Singapore, Chinese Migration and the Making of the British Empire

When Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, the island was an unknown place with a population of 1,000. By 1867, when the Straits Settlements were granted Crown Colony status, Singapore with its population of over 80,000, had become a famous entrepôt of free trade and a lucrative trading port between China and India. An important factor of this transformation was the recruitment of Chinese migrant labour, which by the 1850s made up over half of the population.

The second Resident of Singapore, John Crawfurd, trusted the Chinese so much that he refused additional military support when negotiating the 1824 treaty that confirmed Singapore as a permanent British colony with indigenous leaders. Crawfurd was confident that he could use the Chinese migrant population as a military force should the negotiations turned violent. Crawfurd used terms such as “industry” and “ingenuity” to describe the Chinese settlers. He felt that the Chinese had an aptitude for trade. To him, the Chinese were not as good as the Europeans, but were better than the other Asian races like the Indians.

The abolishment of slavery in 1833 put a stop to the supply of African slave labour. Without African slave labour or voluntary European colonists, like those who populated Britain’s settler colonies, the colonial administrators who promoted plantation agriculture and developed export economies looked to Chinese migration to Singapore as a model. The British found the Chinese industrious and submitted well to colonial rule.

In the 1830s, the British in Assam opened tea plantations for the production of tea for export to Britain. The worsening relationship between China and Britain motivated the British to secure their tea supply from another country, like India. The British felt that the Assam natives were lazy, addicted to opium, and did not have the skill to cultivate tea. They recruited skilled tea cultivators and unskilled labourers from China, Singapore and Penang.

In Ceylon, Governor James Alexander Stewart-Mackenzie tried to bring Chinese into Ceylon to start tea plantations. He had in mind people like Seah Eu Chin from Singapore who was a successful plantation owner, as well as labourers. Before he could succeed, the Colonial Office reassigned him as High Commissioner to the Ionian Islands in 1841.

In Mauritius, Governor Robert Townsend Farquhar was the first to think of importing Chinese labour. Between 1837 and 1843, over 3,000 Chinese labourers, mostly from Singapore and Penang, arrived. However, the Colonial Office stopped supporting the recruitment of Chinese labourers.

The book discusses how Britain replicated the “Singapore model”, which is the use of migrant Chinese labour to other areas of its empire, with varying degrees of success. The book examines the establishment of the “Singapore model” and its transference – to Assam in India, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Mauritius and Australia. It examines the role of the key people who developed the model, including the Hong Kong merchant houses and their financial expertise, discusses central ideas which lay behind the model, notably free trade and the use of “industrious” Chinese rather than “lazy” natives, and assesses the varying outcomes of the different colonial experiments. The themes discussed – economic opportunities and globalisation; the need to find labour without recourse to slavery, indentured labour or convict labour; migration, ethnicity and racism – all continue to have great significance at present, as does the idea that Singapore, still, is a model to be replicated more widely.

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