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The Chinese Labourers


Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.{d}

From 1810-1836 large numbers of Chinese labourers were brought here to work

Much of the information presented here comes from the booklet The History of the Chinese Indentured Labourers On St Helena - 1810 to 1836 and beyond by Barbara B. George BEM, published in 2002{1}. The booklet is (probably) still available on the island in printed form, and contains much that we have not summarised on this page.

{2}The Chinese Labourers


In the early years of the Colony manual labour was mostly performed by the enslaved but their emancipation in the early 19th Century left a gap in the labour market. Governor Patton (1802-1807) had the idea of bringing in workers from China to overcome the labour shortage. He sent to contacts in China requesting that men be recruited and sent over on short-term contacts to be put to labour here. They were not to be enslaved; they were to be paid, albeit poorly. Accommodation was to be provided (though the quality of same was not advertised) as was transport to and from St Helena.

Governor Patton’s request did not receive an immediate response. Indeed it was not until May 1810, under Governor Beatson, that the first Chinese labourers arrived. Initially only a relatively small number decided St Helena was the place for them; a note in the Records dated June 11th 1810 reports that there were 54 Chinese labourers on the island at that time. The Governor proposed that Sgt. Thos. Ford act as their overseer, managing the supply of workers to the various farms and plantations including The East India Company gardens at Plantation House. Ford calculated the cost of bringing in Chinese labourers at £28 per annum per person, so it was concluded that St Helena would benefit from bringing in many more - maybe up to 300. Governor Beatson agreed and also suggested they could aid the military as labourers, and would also reduce demands on soldiers to perform labouring duties. Beatson recommended to Council that number be immediately raised to 200.

Initially employed on 3-year contracts but later extended to 5-year contracts, most went home to their families in China at end-of-contract. Only a few were permitted to stay{3}.

A further 150 Chinese labourers arrived in July 1811. Amusingly, their arrival caused the administration to realise that there were insufficient quantities of agricultural tools on the island for them all to use, so a request was swiftly sent to London for urgent supplies{4}.

In November 1813 a census indicated a Chinese population of 227. This had risen to 530 in March 1817 and 615 in July of the same year, broken down by skill as follows:

Interpreters: 1; Parsons: 1; Carpenters: 48; Coopers: 3; Stoneblowers{5}: 5; Stonecutters: 91; Masons: 33; Blacksmiths: 10; Pitchers{6}: 1; General labourers: 422

It is thought most of them came from Macau or Canton. Not all were specifically transported here; it was also common to recruit Chinese seamen from calling ships.

Note that although the initial request was for general labourers, it was soon discovered that artisans (in various trades) also applied. There were brought here and applied to their trade (no doubt much to the dismay of the island’s established tradesmen). Chinese labourers are known to have helped in fixing up Longwood House for use by Napoleon, including building the pavilion and an aviary (now in a museum in Chateauroux). Some think they also contributed to building The Run.

Treatment & mistreatment

The Chinese were technically guests on the island, but that is certainly not how they were treated. Indeed it seems their treatment was little better than that of the enslaved they replaced. Here are a few examples from the Records:

Crime & Punishment

Possibly influenced by their poor pay and mistreatment, the Chinese did not always behave themselves on St Helena. Here are a few incidents from the Records:

Some Chinese clearly decided that they did not want to complete their contracts. In July 1814 Caption Harrington of the Maleby Castle reported finding some Chinese stowaways attempting to desert.


Population graphic
Chinese population, May 1810 to March 1836

When he arrived in 1823 Governor Walker decided there were too many Chinese on the island The establishment has gradually increased until it has more than doubled the original number and at present greatly exceeds the wants either of the inhabitants or of the Public. By the last return, the number of all descriptions was 442. The alteration in the circumstances of the island{12} certainly does not require the present number of Chinese. It was agreed by Council that numbers be reduced to 300 and no more to be landed. On 3rd April 1824 151 Chinese were embarked on board the General Harris. A further 54 were sent on the Lord Lowther on 20th April 1826.

By 25th October 1826 Governor Walker reported there were 233 remaining Chinese, comprising 44 labourers; the rest as Cooks, House Cleaners, workers at the Fortifications, and other Public works, not from any real necessity, but principally because they are in the island, and as long as they remain, must be employed in some way. He went on to say It has occurred to me that by substituting European labourers for the Chinese, the agricultural improvement of the island would be accelerated in a much greater degree and at a much cheaper rate. The labour of one European is at least equal to that of 2 Chinese.

As a result here is a communication to Captain McMahon, Superintendent of Chinese, dated 2nd March 1836: Sir, I am directed by HE the Governor to inform you that all the Chinese at present employed at the Public Works and any others who may be desirous to proceed to China, are to be ready to embark on board the Atholl on or about the 12th Inst. R F Seale.

Apparently thereafter only 27 Chinese remained. Whether they continued living here or moved on is not known, with only one exception: in The ‘Blue Book’ for 1846 we find a record under ‘Pensions’:

Chinese Achan, a carpenter in the Company’s service, late Engineer Department: £18 5s 0d

An inch of gold won’t buy an inch of time.{d}

Read More

Bye-laws for the colony of St Helena, compiled 1823, published 1828


  1. No Chinese are permitted to be on the Island without written permission.

  2. Every Chinese that enters on the Company’s Establishment is subject to serve for the full space of five years; and if, at the expiration of that time, he is desirous of quitting the Island, a passage will be found for hi m to return to his native country at the expense of the Honourable Company.

  3. If it be found necessary, either before or after the term of five years, to send a man from the island, a passage will, in like manner, be found for him.

  4. Every man is henceforth to be furnished with a n umber, engraved on a copper medal, which he is required to wear at all times suspended, either round his neck, or on a button on the breast, so as to be conspicuous. The Interpreters and Priests will be furnished with silver ones.

  5. Those men who are employed in town are required to quarter themselves at or near the Red Quarry{13}, and in no other part of the town.

  6. Those employed at Plantation House and Farm are either to occupy the quarters allowed, or hut themselves in the same valley.

  7. Those employed at or near High Knoll are to occupy the quarters allotted, or amongst their countrymen at Plantation House.

  8. Those about Longwood farm are to hut themselves in the place which may be pointed out, and no other.

  9. The Chinese will receive a full allowance of provision as heretofore, but the pay will be regulated, from the 1st of October 1823, at the following rate, viz. Two interpreters, each 50s per month; two priests, 50s per month; and all others 30s per month. Those who may be employed as Mechanics of the first order viz. Carpenters, Coopers, Painters, Stone Blowers, Masons, Blacksmiths and Pl umbers, will receive an addition of 9d. per day, for the days actually employed as such and no others, - Those who are in like manner, employed as Mechanics of the 2nd Order, as Stone Cutters, Pitchers etc. an addition of 6d per day.

  10. It would be improper to require the Chinese to work on a Sunday as on other days, yet a total exemption from needful labour is not necessary. The Chinese will be allowed the same holidays as the European workmen, but on those days, and on Sundays, they are to be put on the same footing as Europeans with respect to service and attendance that is those who are engaged as Cooks, House-cleaners, Grooms, Persons in charge of grounds or livestock etc. shall be obliged to perform those little offices which are required by necessity and convenience without any additional pay whatever; those who refuse to submit to this rule will not receive pay for such holidays at all, but those who comply with it will receive their usual pay.

  11. The working hours for Chinese are from 6 to 8, from 9 to 12 and from half past one to sunset. They are to be at their work during these hours without being called or warned to their labour by overseers; and any Chinese coming late to his work or quitting it before the proper time, shall forfeit one third of his day’s pay; if absent for the whole of any of the three periods, he shall forfeit half a day’s pay, and if absent longer during the day, he shall forfeit the amount of the day’s pay and rations, and the forfeiture shall be increased to half for every succeeding day’s absence- It is but reasonable that they should be made answerable for their own negligence, and for the loss of time and trouble, before they are driven out of their huts and compelled to go to work.

  12. A Chinese, who while at his work may be idle and inattentive, and not perform the quantity of work that might fairly be expected from him, shall only be paid for such part of the day’s work as he may be estimated to have done, and any Chinese who may be guilty of habitual idleness, or absence from his work, shall be struck off the pay list and kept at work, receiving his ration only, until opportunity offers of sending him from the island.

  13. When a man is sick and unable to perform his work, he is to be sent to the Office of the Superintendent, in order to his being furnished with a note to the Hospital, and, whilst a patient there, a stoppage of nine pence per day will be made from his pay; when recovered, he will have a written discharge, which he is to produce at the office, and from thence will be returned to his respective employment.

  14. Sickness in quarters not being allowed, a man remaining from work under that plea, or failing to produce at the office his discharge from the Hospital on the same day, will be treated as an absentee from work.

  15. The Chinese Establishment being divided into two tribes, viz. Canton and Macao, each will be allowed an Interpreter and a Priest. These persons are held responsible for the conduct of their respective tribes, and in case of any tumult amongst them, the persons of all or either of these men will be secured and confined if they do not make an immediate report.

  16. Any Inhabitant of the Island who may be desirous of hiring a Chinese will make application and will be charged at 1s 9d per day for a labourer; 2s 6d. for a Mechanic of the first order, and 2s 3d for a mechanic of the second order.

  17. Persons hiring Chinese are only subject to a charge for their labour 6 days in the week, and on general holidays they will not be charged.

  18. It is desirable that every man should attend to receive his own pay and rations, yet this does not entitle him to consider it a day of exclusion from labour.

  19. Chinese are not to be moved from one employ to another without previous notice being given at the office of the Superintendent.

  20. No Department or Individual is to receive nor dismiss a Chinese without written notice from, or to the Office of the Superintendent.

  21. In all Departments where Chinese are employed a list is to be kept and daily check made against each Man.

  22. Gambling must be suppressed as much as possible, consistent with recreation and harmless amusement. Professed Gamblers when detected are to be treated as incorrigible Idlers; that is to be allowed their rations only, and kept at work until they can be sent back to China. Those who are convicted of selling wine and spirits are to receive the same punishment.

The 1819 ‘Riot’

From the Records

Aug. 16, 1819 - A very painful occurrence which has occasioned the death of two Chinese who were fired upon by a non-comd. officers party of chiefly St. Helena Artillery. On 31st July their contentions began to threaten serious consequences. Upon the interpositions of Capt. Shortis who assembled a party of soldiers, orderlies, stablemen and workmen employed about Plantation with some military workmen from High Knoll, tranquillity was assumed. The soldiers were scarcely withdrawn when a shout from one of the Chinese was followed by a number of others rushing out in a tumultuous manner. The soldiers returned and the Chinese again became tranquil.

On the following morning Capt. Shortis proceeded to town for the purpose of reporting to the Governor, ordering his Sergeant to keep his party on the alert. Soon after the Chinese upwards of 100 on one side and between 200 and 300 on the other commenced fighting, on which the soldiers marched down the hill. One of the Chinese parties immediately united with the soldiers. The other party dispersed in various directions and whilst several of them were scrambling up the opposite hill some stones were either thrown or rolled down, one of which it is said struck a Corporal. He immediately fired his musquet - his example was followed by the rest when two Chinese were killed. The Coroner’s Jury returned a verdict of murder.

Aug. 23 - Special Sessions - After a patient hearing of 14 hours the soldiers were acquitted.

The Chinese had assembled in large numbers with knives and other weapons and first attacked the soldiers (who were sent to quell the tumult) with stones and glass bottles.

Article: The Chinese Connection

By Mike Olsson, published in the St Helena Herald 3rd August 2002{1}

In the mid 90s, a Chinese gentleman based in Manchester, Mr Yu Sang Lee, arrived to St Helena, investigating the possibilities to le-locate companies from Hong Kong to St Helena. At this time, Hong Kong was a British Overseas Territory like St Helena but the transfer of the Territory to Communist Chinese rule had been decided and the uncertainty of the future made many Hong Kong citizens and companies to look for suitable new homes and locations around the world. St Helena was suitable as a small-scale safe haven for immigrants from Hong Kong. We were, and we are, a British Overseas Territory as Hong Kong, which the immigrants were used to. We have free trade with the European Union, which it was feared that Hong Kong would lose with the transfer to a new regime. A British Passport was also a future prospect for the people. The British Passport was a very important factor.

Mr Lee’s interest for St Helena followed a meeting he had with Mr John Clifford in London. Mr Lee had served in the Hong Kong Police prior his career in business and they met at a common police friend in Manchester.

Mr Lee’s main backers were a Hong Kong textiles company, ‘Best Policy Co Ltd’, belonging to a Hong Kong conglomerate called ‘Tai Chung Co Ltd’. Best Policy Co Ltd still exists making mainly leather watchstraps and parts. Mr Lee also had other ideas in his portfolio such as shark meat and fin processing.

The proposed clothing manufacturing was in a, for St Helena, grand scale. Mr Lee wanted to bring in 300-1,000 Chinese key personnel, including families to the Island but the mainstay of the workforce needed would be employed locally. According to Mr Lee, at least 300 Chinese were needed to make the proposal economically viable.

The factories would import raw materials from the Far East, assemble the products here and ship them to their markets, mainly in the EU and in the US. The Hong Kong companies promised to pay all development costs, including subsidies for additional doctors, policemen and teachers, needed because of the increase in population. One of the requirements stated by the investors was the acquisition of St Helena Nationality as soon as possible after 1997, as from that date the immigrants were effectively stateless. The time-scale for this development was very precise. The factory had to be up and running and the immigrants present on the Island well before 1997, the year when Hong Kong was transferred to Communist China rule. The proposal was discussed on the Island but Mr Lee had problems to get support for his and his principal’s ideas. With hindsight, Mr Lee’s ideas could have been a start for St Helena’s development and it would have fallen in well with the Island’s history - It would not have been the first time Asian workers had been taken to the Island to bring new skills and replenish the workforce. At the same time, the reluctance in St Helena to accept the proposal is understandable, as the massive change in the community must have seemed fearsome. Reading the proposal from Mr Yu Sang Lee it stands quite clear that the main purpose for the investment was to get people out of Hong Kong more than create a profitable business in St Helena and that, presumably, the immigrating workers and their families had to pay substantial amounts of money to come here instead of getting paid for their work. International politics very often create business opportunities.


{a} John Kerr, Artist{b} G.W. Melliss{14}{c} Jean-Baptiste-Henri Durand-Brager{d} Chinese Proverb{e} On Royal Engineers 1872 map


{1} @@RepDis@@{2} Extract from John Kerr’s 1819 painting of Plantation House.{3} Some have observed parallels with how ex-pats are employed on St Helena today (though at the other end of the employment scale).{4} Apparently forward planning was as lacking in 1811 as it often is 200 years later! .{5} Today a ‘stoneblower’ is a machine used in railway construction to pack an area with small stones. Presumably in the early 19th Century this function was performed manually.{6} According to the Wiktionary a Pitcher is an (obsolete) term for A sort of crowbar for digging. Presumably in this context a ‘Picher’ is the man who wielded this crowbar.{7} This is sometimes claimed to explain why there are very few Chinese surnames on the island, though in our opinion it is more likely that the Chinese did not marry local people and children fathered by the Chinese were treated as illegitimate and retained their mother’s surname.{8} We are not convinced that these punishments are the same as being punished in the same manner as if the offender were a British Subject{9} It is strange that the fine is denominated in Dollars. In the early 19th Century the circulating money on St Helena was somewhat eclectic! We guess that 2 dollars would have been around £8.00, i.e. around 5 months’ pay.{10} We assume this was some form of assistance fund for those workers who became sick and were unable to earn money for food, etc.{11} Governor Mark Wilks seems to have been a humanitarian.{12} That is, the economic decrease resulting from the departure of the troops after Napoleon’s death.{13} In the areas now known as China Lane and Drummond Hay Square.{14} Father of John Melliss.


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