Sailing the British Empire : The Voyages of The Clarence, 1858-73

Differences in Mutiny Rates on Ships with Indian and Chinese Coolies

Mutinies were much more common on ships containing Chinese coolies than those with Indian coolies.  Contemporaries explained this difference by the underlying nature of the Chinese that was bereft amongst Indians.  Described as "undoubtedly the most unfeeling race on the globe," the Chinese were seen as a savage race and as a result, were blamed for the high incidence rates of mutinies on ships.  However, these reports ignored the implication that Chinese coolies were treated dramatically worse than Indian coolies.  

The coolie trade was immensely profitable as margins were high.  Kidnapping, bribes, and other deceitful measures were taken to obtain indentured laborers, as the Chinese government had limited regulations and control over the traffic, resulting in involuntary migration, and further discontent.  Even before embarking on their voyage, Chinese coolies were gathered in "Chu-tze-kwan" (pig pens), where disease and torture ran rampant. 


The mistreatment of Chinese coolies extended onto the ship, as well.  Overcrowding was a major issue, which is evidenced by the average of 0.55 passengers transported per ton, in comparison to the average of 0.42 passengers per ton on voyages containing Indian coolies.  Adult men confined to close quarters added to the discontent amongst the Chinese coolies.  Voyages from China were almost exclusively all male and differed significantly from voyages from India that included women and children, making the journey more bearable.  

In addition to the demographic variation, the length of the voyage from China was also much longer on average than from India.  Coolies were led to believe that the journey would not take longer than two weeks.  To their surprise, the voyages were significantly longer.  The journey from China was on average 116 days, which was 20 days longer than the average of 96 days on voyages from India.  Each day trapped below the deck in disease-ridden air made mutinies more likely on this lengthy journey.    

Sources cited:
1. Lubbock, Basil. Coolie Ships and Oil Sailers. Boston: Charles E. Lauriat, 1935. 32-36.
2. McDonald, John, and Ralph Shlomowitz. “MORTALITY ON CHINESE AND INDIAN VOYAGES TO THE WEST INDIES AND SOUTH AMERICA, 1847-1874”. Social and Economic Studies, 1992. 203–240.


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