HC Deb 06 May 1907 vol 173 cc1335-44

I beg to ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he can give the name of the mine where the 295 Chinese coolies are working in the Transvaal for whom no licences we reissued at the time of landing in South Africa; whether any application has been made to the, responsible authorities for such additional licences to be issued; and what action, if any, has been taken in the matter.

The following Questions on the same subject also appeared on the Paper—.

MR. G. GREENWOOD (Peterborough)

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies how many Chinese coolies have been imported into South Africa without licences; whether any of them, and, if so, how many, formed part of those imported by the steamship "Cranley," which left Ching-wang-tao on 27th November last; and whether, in view of the assurance given by him on 10th December last that if it should appear that any of such coolies were not covered by licences, steps would be taken to prevent their landing, he can say why such steps were not in fact taken and by whose authority they were allowed to land.

MR. SCOTT (Ashton-under-Lyne)

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies on whom should the cost of repatriating the 257 Chinese coolies landed in South Africa without licence fall; and have those responsible been asked to pay for sending them back.


To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies when did Lord Selborne become aware of the fact that 257 Chinese coolies had arrived in South Africa without licence; was it with Lord Selborne's consent that the coolies were permitted to start work; and, if not, what steps did Lord Selborne take to see that the law was complied with.

MR. WALSH (Lancashire, Ince)

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies when the Colonial Office first became aware of the illegal importation of the 259 Chinese coolies; whether those coolies are now receiving any different treatment from the others and whether licences have been issued in respect to them, and in what way has their presence in the Transvaal been made legal; whether these coolies are employed at one mine or at several; and whether he can give to the House the name of the mine or mines, together with their proprietors; and whether he can state who is the official responsible for the error in calculation by which these coolies were allowed to be shipped from China.

DR. RUTHERFORD (Middlesex, Brentford)

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies whether any communication was made by Lord Selborne to the new Government of the Transvaal that there was a large number of Chinese coolies who had been imported into the Colony without licenses; and, if so, what steps were taken by the Colonial Government to deal with the situation.

MR. BYLES (Salford, N.)

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies whether the error in issuing, under the Transvaal Chinese Labour Ordinance, 259 licences for coolies in excess of the total number authorised, did not arise before the present Government took office; did it not remain undiscovered until some time after His Majesty's present Secretary of State was appointed; and what punishment, if any, will fall on the officer primarily responsible for this irregularity.

MR. STEWART (Greenock)

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies whether the Chinese coolies who have been imported into the Transvaal without licences are at liberty to trade and acquire land; whether they are bound to reside on the premises of their employers; and, if so, whether they require any permit to lease the premises; and whether there is any law imposing the necessity of such a permit.

MR. NICHOLLS (Northamptonshire, N.)

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies whether persons who introduce and employ Chinese labourers in the Transvaal without having obtained licences for them are liable to a penalty of £100 for each labourer; and, if so, whether the introducers and employers of the 259 coolies recently imported without licences have been made amenable to the law.


To ask the Undersecretary of State for the Colonies whether the Chinese coolies who have been imported into the Transvaal without the licences required by the Labour Ordinance are subject to the restraints upon liberty, and upon the rights to acquire property, which are imposed by that Ordinance.

MR. MACKARNESS (Berkshire, Newbury)

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies whether the 257 Chinese labourers recently im- ported into the Transvaal without the licences required by law are at present confined in compounds; and, if so, in which mines and by what law or authority they are so confined.


To ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies who were the officials responsible for the recent importation into the Transvaal of 257 Chinese labourers not licensed, as required by the Labour Ordinance of 1904; and whether they have offered any explanation for permitting such a breach of the law.


I think it will be for the convenience of the House if I answer this and the other Questions on the subject by reading the telegrams which have passed between the Secretary of State and the High Commissioner. The number of Chinese coolies imported in S.S. "Cranley" appearing, according to the information in Colonial Office, to be somewhat in excess of the licences issued, Lord Elgin telegraphed on 27th December as follows: "It is difficult to reconcile statistics of Chinese coolies introduced since December, 1905, with number of licences thon outstanding. I should be glad if you would send Home by mail full report on the figures." The High Commissioner replied on 1st January: "1st January. Your telegram of 27th December No. 1. Matter has been referred to Jamieson, who, on again going through figures, has discovered that he unwittingly furnished me with incorrect data for my telegram 15th December, No. 1. That he should have done so is due to a series of unfortunate clerical errors for which he assumes full responsibility, I, of course, having nothing but his figures on which to go. He puts forward in part explanation of how mistakes arose the fact that the principal clerk in charge of returns was on leave and the figures were only checked by one, and that an inadequate method. The sole official record of the number of coolies in respect of whom licences are issued is the counterfoils of the licence-book, and according to these counterfoils, licences in respect of a total number of63,350 coolies were issued, exclusive of 3,000 applied for by the Randfontein group, which hereafter will be assumed to be permanently eliminated. In the process of investigation it was accidentally discovered that one licence and one counterfoil made out in June, 1905, were incorrectly filled in, the number on both appearing as 553 instead of 246 as it ought to have been. Prior to signature the licence was altered, but not the counterfoil, and the latter, as explained, constituting the only record in the Foreign Labour Department, 553 was, throughout all previous computations, assumed to be correct. It was only when the figures furnished in my telegram of 15th December were being compiled that this discrepancy was discovered, and the total set down at its correct amount, namely, 63,043. The true position therefore is as follows: actual number of licences issued 63,043, actual and prospective arrivals, 63,302, difference 259. Had the figure 553 on the counterfoil been correct, number of licences issued stood at 63,350, leaving a balance of licences over coolies of forty-eight, so that, in so far as the licences are concerned under which the coolies brought in since December, 1905, were introduced, no infraction of the stipulation laid down by His Majesty's Government could be assumed to have been committed. The one satisfactory feature of this blunder is that the fundamental error has been traced back to June, 1905, and that it was not discovered until last batch of coolies were on the water, thus making it impossible even for a hostile critic to suggest that error was anything but a pure accident. I have taken serious notice of the blunder, but am prepared to stand bail for the absolute loyalty of Jamieson and his staff." On this the Secretary of State telegraphed as follows:—"7th January. Matter most urgent. Your telegram 1st January, No. 3. In view of pledges given in House of Commons that no Chinaman not covered by licences should land in South Africa, it is desirable that the 259 arriving in excess of the number for whom licences were authorised should be returned to China. Please telegraph your views as to how repatriation could be effected and as to incidence of cost and of liability to compensate those who do not return willingly. Even if error was itself accidental the direct cause is negligence of. Superintendent in relying on so manifestly insufficient a record as counterfoils of licence book." To which High Commissioner replied:—"10th January. Matter most urgent. Your telegram No. 2, 7th January. I do not think that any incident of my administration has caused me more annoyance or regret than this unfortunate blunder made by my officers so long ago as 10th June, 1905, and which is producing its consequences now. It was a perfectly bona fide slip, such as all men are liable to. The Labour Importation Agency acting equally bona fide on mistaken information supplied by the Foreign Labour Department, cannot reasonably be made to share responsibility. I quite understand that His Majesty's Government consider it very desirable that, in view of pledges given, 259 men of the new arrivals should not have licences issued to them or be allowed to proceed to the Rand, but I am most grateful for being allowed to state extraordinary difficulty of Transvaal Government in the matter. If I am compelled to send back 259 of the coolies who have just arrived by the "Cranley," and are now in the depot at Durban, and my officers succeed in explaining position to them without producing a riot, whole expense will have to fall on Transvaal Government, and from the point of view of the Transvaal tax-payer Government's position will be indefensible. Government will have to pay to the Labour Importation Agency same sum for each of the 259 as is charged to His Majesty's Government with respect to state-aided repatriates, namely, £25 per head. We must also pay coolies reasonable compensation for loss of advantages they expect under their contract. I put this at £20 a head, being very least sum which Jamieson estimates that a reasonably hard working and economical coolie could save in the three years for which these men think they have come. Total £11,655, or say £12,000. This is an estimate of minimum sum on which, in opinion of Superintendent of foreign Labour, he can hope to persuade the men to return willingly. He says that none of them will return willingly without it. Says that it is more than possible that when they appreciate position they will stand out for more liberal compensation for breach of contract than £20 a head. We shall thus be involved in an absolute waste of public money to the extent of £12,000 at a moment when Government is in sore straits for money (and) is obliged to starve most necessary works in an effort to hand over the administration to the new Government without a deficit on the Budget, in spite of the very serious falling off in the revenue. For instance, a programme of new school buildings urgently required to replace existing insanitary accommodation has had to be postponed, and it is pointed out to me that, merely on account of a clerical error, Government will have to throw away a sum which would provide school accommodation for 800 children. I would remind you that total number of licences which have been issued is 63,043, and total number of coolies in the country, including all those brought by the "Cranley," is only 55,018, the difference being accounted for by the number who have been repatriated in one way or another, or who have died. I am not in any degree whatever responsible for what has happened, though I wish no one else to share with me responsibility for its consequences. I can only say that if His Majesty's Government can spare me this additional strain on Transvaal finances at a moment to me of extreme administrative difficulty, and allow me to pass this extra 259 men into the Transvaal, I shall be sincerely grateful." And the Secretary of State answered:—" 17th January. Your telegram of 10th January, No. 4. I accept your assurance that what has occurred has been the result of a pure error, and that no suspicion of bad faith attaches to any one. But where a distinct pledge has been given to Parliament it is important to render it impossible that we should be charged, even unjustly, with having broken it in letter or spirit. For this reason I should have been glad to arrange for the immediate repatriation of so many coolies as have been imported in excess of the number of licences issued. But I appreciate the force of the considerations which you urge, and I am reluctant to incur the risks to which you reform and especially on the eve of responsible government to impose an expenditure of £12,000 on the Transvaal as a consequence of the clerical error of an official, which took place before I assumed office. I will therefore not press further for repatriation of those coolies." As to the status of the 259 extra coolies, I do not know which ones they are nor upon which mines they are employed, nor how they should be distinguished among the total number imported. If the last 259 recruited were chosen, which seems the only possible way, reference would have to be made to China. So far as I am advised the mistake about the licences does not appear to affect the position of the labourer, who, when he is within the Transvaal, is subject to the provisions of the Labour Importation Ordinance. Moreover, all these matters have now passed in their administrative aspect wholly within the authority of the responsible Government of the Transvaal, and any legal issues which may arise out of them can only be determined by the Courts of that Colony.


I should like to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman intends to distribute that Answer.


I think it will be convenient to lay the full text of the telegrams I have read in the form of a Parliamentary Paper.

MAJOR SEELY (Liverpool, Abercromby)

Since I was the hon. Member to whom the pledge was given that, if any coolies in excess of the number of licences issued were found to have embarked on this steamer, they should be returned, may I ask my right hon. friend whether he does not consider that any statement that the matter is now within the province of the Transvaal Government is quite beside the mark so far as this House is concerned, and whether the return of those 259 coolies is not a duty laid on His Majesty's Government which they cannot possibly evade? Further, I desire to ask whether it is possible for these coolies to be repatriated under the Repatriation Ordinance and out of the funds so provided.


I do not think that my hon. friend, having heard the telegrams, will suggest that we have not taken in a very serious spirit any pledge given to the House of Commons. But in carrying out such a pledge we must be guided by practical and. reasonable considerations, and the proportion between the theoretic issue involved and the great practical difficulties must always be observed. As to what we can do now in regard to any matters connected with the Transvaal, I speak on an entirely different footing from that on which I spoke before the Constitution was granted. We shall be guided largely by the responsible Ministers of the Transvaal.


asked what punishment would be inflicted on the officer primarily responsible.


I do not know who the officer in question is. He is very likely some not very exalted official in the Labour Importation Agency or the Foreign Labour Department. He has evidently been very severely censured by his superiors, and I do not think we should be adopting a very wise course if we were to proceed further against this unfortunate official.

MR. CROOKS (Woolwich)

Is this a patronage appointment of the late Government?

MR. AUSTIN TAYLOR (Liverpool, East Toxteth)

Were the coolies imported in excess of the numbers appearing on the licence or on the counterfoil?


More coolies were imported than appeared on the counterfoil.

MR. LUPTON (Lincolnshire, Sleaford)

Is it not a fact that the only officer responsible to the Colonial Office is the High Commissioner?


I should like to ask whether it is to be understood that Lord Selborne or those responsible for the administration of public affairs in the Transvaal have issued those 259 licences since January of this year.


The question is one of extreme complication, because no one can tell who are these particular 259 coolies. If you really wish to be quite just on the particular importer you ought to make a pro rata deduction from all the shiploads since the date when the error was made. In a matter so complicated I should hesitate to lay down the law without notice in answer to a supplementary Question. I must have an opportunity of consulting legal advisers. For anything done by Lord Selborne in this matter His Majesty's Government accept full responsibility.


Why have the Government kept this information so long from the House?


No information was retained from the House, and it is always my endeavour to supply the House with the fullest information whenever I am interrogated; but I am not aware that it is my duty to endeavour to multiply opportunities for interrogation.