HL Deb 15 November 1906 vol 165 cc39-54

On resuming at 9 o'clock—


said: I rise to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is in a position to furnish any information respecting the result of investigations as to the prevalence of vice in the compounds occupied by Chinese coolies in the Transvaal. I shrink somewhat from Opening in your Lordships' House a discussion upon a subject so painful and even terrible as that to which my Question alludes, but I feel bound in consistency to raise the question again at the earliest possible moment. Your Lordships may remember that two years ago, I think it was in February, 1904, † when the first discussion in this House took place on the subject of Chinese labour in the Transvaal, I ventured to call attention to what I thought was a branch of the subject which had been strangely overlooked, I mean the moral question involved in the arrangements which † See (4) Debates, cxxix., 1001. were then in contemplation, and I received at that time assurances that the obvious difficulties had not been ignored, that those perils were being in some way or other guarded against; and alike from the then representatives of the Colonial Office and from other noble Lords, and more especially from Lord Grey who is now in Canada, but who has been closely connected with South Africa and its work, the House received assurances that this matter would certainly be kept under careful surveillance, so that if possible the evils which I ventured to foreshadow might be averted. Mow that is quite two and a half years ago, and from that time until now I have hardly ceased to make, indeed, I have not ceased to make, constant inquiries upon this subject in South Africa and from other sources where it seemed to me that information was likely to be, or ought to be, available. In the files of the Colonial Office will be found not one or two, but many more letters of an unofficial kind from me on this subject, and my further inquiries have extended to travellers in South Africa who have made a special study of the Chinese problem, and from residents in South Africa who have had opportunities of looking into this question, and who are likely to take an unprejudiced view. I have also made inquiries from the clergy and ministers of different denominations with whom I have been in correspondence as to what is happening in the Chinese compounds. I have further endeavoured, by frequent communications with those who are familiar with Chinese work elsewhere, especially in the Malay Peninsula and other places, to ascertain what is likely to be the South African peril in this respect if an inference may be drawn from what has happened elsewhere. The result of all these inquiries is that I know no subject upon which the conflict of evidence, where evidence exists, or the absence of evidence where it might have been expected to exist, has been so marked. I have had assurances that this dreaded evil had been either averted or the peril had been over-rated, and I have had assurances on the other side that the mischief was of the gravest possible kind at this hour, and I have never been able to obtain any certain first-hand assurances from one side or the other which seemed to me sufficiently trustworthy to justify one in taking any public action, or joining in a public demonstration upon this subject. It is not surprising that this subject is one upon which it is difficult to obtain accurate evidence. The very nature of the question at once suggests to any thinking man how difficult it must be to obtain really independent, trustworthy and first-hand information about it. But, my Lords, within the last week or two there has appeared in the Press a statement that official information has been procured and collected in South Africa, and that such information is now in the possession of the Colonial Office. As soon as I learned that this was so, or rather received the statement that this was so, I ventured to put a Question upon the Paper of your Lordships' House, and that Question would have been asked some little time ago but for the request of the noble Marquess the Lender of the House—and I am not complaining in the least degree of his action—who suggested that it might be well to wait until we had got on a little further with the Education Bill. Of course, I at once acceded to that request, but when I found that feeling was growing stronger upon this question I ventured to press that I might be allowed to ask the Question to-night rather than postpone it any longer. I want to thank the noble Marquess for the courtesy which he has shown me throughout on this matter. I feel bound to bring the question forward now to ascertain whether or not we are at least within reach of something that will enable us to judge from reliable evidence instead of from reports which may be discredited, because they are supposed to be biassed in one direction or another. I hope at last we are in a position to got some trustworthy information upon a matter so grave, not merely in its direct and immediate effect upon the surroundings in which the mischief takes place, but also in its possible indirect effects upon other populations than those of the Chinamen, a very terrible effect which would tarnish the honour and good name not only of England, but of her Colonies. That is all I have got to say. I ask this Question simply for information, and with no desire to embarrass the Government in difficulties which must be very great, and simply because I want to know whether anything is being done and whether there is any way in which we, in connection with these matters, whether by influencing public opinion or otherwise, can support or strengthen any efforts which may be necessary to put down this evil if the evil is found to be as grave as some people fear.


I thank the most rev. Primate for bringing this subject under the attention of the House, and I think I have some right to say a few words before the noble Earl replies to the Question. From first to last I, along with others who then sat on the other side of the House, have opposed and fought against the importation of Chinamen under this. Ordinance, not only for other reasons connected with their importation, but also mainly for the grave risks which the most rev. Primate has urged against the system this evening. From the very first Lord Stanmore, whom I am sorry is not here, pointed out the vital difference between the conditions of this Ordinance and the conditions of all hitherto known Ordinances as they existed in the Empire. The main difference was that the Chinamen were allowed to come into the imported country as bachelors and were not accompanied by their wives and children. I remember in this House when we raised this question the noble Lord who is now High Commissioner in South Africa, Lord Selborne, indignantly pointed out to us the terms of this Ordinance, and exclaimed, "What could the Government do more?" I regret to say that in the contests which we have waged against this Ordinance for the last two years we have not had the open support of the most rev. Primate. He knew, as he told us in the speech he delivered upon this question more than two years ago, that the Chinaman would go into the Transvaal alone without being accompanied by any of the opposite sex. At that time I appealed and Lord Carrington and others also appealed to the most rev. Primate on more than one occasion to speak out in bold, clear, and unqualified terms of condemnation in regard to this traffic, and I believe such is the recognised weight which the most rev. Primate deservedly holds in the counsels of the country that if he had spoken the right word, and spoken it in time, the Chinamen would never have been imported, and these evils would never have arisen. I doubt not from reasons which were conclusive to him, but from reasons which I should Think he now regrets, he hesitated on those occasions, and the result is what unfortunately we know to-day. This House disregarded and set aside our arguments, and the noble Duke of Marlborough, who then represented the Colonies in this House, finally had to admit that out of the 50,000 Chinese only two women had ultimately been imported. I know we had golden pictures drawn of the Chinamen in the compound. I remember the noble Karl Grey, now the Governor-General of Canada, went so far as to mention the words "garden city" in alluding to the Chinese compound. Lord Halifax, who spent some time in the country, told mo that he had visited the compounds in South Africa, and that he was not able to find any one who had noticed any of the moral objections against the Chinese which had been brought forward in England. All I can say with regard to the noble Viscount's statement is that when he went on his tour in the Chinese compounds it must have been a very specially conducted tour. I know the Government are in great difficulties because they have never had a High Commissioner who disapproved of the importation of the Chinese. First we had Lord Milner, the fons et origo of the system, and I do not know whether noble Lords would be ready to sanction a continuation of his policy in South Africa. He was succeeded by Lord Selborne who was also, for reasons amply sufficient to himself, an advocate, and an ardent advocate, of the Chinese labour importation system. But now at last the truth is out, and I venture to think there is not a noble Lord in this House who will contradict what I say when I declare that the whole system is doomed. I make no extreme demands upon the Government; I do not ask them to do the impossible. I do not suggest that they can in a moment, with the wave of a wand, repatriate 50,000 or 60,000 China men, but I do wish to ask one or two questions on this subject. First of all I ask the Government who knew of it? Where was the superintendent of labour? Where were his inspectors, all of them officials of the Government administration? Where were the compound managers who have been vouched for again and again in this House as such admirable administrators within the Chinese compound? Where were the recruiters who, if the tales be true, recruited from China into South Africa a class for the purpose of immorality? Did they know, and if they knew, did they tell, and if they did not tell, why did they not tell? I do not think the country will be satisfied with a mere half measure; they will want to bring home to somebody—and I do not care how high that somebody is—the responsibility for this state of things. That responsibility must be brought home to somebody. Although I do not ask for impossibilities I do urge upon the Colonial Secretary that nothing but a drastic remedy will do anything to appease the wholesome and very proper indignation which these revelations have produced.


I want to do what I can to emphasise the points raised in the most rev. Primate's Question. I have always unwillingly taken a great interest in this question owing to something which was told me at the very beginning of its discussion in this country. I thought that this Question was not going to be asked until next week, and then I should not have been able to be in the House, but as I am here I should like to add a few words upon the subject. When the importation of Chinese coolies was first under discussion, a layman who knew what he was talking about very well told me plainly that wherever Chinese were imported in largo numbers, exclusively male, there unnatural vice followed as something not sporadic or occasional, but as something normal. I have never taken any part in decrying the importation of Chinese labour into South Africa on such grounds as the fear that they would be cruelly treated. I never thought that there was any bottom in such charges, and I have always dissociated myself from them. But exclusively on the moral ground I have always felt that the reasons why they should not be allowed, in the beginnings of a young community more particularly, were overwhelmingly strong, if such representations as were made to me were true. After that first information I was at pains to get all the information I could from various quarters, and like the most rev. Primate I have found it rather contradictory. Curiously enough, it seemed to me that the clergy were generally optimistic and the laity were almost uniformly of the opposite mind. We know that with regard to all such painful moral questions we find the same difficulties, namely, that it is the official guardians of morality who are the most blind as to what is going on. Again and again I have been told things so extraordinary about the prevalence of this vice amongst the Chinese under such conditions, that they have left on my mind the impression that it was very difficult to believe that such statements were true. We were told that the Chinese would have full liberty of being accompanied by their wives, and that they were to be established under normal conditions of family life. We were told almost simultaneously, by those who knew, that that was a mere matter of empty words, and that there was not the remotest chance of the Chinamen being accompanied by their wives, and that has turned out to be the case. The question continues to be agitated. On all moral matters it is notoriously difficult to get convincing evidence, because there is, as we all unhappily know, upon such questions a large conspiracy of silence. We know what the accusation is, and I want to make it as pointed and definite as I can. It is said that such vice exists in almost all communities, but that as a rule it exists as a sporadic but not as a normal vice. I believe that where this kind of vice becomes not sporadic but normal there it threatens fundamentally the moral well-being of a community, and I believe that to allow in the midst of any community, and most of all in the midst of a young and yet unformed community, any society in which this vice is known to be normal is to do that which is most fatally contrary to the progress of any young rising generation. I believe that although the society in which this vice normally exists is a comparatively small one and one which is separated from the rest of the community in a distinct manner, yet, as I should expect and as I have been informed, the state of morality in this distinctive community is well known. It is a continual subject of condemnation and discussion in the communities outside that this is what the Chinese do. Therefore, it not only means that there is something foul in itself in the midst of the community, but it also means that it spreads contamination around. I remember that this Question was asked some time ago in the House of Commons, and at that time Mr. Winston Churchill, with the Prime Minister sitting beside him, gave a most explicit Answer and a most explicit promise. He said that as these charges were made the Government would send out a Committee of Inquiry to South Africa, and if they found the charges were true, then during the temporary period during which the Chinese were still to be allowed in South Africa they would fundamentally revise their policy. I have heard that Question and that Answer read out in another place a few moments ago, so that I am sure that what I am quoting represents substantially, though I cannot pretend that it represents verbally, the Answer of His Majesty's Government, or the Answer of the Under-Secretary for the Colonies who represents the Government. The inquiry was made by the Government. It was made by Mr. Bucknill, and he has returned to this country and reported upon the subject. It is not my duty to inquire as to the conditions under which information or supposed information has become widespread, but your Lordships probably know how widespread and how different the statements are with regard to the evils complained of. I think your Lordships probably do not read what I think is one of the best and certainly one of the most influential of the religious organs of this country, I mean The British Weekly. If any of your Lordships do read that remarkable organ you will know how very wide the area of moral feeling must be which is profoundly deeply stirred about this question. In that perturbation I most profoundly share. I think it is one of those tremendous questions which a nation cannot evade, and I do not think that any kind of commercial necessity can justify a country in allowing the normal prevalence of that kind of vice in any community of which can possibly rid itself. It is with that belief that I earnestly ask His Majesty's Government to let us know what they intend to do with reference to the very definite undertaking given last August by the Undersecretary for the Colonies with regard to an inquiry into this question and the results of that inquiry.


I have probably had more experience of the Chinese than any Member of your Lordships' House. I have lived with them in their own country, and in other countries, and I have lived with them in the Colonies, and I can only say that when the right rev. Prelate who has just sat down talks about these vices being normal and not sporadic amongst the Chinese, he does the Chinese an injustice which I am sure he would be the first to deplore. That there are vicious Chinese just as there are vicious Europeans is a certainty, but the great majority of the Chinese would view with horror not unlike that which the right rev. Prelate has so eloquently expressed, the existence of such crimes and vices amongst them. If it had not been for the Chinese many parts of the world which are now rich and thriving would not have been prosperous at all. In California and in the far Western States of America, without the Chinese the railroads could not have been built, the great cities could not have sprung up, and the state of prosperity which is the envy of the world could not have been brought into existence at all. The Chinaman is a frugal and industrious man and, at his best, is one of the very best citizens that I know anywhere. That there are bad Chinamen is a certainty, but to say that nameless vices are not sporadic but normal among them—and the right rev. Prelate repeated the word more than once in the course of his remarks—is a most unjust and unworthy accusation, and it is only fair that a man who has lived amongst them should get up and repudiate the charge to the best of his ability.


I make no complaint that the most rev. Primate has put to me this Question, although it has imposed upon me a very disagreeable duty, and I hope I may ask your Lordships' forbearance while I endeavour to discharge it. At the end of the summer sittings certain evidence was tendered to me of such a character that in any Court in this kingdom it would have been treated with closed doors. Therefore, of necessity, I treated it as confidential. That is the footing on which I communicated with the High Commissioner, and it is the footing on which the inquiry was instituted. It is right to say, particularly in view of the remarks of the noble Lord behind me, that the High Commissioner lost not a moment in instituting this inquiry. He entrusted it to one of his best officers, a gentleman with legal training which enabled him to take and sift the evidence which came before him. The Government remain of opinion that Mr. Bucknill's report and the evidence taken at the inquiry which he held must remain confidential. The right rev. Prelate has referred to what I suppose is an undoubted fact, that portions of this document have become public property. Those of us who have had to deal with confidential documents are not unacquainted with accidents of this kind, and all I can say upon that point is that it can only have become public from a misuse of a confidential document. The fact that we consider that it is necessary to treat these papers as confidential necessitates my making a statement to your Lordships, and what is still more onerous, I have had to examine the papers myself. I think I can say that the inquiry has been of an exhaustive character. Twenty-six witnesses were orally examined, and there was a great mass of documentary evidence, including fifteen reports from medical officers. The charges which were tendered to Mr. Bucknill may be summarised as follows—(1) That there were malpractices which were widespread, open, and scandalous; (2) that there were consequently demoralisation and disease; (3) that this state of things had been tolerated by the police and mine managers; and (4) that the natives of Africa were contaminated. It is obvious that I cannot say all that could be said upon all these topics without entering upon unmentionable details, but it is my duty to say that the Report states, and I am obliged from a survey of the evidence to concur, that the evidence goes to show that the offence prevails at most, if not all, of the compounds. That is a serious matter, but I do not suppose that anyone who, like the most rev. Prelate, had studied the question before could be entirely unprepared for it. Many on my side of the House always had a dread of this occurrence in our minds when we opposed the system. I can certainly say that that was so in my own case. I admit at once that this Report, making every allowance for certain qualifications which it contains, and which I will refer to immediately, does in my judgment strengthen the view that the permanent adoption of this system is impossible, and perhaps we are justified in calling upon the most rev. Primate and those who think with him to join us in that declaration.

But, my Lord, having said that, I am bound to add, and I gladly do so, that the grosser part of the accusations which the charges as tendered to me involved are not substantiated by the evidence. I say this on my own responsibility, and I am willing to stand by it. Having examined the Papers independently and the Report, that is the conclusion to which I have come. It is clear that one of the main difficulties which arose in checking this practice is the secrecy with which it is conducted, and that is a point to which the most rev. Prelate referred. Accordingly the estimates of the amount of crime vary greatly among those whoso knowledge of the coolies both in China and South Africa is the largest. I rejoice to add that so far as my examination has gone I have found no single witness who came forward to say of his own knowledge that there were the open scandalous malpractices; which were alleged. I admit at once that that would have been a reflection upon the public service and others concerned with the management of the mines which, so far as I am concerned, I am convinced that they do not deserve. Lord Coleridge asked me, I think, to throw the responsibility on some of those officials. I can only answer that if I thought it was the proper thing to do I should not hesitate to do it, but so far as my study of the evidence has gone, the result is what I have stated.

But further—and I am sure this will be satisfactory to your Lordships— I am glad to say that as regards the question of the contamination of the South African natives the Report states that the witnesses were practically unanimous in their view, and Mr. Bucknill himself was convinced, that this statement was without foundation. But even as it is, with these qualifications, the position is serious enough, and I can assure your Lordships that neither His Majesty's Government nor the High Commissioner—for I have had communication with him, and I think I can speak for him in this matter—underrate the urgency of the matter and the necessity for prompt action. I think I can say that the view which Lord Selborne takes of this matter is that, although certain charges may have been disproved, it is none the less the duty of the Government to stamp out the evil whenever and wherever it is found. The Prime Minister in another place has stated that the matters disclosed were engaging the most serious attention of the Government, who will adopt without delay such steps as may seem to them necessary to deal with the case. I think it will be evident from what I have said that there is no divergence whatever in the views of His Majesty's Government and His Majesty's representatives on the spot, or in the standard which we have set before ourselves. I had hoped that this Question would not have been asked for a few days, and that in that time I might have had further communication with the noble Lord the High Commissioner. As the matter now stands, I can only say that we shall use every means in our power to act upon any reasonable suspicion, and repatriate, as we are entitled to do under the Ordinance, any persons addicted to this practice. I mention this because there seems to be some doubt upon the matter. Of course the penalty which the law provides for the punishment of offences actually committed and detected will be rigorously enforced. I apologise to the House for inflicting upon it what has been to me, and what cannot fail to be to your Lordships, a painful statement, but we are anxious to conceal nothing which can be published with due regard to public decency, and I only hope that your Lordships, as the most rev. Primate has promised, will support His Majesty's Government in any action, however energetic, which they think the circumstances may call upon them to pursue.


I have had some experience on the subject of labour in South Africa, and perhaps it will be expected that I should say a few words upon this subject, however distasteful it may be to have to open one's mouth upon it. Although I have no direct authority to speak for either of the groups of mining houses in South Africa, I am perfectly certain that I can speak on their behalf as well as on behalf of the mining interests which I control, and I have no hesitation in saying that in every effort that the High Commissioner may make on the instructions of the noble Earl to stamp out this enormity, he will have the most cordial assistance of everyone connected with the mining industry. I think the noble Earl need not regret that he has been rather prematurely called upon to make this statement to-night, for although, of course, we accept implicitly his explanation that this Report is absolutely confidential, and that if anyone outside confidential circles has become apprised of its contents it must have been by a misuse of confidence, but it is a fact nevertheless, and it is unfortunate for the noble Earl, that certain newspapers representing his own Party allege that they have got copies of the Report, and upon the strength of that allegation they are making statements injurious to persons in positions of responsibility in South Africa. The allegations include the assertion that this crime is organised, systematised, and that perhaps what I may most shortly describe as "the professionals" are dressed in a particular way, and that they are moved about from mine to mine for the purpose. The last allegation I imagine must be untrue, because the Ordinance provides that these labourers cannot be moved about indiscriminately, and I take it from the noble Earl's statement to-night that these specific allegations which have been given such great publicity are incorrect. The Report tells us that the crime is so secret that it has been difficult to obtain the clear evidence, and therefore these allegations as regards the publicity of the crime are very improbable. One would hope that that immoral contamination which would flow from publicity has not yet been spread These are the inferences that one may draw from the statement that the noble Earl has made to-night. I join in every word of indignation that has been expressed in this House to-night, and most strongly emphasise the statement that it is impossible that such a state of things should be allowed to exist. Unfortunately one knows that it does exist wherever large communities of young men are brought together and where females are not present. The noble Earl always apprehended that this state of things might be discovered in the case of the Chinese in South Africa. I imagine that one might be apprehensive of finding it existing in any very large community of young men in any part of the world, but I think it is a satisfaction to know that the noble Earl can say on the careful perusal of the Report that even amongst the Chinese themselves the crime is so shameful that it is kept as secret as possible. That I should hope bears out what Lord Redesdale said just now in support of the character of the Chinese as a nation. I hope that that means that it will be possible to enlist the proper feeling and right-mindedness of by far the greater part of that community in stamping out the evil, and that it will be possible to exclude absolutely from their ranks any portion of the contamination that exists.


We are placed in some difficulty with regard to the discussion which has taken place in consequence of the interpellation of the most rev. Primate, for the facts which we are now discussing are not yet before us. We have heard this evening references to revelations which have lately been made. Of those revelations we, on this side of the House, are not aware. At the same time I am bound to say that when the noble Earl, the Secretary for the Colonies comes here and gives us his summary of the information before him, knowing his high character and sincerity, we accept that summary as being a correct and truthful account of the facts as he is aware of them. I gather from that summary that he is satisfied that this evil undoubtedly exists amongst the Chinese coolies. I heard him say, and I was glad to hear him say it, that some of the worst charges which had been made had not been substantiated. I think the expression he used was that the more scandalous of the malpractices had not been proved. We have been told that we who are now sitting on the Opposition benches and who were in favour of importing Chinese labour into Smith Africa ought to have anticipated that all these results would occur. As to that, all I have to say is that so far as we had any trustworthy data before us, they by no means justified that anticipation. Let me remind the House that there was— I cannot recall the exact date, for I was not prepared for this discussion, I think somewhere in the eighties—a Commission which inquired into the employment of Chinese labour in the province of British Columbia. That inquiry was undertaken in consequence of assertions which had been freely made with regard to the conduct of Chinamen. I think I am right in saying—and the noble Earl will correct me if I am wrong—that that Commission found that the Chinese coolies in British Columbia were, upon the whole, a more moral and better conducted community than the European workmen employed in the same circumstances. I must say that I was glad when I heard Lord Redesdale get up and bear witness to the many high and valuable qualities for which the Chinese race are distinguished. Like my noble friend I have seen something of Chinamen in different parts of the world, and I have no hesitation in saying that as a general rule the Chinaman is a hard-working, frugal, and well-conducted citizen, and there are many British provinces which would not be in the splendid position they are in to-day if it had not been for the presence of Chinese labour in their midst. Of course, to speak quite frankly, we must have been aware that where a great number of celibate labourers—I do not care whether they are Chinamen or belonging to any other nationality—are gathered together there will be a certain amount of vice and immorality. But we had no reason whatever for supposing that that vice and immorality would be of the character which is now imputed to the Chinese community. Let me also remind the House that when this question was referred to in the debate on the Address at the beginning of the present session, and when His Majesty's Government had had therefore something like three months during which they might have considered the question, the attitude which they then assumed towards it was this: that the question of the employment of Chinese labour was one which might well be left to be dealt with by the responsible Government which was about to be accorded to the two Colonies. That shows that up to that point, at any rate, His Majesty's Government had no reason to believe that these imputations wore well founded. We now understand that there has been an inquiry conducted by a trusted officer appointed by Lord Selborne for that purpose; that that inquiry has disclosed the very grave condition of things to which the noble Earl has called attention. All we can say is that if that is so we shall certainly, as far as our opportunities permit, give our support to His Majesty's Government in dealing energetically with this evil wherever it can be shown to exist. I hope I do not misunderstand the noble Earl when I gather that he told us that there had been no connivance on the part of the local officials. Is that so?


I do not think that is imputed in the evidence.


I am glad to hear that, because in the Reports which had been circulated on this subject it has been stated that there was evidence to show that there had been connivance upon the part of the officials. All I can say is that if any connivance could be brought home to them, I could conceive no measures too severe to deal with such a grave dereliction of duty. We shall so far as we can support His Majesty's Government in their efforts to stamp out this evil, wherever it can be found, and to that extent I am entirely in accord with what fell from the Secretary of State for the Colonies.