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‘Your Petitioners are in Mortal Terror': The Violent World of Chinese Mineworkers in South Africa, 1904–1910*

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Sixty-three thousand Chinese indentured labourers helped resuscitate South Africa's ailing gold mining industry in the aftermath of the South African War of 1899–1902. This short-lived experiment – the first men arrived in 1904 and by 1910 all surviving labourers had been repatriated to China – has attracted the attention of various historians who have focused on the labour shortage that led to the employment of Chinese workers and the political consequences of importation for both Britain and South Africa. However, very little is known about the lives of the Chinese men who actually worked in the Witwatersrand gold mines. Much like African migrant labourers, Chinese mineworkers had to contend with oppressive labour practices, restrictive living conditions and various manifestations of violence. Africans and Chinese were routinely assaulted by white supervisors, and labour protests were often brutally suppressed by state police and mine security forces; but much of the violence took place within the labouring populations themselves. While African miners were ‘notorious' for engaging in group confrontations known as ‘faction fights', murder and suicide were the predominant forms of violence in the Chinese compounds. Powerful syndicates, directed by the Chinese police force, controlled gambling operations on all the mines that employed Chinese labourers. These syndicates mercilessly pursued debt defaulters, many of who were murdered or committed suicide to escape persecution. Vendettas were common and the violence spilled over into the surrounding countryside when deserters from the mines raided nearby farms and shops. Scholars have noted the ways in which management practices, economic fluctuations and changing political conditions generated violence on the South African gold mines. This article argues that migrant cultures also shaped the nature of mine violence.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dalhousie University, Department of History, 6135 University Avenue, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, B3H 4P9

Publication date: September 1, 2005

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