are administered variously. On one compound that I visited the punishment is carried out most expeditiously. 'Ten,' says the compound manager, speaking in Chinese, and the unhappy coolie walks to another part of the same room between two or three Chinese policemen to take his gruel. The coolie lowers his pantaloons, falls flat on the boards (face downwards) and 'prepares to receive the enemy.' One policeman keeps his head in position, another his feet. The Lord High Executioner armed with a whip -- a piece of leather three inches wide attached to a wooden handle about three feet long -- then metes out the punishment. After the second stroke the coolie will probably groan and wail, but immediately after the last he is brought to his feet, and with a coup de derriere from a policeman's No. 9 boot he is sent about his business.
The correspondent also noted:
In one compound that I visited there were, say, 2,500 coolies, of whom 60 per cent have had a 'licking' since their arrival.
In a final embarrassment, a few Chinese escaped from the camps and scratched out a miserable existence thieving in the countryside. This gave rise to terrifying reports of marauding gangs of Chinese bandits and demands from the recently subjugated and disarmed Boer population that it be permitted to rearm to protect itself from the yellow horde.
The reality was apparently not that of bold Chinese brigands sweeping from the hills in wuxia fashion.
Kynoch quotes from a local newspaper of 1905:
...hiding in dongas by day, slinking across the farms by night, dodging South African constabulary patrols, chivied by Boer farmers, chased by kaffirs, stealing fowls, robbing lonely homesteads, barefooted, half-starved, desperate, with an Asiatic contempt of life in their blood, and Chinese cruelty and callousness in their hearts. No one can understand them, they understand no one.
A certain contempt of life and cruelty and callousness is palpable in this passage, but for some reason I’m unable to ascribe it to the Chinese.
Anyway, the final score for the war between these miserable hobos and the Transvaal was four farmers killed, 17 Chinese shot during “outrages” (in which the justification for deadly force was not closely examined) and a few more executed after capture.
We can only conjecture how long this state of affairs might have persisted and what increasingly desperate measures might have been employed by the mineowners if political factors in England had not brought the dismal experiment to an end.
The Transvaal coolie question became a political football in the 1906 British parliamentary elections. This was the same time as the Belgian Congo horrors were roiling the conscience of the world and the Liberal Party, and the abuses in the Transvaal camps attracted a great deal of unfavorable attention:
It was not necessary for the Liberal candidates at the general election to say much against the Chinese ordinance. The billstickers did the effective work on this question; and when they had covered all the barns in the rural constituencies with pictures of Chinamen in the Rand compounds, it was useless for Tory candidates to assert that there was nothing approaching slavery in the three years’ indenture, the felon-like transportation from the steamer at Durban to Johannesburg, the floggings at the order of the compound superintendents, or the Andersonville structures on the mine reservations. (Porritt)
Regrettably, Liberal disgust was not limited to humanitarian concerns.
The coolie issue was also framed as a racial one: the contamination of the Anglo-Saxon colonial venture by the introduction of morally degraded Asiatics into the heroic white guy-bossing-around-childlike-local-coloureds mix.
The result was a morbid obsession with the varieties of dangerous depravity and deviance that the Celestials were introducing to the innocent Rand.
In addition to revelations of widespread gambling and opium abuse and occasional crimes against local whites, the ick factor was intensified by a remarkable investigation into the sexual habits of the Chinese coolies.
The coolies had availed themselves of the sexual release available to lonely men since the beginning of time and apparently a great deal of effort was devoted to an attempt to document the existence of “catamite coolies”, louche individuals who disdained the toil in the mines for a career of paid, aberrant indolence in the camps servicing the miserable laborers.
Ross Forman, a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London with a weakness for the abysmal pun, provides an eye-opening look at imperial obsessions and anxieties concerning the sexual transgressions of the competing and subject races at the turn of the 20th century in his Randy on the Rand: Portuguese African Labor and the Discourse on "Unnatural Vice" in the Transvaal in the Early Twentieth Century, in the 2002 Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002):
[In] 1906 "Report of an Enquiry Held by Mr. J. A. S. Bucknill into Certain Allegations as to the Prevalence of Unnatural Vice and Other Immorality amongst the Chinese Indentured Labourers Employed on the Mines of the Witwatersrand," ... investigated allegations of same-sex practices among Chinese coolies imported on fixed indentures to supply labor to the mines. 50 Bucknill's inquiry was leaked to the public by a member of Parliament and generated enormous publicity about "catamite coolies" because it served as a focal point for anti-Chinese agitation and a powerful tool for those in both Britain and South Africa who wished to have the Chinese repatriated.
The coolie question was an important contributing factor in the Tories’ resounding defeat in the general election of 1906.
By 1910 the experiment was at an end and the coolies were repatriated, though not before a Hail Mary effort by the Chinese Engineering and Mining Corporation to sell this disreputable and discredited workforce to Kaiser Wilhelm for service in Southeast Africa.
And what of our friend Herbert Hoover?
He was not an enthusiastic proponent of the coolie scheme.
Hoover was extremely negative on Chinese labor, despite the striking success of Chinese coolies in the railroad and mining sectors in his adopted home state of California.
I leave the question of whether Hoover was a racist (believing that racial discrimination should be condoned and legally protected) or merely a racialist (believing that qualitative differences between races exist but the white man didn’t need any extra help to come out on top) to the philosophers.
Nevertheless, the passage of time has not confirmed the acuity of Hoover’s analysis or vindicated his perspective on Chinese labor and economics.
After World War II he wrote:
There is at least a further partial illusion in the concept that with such masses of cheap labor, China can be converted into a great industrial country from which there can be a lift in the standard of living and a violent competition in the sale of products to the Western world.
The first handicap is the lack of great supplies of mineral raw material, except for coal.
The second lies in some kink in the Chinese mind which does not adapt itself well to Western methods of administrative organization, whether political or industrial...A third handicap to widespread Occidental industrialization is the fact that the Chinese are a less mechanical-minded people than the European-descended races...Our general conclusion from the Tongshan experience with 25,000 healthy men in all positions was that it took about two Chinese to perform the common labor tasks of an American, about four to one to operate the machines, and about ten to one skilled in mechanical trades to assemble intricate machines...(Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: Years of Adventure, 1874-1920, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1951 pp 69-72).
One might speculate that Hoover smarted from the comeuppance he received at the hands of the Chinese in the British courts over his seizure of the Kaiping mines, and bitterly remembered Chinese resistance to his attempts to seize control of day-to-day administration of the colliery by streamlining operations and replacing Chinese managers with his loyal cronies.
In any case, he was quick to poormouth the Chinese labourers he saw in the Transvaal during one of his visits, as Hoover’s biographer, George Nash, records:
Hoover argued against the use of Chinese manpower for practical business reasons: skilled white labour could do the job better, as his experience in Western Australia had demonstrated. When a journalist asked him to comment on a contingent of Chinese workers he had just seen, Hoover replied crisply, “A very poor lot, indeed, and certainly not worth the trouble and expense of bringing out.” (George H. Nash The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer 1874-1914, New York, W.W. Norton & Company New York 1983, pp 346-7)
Hoover and his firm, Bewick, Moreing were opposed to the importation of Chinese labor into the Transvaal.
However, it may be reaching a bit too far to draw the conclusion, as Nash does, that Hoover would therefore not have been involved in nor condoned the transaction by which Chinese Mechanical and Engineering Corporation (of which he was still a director) contracted for up to 200,000 laborers to be shipped to South Africa.
Hoover’s philosophy of life was Caveat Sucker, and he had a profound and well-documented contempt and predatory appetite for passive investors and me-too opportunists who tried to ride the gravy train that Hoover and the other masterly insiders assembled from the raw material of ores, finance, lives, and laws that attracted their energy, intelligence, greed, and ruthless ambition.
Hamill claims that China Mining and Engineering Corp. profited both by contracting for supply of the indentured laborers ($10/head) and providing the transportation services that ferried tens of thousands of Chinese coolies from Qinhuangdao to the Transvaal ($25/head). He concludes:
...it was not such a bad business. There was a profit for the company of about twenty-five dollars a head.” (Hamill, pp. 166-7)
Hamill’s facts and figures are always open to question.
However, if China Engineering and Mining Corporation cleared a profit of over US$1 million at the expense of the deluded mineowners on the 50,000 coolies it shipped to the Transvaal, it may have had the best of the disastrous transaction—a state of affairs that Hoover would have happily endorsed.
Historical analogies are always risky.
However, I see parallels between the effort to “shock and awe” Chinese coolies into a docile, 25-cents-per day workforce in 1904 South Africa and current efforts to remake certain regions of the world through fear and force.
In both cases, the experts with the most recent advances in technology and management at their fingertips, and the powers of state, finance, and law behind them, believed the advantages they enjoyed might well be detested, but would be accepted as inevitable and unavoidable by the people they sought to subjugate.
The Chinese coolies were meant to be enmeshed in a system so powerful and omnipresent that they would realize they had no alternative but to submit, labor earnestly for their pittance, and yearn passively for the day a new shipment of unfortunates would arrive and they could return home.
Instead, they reacted contrary to their immediate individual interests and in defiance of the system’s fundamental assumptions and expectations.
This scientific system for the efficient global movement of labor assets somehow created a quagmire of inefficiency, violence, buggery, and embarrassment.
The Chinese resisted, often in self-defeating ways that the mineowners had not foreseen. They loafed, malingered, gambled, and abused drugs; they engaged in self-mutilation and suicide; they protested, worked-to-rule, rioted, struck, escaped, and stole.
Since the coolie system was purpose-built to eliminate personal and economic freedom, it was spectacularly ill-equipped to offer these freedoms when they proved necessary to placate and incentivize a disillusioned workforce.
One contemporary analyst wrote:
...the experiment was a disastrous failure...The failure was undoubtedly emphasised by the blunders which had been made. The labourers were placed under the control of persons who did not in the least understand them and who could not speak their language sufficiently well to be properly understood. The employers resented the interference of the Government and refused to co-operate in the administration of justice. The coolies were demoralized by gross mismanagement of every kind. The real cause of failure, however, lay deeper...For him (the Chinese labourer) there was no opportunity for promotion...( Harold Wright, Review of a pamphlet by George Payne An Experiment in Alien Labor published by University of Chicago Press, The Economic Journal, Vol. 22, No. 86. (Jun., 1912), pp. 268-270, )
The coolie system appeared flawed at its heart, and efforts to apply it more perfectly and energetically seemed only to magnify its deficiencies.
Perversely, exhaustively planned and vigorously executed measures meant to compel submission succeeded only in provoking resistance.
That’s something we might remember as we pursue the deadly mirage of our omnipotence and omniscience in the deserts of the Middle East.