A little Chinese help

I’m not usually one for picking up on anniversaries/notable events in time, but thanks to the British Library’s Asia and Africa blog, I see it’s time for Chinese New Year – 5 February 2019. This provides an opportunity to remember the Chinese Labour Corps who served in East Africa during World War 1 and to say “Happy New Year” again…

There is still much work to be done on this group of men. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Register, six men of the Chinese Contingent died in East Africa and are named on the Screen Wall in Dar es Salaam CWGC (see also). What is fascinating about their entries are the dates of death – November 1917 through to November 1918. This was during the ‘mopping up’ operations phase when many of the other Labour contingents had been sent home and even the Cape Corps was being moved to Mesopotamia. A search on The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue doesn’t give any obvious link to how many others served in East Africa. But there are some entries in War Diaries (available from The (UK) National Archives) which can shed some light:

WO 95/5302/5, 4 Aug 1918 (Dar es Salaam) – The AAG had been asked for ‘sanction of certain personnel for preliminary work in IWT [Inland Water Transport] Chinese Camp, pending approval of establishment’. On 5 August the erection of the camp commenced. On 5 August, the AAG was informed that ‘1,035 Chinese were awaiting transhipment to Rangoon.’ Simla required only 629 and ’15 interpreters essential.’ It appears that India was also sourcing Chinese manpower from elsewhere: on 24 August  ‘India had arranged diversion of 30 at Rangoon’ and on 16 August, ‘6 interpreters had been arranged.’

Also on 5 August, ‘A draft of Indians and Chinese Mechanics arrived at Daressalaam by SS “Magdalena” for the Construction and Maintenance Section.’ On the 6th, ‘9 Chinese, 12 Anglo-Indians and 35 Indians disembarked’ from the Magdalena, while ‘One Chinese Follower, One Ango-Indian, sailed for Dar-es-Salaam from India, on HT “Shuja”. On 7 August, those who had arrived on the 5th were assigned to MLO and Mechanical Section.

8 August saw a ‘telegram sent by 3rd Echelon to CHIEF SIMLA requesting 40 Chinese Stevedores to be diverted, owing to recent developments’ [what the ‘recent developments’ were needs further investigation].

On 10 August, 8 Chinese personnel who had arrived from India were sent to Construction Section.

We get some clarification of the diversion on 21 August: 360 Chinese Stevedores, diverted at Rangoon. Remainder of about 690 saild for DaresSalaam about 22nd August.’

An entry on 28 August might not be very politically correct today, but it shows the challenges of trying to work with diverse cultures in a specific place and time and attempts to keep relations harmonious: ‘In view of the peculiarities of the Chinese [not specified], it is considered advisable that not more than two should occupy one 80lb Tent.’

Somewhere there had been a Mutiny, as the entry on 28 August refers to one, noting that concerning the Ivy, ‘crew undesirable, 34 under arrest charged with Mutiny’. The crew was being returned to Bombay India with a new ‘crew consisting of Nigerians Swahilis.’ Whether this was purely a mutiny on the Ivy or had any connection with the Chinese is not clear.

That something was amiss is revealed in the entry for 2 September noting that ‘Wire fence for IWT Chinese Camp approved by DA and QMG. Necessary instructions issued’ and on 3 September it’s recorded that ‘Q gave authority for wiring in Chinese Camp, owing peculiarities Chinese.’

At last on 5 September there is mention of a name in relation to the Chinese: ‘Lieut JH Goby IARO and 669 IWT Chinese disembarked from HT “Trent”. No contract papers arrived with Draft.’ Goby was Serjeant James Henry of the Indian Army Reserve of Officers – medal cards ref: WO 372/8/40154; WO 372/26/1473.

On 7 September, ‘Q authorises issue of opium to Chinese personnel, ie 20 grains per day’.

On 10 September, 15 Chinese Interpreters were requisitioned from India. Whether these are the same or new interpreters from those referred to earlier, is again not clear without further research.

Five gangs Chinese, consisting of 328 men reported for duty on the wharf on 13 September in Dar es Salaam.

A return of employment on 14 September for the Mechanical Section, showed no Chinese being employed there:

  • Europeans       18
  • Anglo-Indians   6
  • Indians            17
  • Goanese            7
  • Swahilis           22
  • total               70

On the 16th, ‘Communications sent to COO recommending an issue of Thin Suits, Felt Shoes and Tarbosh for Chinese Stevedores’. This was followed with ‘Six specially selected Chinese sent to APM for training as Police. Remainder of Chinese reported at Wharf.’

At 5pm on 27 September, van Deventer inspected the Chinese camp in Dar es Salaam.

Another War Diary file WO 95/5359/4, provides a little more tantalising information for anyone wanting to research the topic further:

2 November 1918, Hospital Ship “Dongola” had 75 Chinese Contingent and 4 Chinese Labour Contingent on board.

9 December 1918, HT Karagola had 8 Chinese Interpreters IWT

18 December saw 12 Chinese of IWT and 35 Chinese from Base MT scheduled to embark on MT “Iran” on 20 December.

On 11 December, No 1205, Chang King Yine, Stev, Chinese Labour Contg died of VDH, as reported in Base Orders by Major HGF Christie, Officiating Base Commandant, East Africa Force, 13 December 1918, Dar es Salaam.  For some reason his name missed being added to the CWGC wall.

On 16 December, No 396, Yoh Zoa Kin, a driver for the Chinese Contingent died of Influenza, while No 1540 Stevedore, Chen Yung Foh, Chinese Labour Corps died of Dysentery on 20 December 1918. Neither are listed on the CWGC list.

This is what I’ve found fortuitously whilst looking for other information. It’s limited in scope but provides a flavour of what Chinese Labour did in East Africa and the  challenges faced by all. It allows another three men to be remembered by name and hopefully together with an officer’s name, will enable others to dig a bit deeper and open up more on the contribution of the Chinese to the British war effort.

As someone recently said, many still need to discover the true meaning of ‘World’ in World War 1 – and 2.

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Jan Smuts and the Chinese

On 24 May 2016, had he still been alive, Jan Smuts would be 146 years old. For those of you too lazy to do the maths, he was born in 1870.

At the age of 34, whilst out of a government role, Smuts was vexed by what was known in South Africa as the ‘Chinese Question‘ or ‘Problem’. Following the Anglo-Boer War (South African War) of 1899-1902, Lord Milner had arranged for Chinese labour to work on the South African gold mines as local black labour was not forthcoming and there was not enough white labour prepared to work at the unskilled labour rates of pay. Getting the mines operational after the war was vital for the economy and to cover the costs of the war. But, for the likes of Smuts, Botha and other South African politicians, the introduction of another racial group into the already volatile melting pot of Southern Africa was anathema.

Smuts felt strongly about this as noted in his letter to JX Merriman on 31 August 1905 (Hancock, vol 2):

You are quite right, the Chinese business is contaminating the very well-spring of our national and social life, and I feel sure that we shall not soon get another such opportunity for getting rid of it as now. Feeling in the Transvaal has been profoundly stirred; those people (along the Rand) who were for sordid reasons in favour of Chinese labour repent and suffer bitterly now … the question is great enough to found its own party, which will yet be the most powerful in South Africa – unless we are really going to be an annexe of China, a Hong Kong…

The last Chinese labourers were eventually sent back in 1910.

This was not the end of Smuts’ dealings wiht the Chinese, however. During World War 1, whilst he was commander in chief of the forces operating in East Africa, he would have encountered the Chinese Contingent. Unfortunately little is known of the work these men did in the theatre other than what Steve Lau has brought to light and which he shared at the 2016 Great War in Africa Conference.

South Africa, however, has retained a relationship with China in some form since these early days. Chinese restaurants provide a tangible link – interestingly during Apartheid Chinese people were classified as black, whilst Japanese were classified white. Yet dispensations were clearly given: there was a Chinese restuarant (Golden Lake) in the Boksburg Lake grounds for as long as I can remember.

Today, China itself is economically involved in developing infrastructure and providing loans to African governments.

Did Smuts forsee this development way back in 1905?

It might be worth a mention that Smuts’ World War 1 nemesis, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck fought the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion.

Hei ho, hei ho, it’s off to w(ar) I go…

Watching the Battle of the Somme brought the above line to mind. Men jauntily off to war – rifle and spade (and handgrenade?) over their shoulder in Part 1. In Part 3, the Manchester Pioneers are waiting to move to the front whilst German prisoners of war and British wounded are leaving the front.

Men and women of all races joined the war effort: some willingly, others not.
Why did those who did so willingly join?
Here are some ideas:

  • Adventure – the Legion of Frontiersmen who formed part of the 25th Royal Fusiliers come to mind.
  • Patriotism – although this relates to Australia, the same reasons applied to British South Africans, Rhodesians and East Africans
  • Protection of their home and land – settlers
  • Finance – Chinese Labour Corps (Interview) (overview) (remembrance)
  • New beginnings or hiding away – European example; the Legion of Frontiersmen had a few over time
  • Conscription – in September 1915 the East African colonists voted in favour of conscription for the white settlers (TNA:  CO 542/9). Amos van der Merwe shares Vetfaan’s experience of being called up in a later war in his novel Rolbos
    During World War 1, South Africa and Australia were the only two British Empire countries not to introduce conscription.
  • Co-option – Carrier Corps, SANLC, West Africa

Other interesting enlistment titbits