Waverly tragedy: Trafficking in Chinese labor leads to 300 dead

Society & Culture

The American crew of the 'Waverly,' fearing that their human cargo would jump overboard, decided to seal the hold, where hundreds of Chinese workers were being kept. Those workers died in the most gruesome of manners.

Chinese workers coolies in Singapore

This Week in China’s History: October 28, 1855

In the wee hours of October 28, 1855, the first mate aboard the American clipper ship Waverly approached the hold of his vessel. Opening the hatches, the crew confronted a sight of unimaginable horror: 300 people — Chinese who had boarded the ship seeking opportunity and work in America — lay dead below deck. Some had suffocated in the hold, which had been sealed for 12 hours. Others, as the desperation of their situation became clear, died by suicide or apparent murder-suicide pacts, hanging from beams, drowned in cisterns, or mutually stabbed. Newspapers in American picked up this “horrible story” of a “wholesale massacre.” The crew was imprisoned and questioned, and a narrative of horror across the South China Sea emerged.

The Waverly had begun its voyage in the ports of Amoy (Xiamen) and Swatow (Shantou), where it had taken on board some 450 Chinese as part of the trade in “coolies” (a slur I will avoid using, except to describe the nature of the trade that has come to be recognized as an aspect of the global slave trade).

In the early 19th century, as abolitionist movements gained momentum toward eliminating the trade in enslaved African labor, plantation owners and their allies in government began seeking alternative labor sources, especially for the brutal work on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the mining operations of South America. As early as 1806, British vessels began transporting Chinese laborers, known from the start as “coolies.” (The term is sometimes said to be derived from the Chinese kǔlì 苦力, or “bitter labor,” but it seems to have derivation in Indian or even Turkish vocabulary.)

It is important to distinguish different types of Chinese emigration at this time. Much of it followed a pattern not unlike European migration, where people sought work opportunities in the Americas, sometimes with the intention of returning home, eventually. In his epic history of Chinese workers in the trans-continental railway, historian Gordon H. Chang describes how some Chinese signed up to emigrate to California.

This free migration was distinct from the “coolie” trade, centered on Xiamen — one of the original six treaty ports opened to European trade after 1842 — and the Portuguese enclave at Macao, which by then already had three centuries of history with unfree labor. From the 16th century, Chinese and South Asians were being trafficked. As the 19th century opened, these ports became notorious, luring would-be migrants with promises of work overseas. In other cases, Chinese or European agents might capture or compel local Chinese into compounds at the port — “barracoons,” following the same usage as in the slave ports of Africa — where they would be held until a ship needing human cargo was ready to sail.

About 350 Chinese boarded the Waverly in Xiamen in late September 1855, and another 100 came on in Shantou a week later. Once aboard, though, the passengers became aware that their destination was not “Gold Mountain” — i.e., California — but the guano mines of Peru or the sugar plantations of Cuba (reports vary as to which was the ultimate destination). Men usually survived only a few years under these harsh conditions; women were unlikely to be put to manual labor, but would instead be assigned as household servants or sex workers. Learning the deception, at least three people escaped overboard while the ship was still near shore.

After just a week at sea, several more people jumped overboard, apparently preferring drowning to the disease aboard the Waverly, which had killed several Chinese as well as the ship’s American captain. Passengers tried continually to escape their confinement and the disease, fighting with the crew to get on deck. Several were shot. By October 18, a new wave of illness began to claim more victims, and fighting intensified.

And then, the Waverly’s cooks refused to work over a pay dispute. As rumors mingled with infection, the passengers added starvation to a list of fears that already contained disease and servitude. For days, the Chinese continued their struggle with the crew, still trying to get above decks but now also trying to secure provisions. Reeling from illness and violence, the ship made for the Philippines, where it could get a new officer to replace the captain who had died.

The situation reached its grisly conclusion after the vessel stopped in Manila, around October 25. The Chinese were now desperate to escape their plague-ship. The American crew, fearing that their human cargo would jump overboard en masse with the prospect of land nearby, decided to seal the hold, with the awful results described at the outset: hundreds dead in the most gruesome manner.

Spanish authorities in Manila took the crew of the Waverly into custody. The American consul in Xiamen declined to intervene (this same consul claimed by 1870 to have eliminated American participation in the coolie trade). Newspapers as far away as Lancaster, Pennsylvania reported the atrocity.

The Waverly fueled demands to investigate the coolie trade. In response to accusations of trafficking, abuse, kidnapping, and other crimes, the Imperial Maritime Customs, led by a Chinese and two British members, sent a commission to Cuba in 1874, which collected some 1,200 depositions representing more than 1,600 Chinese laborers. What they uncovered, summarized in the report’s preamble, was clear and disturbing.

The depositions and petitions show that 8/10ths of the entire number declared that they had been kidnapped or decoyed; that the mortality during the voyage from wounds caused by blows, suicide and sickness proves to have exceeded 10 per cent; that on arrival at Havana they were sold into slavery,—a small proportion being disposed of to families and shops, whilst the large majority became the property of sugar planters; that the cruelty displayed even towards those of the former class is great, and that it assumes in the case of those of the latter, proportions that are unendurable. The labour, too, on the plantations is shown to be excessively severe, and the food to be insufficient; the hours of labour are too long, and the chastisements by rods, whips, chains, stocks, &c, &c, productive of suffering and injury. During the past years a large number have been killed by blows, have died from the effects of wounds and have hanged themselves, cut their throats, poisoned themselves with opium, and thrown themselves into wells and sugar caldrons […]

On the termination of the contracts the employers, in most cases, withhold the certificates of completion, and insist on renewal of engagements, which may extend to even more than 10 years, and during which the same system of cruelty is adhered to; whilst if the Chinese refuse to assent, they are taken to the depots, whence in chains, and watched by guards, they are forced to repair roads, receiving no compensation for their labour, undergoing a treatment exactly similar to that of criminals in jail. Afterwards they are compelled to again enter the service of an employer, and sign a contract […]

Scholars debate the relationship between “coolie” labor and slavery. Without question, white landowners in the Americas used Asian labor to replace African labor as abolitionism gained momentum. Coolie labor was once considered “indentured servitude,” but work by scholars like Evelyn Hu-Dehart has shown the conditions to be much more akin to slavery (and the death rate for Chinese transported to the Caribbean was also similar to that on the abhorrent “Middle Passage” of the Atlantic Slave Trade). Nonetheless, the legal status of Asian workers remained distinct from chattel slavery, which treated African laborers as property in all respects (and this distinction was considered important by Chinese laborers themselves as well).

The tragedy of the Waverly is not that it was unique, but that events like it were commonplace, an enduring stain on the legacy of Western interaction with China.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.