My life in China and America/18 Investigation of the Coolie Traffic in Peru



In the spring of 1873, I returned to China on a flying visit for the sole purpose of introducing the Gatling gun — a comparatively new weapon of warfare of a most destructive character. I had some difficulty in persuading the Gatling Company to give me the sole agency of the gun in China, because they did not know who I was, and were unacquainted with my practical business experience. In fact, they did not know how successfully I had carried on the Taiping Green Tea Expedition in 1860-1, in the face of dangers and privations which few men dared to face. However, I prevailed on the president of the company, Dr. Gatling himself, the inventor of the gun, to entrust me with the agency. Exactly a month after my arrival in Tientsin, I cabled the company an order for a battery of fifty guns, which amounted altogether to something over $100,000, a pretty big order for a man who it was thought could not do anything. This order was followed by subsequent orders. I was anxious that China should have the latest modern guns as well as the latest modern educated men. The Gatling Company was satisfied with my work and had a different opinion of me afterwards.

While I was in Tientsin, attending to the gun business, the Viceroy told me that the Peruvian commissioner was there waiting to make a treaty with China regarding the further importation of coolie labor into Peru. He wanted me to call on the commissioner and talk with him on the subject, which I did. In his conversation, he pictured to me in rosy colors how well the Chinese were treated in Peru; how they were prospering and doing well there, and said that the Chinese government ought to conclude a treaty with Peru to encourage the poorer class of Chinese to emigrate to that country, which offered a fine chance for them to better themselves. I told him that I knew something about the coolie traffic as it was carried on in Macao; how the country people were inveigled and kidnapped, put into barracoons and kept there by force till they were shipped on board, where they were made to sign labor contracts either for Cuba or Peru. On landing at their destination, they were then sold to the highest bidder, and made to sign another contract with their new masters, who took special care to have the contract renewed at the end of every term, practically making slaves of them for life. Then I told him something about the horrors of the middle passage between Macao and Cuba or Peru; how whole cargoes of them revolted in mid-ocean, and either committed wholesale suicide by jumping into the ocean, or else overpowered the captain and the crew, killed them and threw them overboard, and then took their chances in the drifting of the vessel.

Such were some of the facts and horrors of the coolie traffic I pictured to the Peruvian Commissioner. I told him plainly that he must not expect me to help him in this diabolical business. On the contrary, I told him I would dissuade the Viceroy from entering into a treaty with Peru to carry on such inhuman traffic. How the Peruvian's countenance changed when he heard me deliver my mind on the subject! Disappointment, displeasure and anger were visible in his countenance. I bade him good morning, for I was myself somewhat excited as I narrated what I had seen in Macao and what I had read in the papers about the coolie traffic. Indeed, one of the first scenes I had seen on my arrival in Macao in 1855 was a string of poor Chinese coolies tied to each other by their cues and led into one of the barracoons like abject slaves. Once, while in Canton, I had succeeded in having two or three kidnappers arrested, and had them put into wooden collars weighing forty pounds, which the culprits had to carry night and day for a couple of months as a punishment for their kidnapping.

Returning to the Viceroy, I told him I had made the call, and narrated my interview. The Viceroy, to make my visit short, then said, “You have come back just in time to save me from cabling you. I wish you to return to Hartford as quickly as possible and make preparations to proceed to Peru at once, to look into the condition of the Chinese coolies there.”

On my return to Hartford, I found that Chin Lan Pin had also been instructed by the government to look after the condition of the Chinese coolies in Cuba. These collateral or side missions were ordered at Li Hung Chang's suggestion. I started on my mission before Chin Lan Pin did. My friend, the Rev. J. H. Twichell, and Dr. E. W. Kellogg, who afterwards became my brother-in-law, accompanied me on my trip. I finished my work inside of three months, and had my report completed before Chin started on his journey to Cuba. On liis return, both of our reports were forwarded to Viceroy Li, who was in charge of all foreign diplomatic affairs.

My report was accompanied with two dozen photographs of Chinese coolies, showing how their backs had been lacerated and torn, scarred and disfigured by the lash. I had these photographs taken in the night, unknown to anyone except the victims themselves, who were, at my request, collected and assembled together for the purpose. I knew that these photographs would tell a tale of cruelty and inhumanity perpetrated by the owners of haciendas, which would be beyond cavil and dispute.

The Peruvian Commissioner, who was sent out to China to negotiate a treaty with Viceroy Li Hung Chang to continue the coolie traffic to Peru, was still in Tientsin waiting for the arrival of my report. A friend of mine wrote me that he had the hardihood to deny the statements in my report, and said that they could not be supported by facts. I had written to the Viceroy beforehand that he should hold the photographs in reserve, and keep them in the background till the Peruvian had exhausted all his arguments, and then produce them. My correspondent wrote me that the Viceroy followed my suggestion, and the photographs proved to be so incontrovertible and palpable that the Peruvian was taken by surprise and was dumbfounded. He retired completely crestfallen.

Since our reports on the actual conditions of Chinese coolies in Cuba and Peru were made, no more coolies have been allowed to leave China for those countries. The traffic had received its death blow.