The Boy Travelers - Japan and China by Thomas W. Knox The Boy Travelers by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 29: From Shanghai to Hong Kong—The Indentured Servant Trade

The party reached Shanghai without accident, and on their arrival at that port the boys had a welcome surprise in the shape of letters from home. Their first letters from Japan had been received, and read and reread by family and friends. To judge by the words of praise that they elicited, the efforts of the youths at descriptive composition were eminently successful. Frank's mother said that if they did as well all through their journey as they had done in the beginning, they would be qualified to write a book about Japan and China, and a similar opinion of their powers was drawn from Fred's mother, who took great pride in her son.
Specimen of Chinese Writing

Mary and Effie composed a joint letter to Frank, to tell how much pleasure he had given them. They were somewhat anxious about the purchases, but were entirely sure everything would be correct in the end. Fred began to be a trifle jealous of Frank when he saw how much the latter enjoyed the communication from the girl who came to the railway station to see them off. He vowed to himself that before he started on another journey he would make the acquaintance of another Effie, so that he would have someone to exchange letters with.

The letters were read and reread, and their perusal and the preparation of answers consumed all the time of the stay in Shanghai. The delay, however, was only for a couple of days, as the weekly steamer for Hong Kong departed at the end of that time, and our friends were among her passengers. Another of the ship's company was our old friend "the Mystery," who told Doctor Bronson that he had been traveling in the interior of Japan, and had only recently arrived from there. He was going to Guangzhou, and possibly farther, but could not speak with certainty until he had arranged some business at Hong Kong.

The steamer on which our friends were traveling was under the French flag, and belonged to the line popularly known as "the French Mail." The service between Europe and China is performed alternately by two companies, one of them English and the other French, and by means of these two companies there is a weekly ship each way. The French steamers are preferred by a great many travelers, as they are generally larger than the English ones, and are admirably arranged for comfort. They make the voyage from Shanghai to Marseilles in about forty days, calling at the principal ports on the way, and going through the Suez Canal. The English steamers follow very nearly the same route as the French ones, as long as they are in Eastern waters, but when they reach the Mediterranean Sea, they have two lines, one going to Venice and the other to Southampton. The official names of the two companies are "The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company" (English), and "La Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes" (French).

There were not many passengers, perhaps a dozen in all, and they were mostly merchants and other residents of Shanghai on their way to Europe or to some of the southerly ports of Asia. Two of the passengers were accompanied by their Chinese servants, and the boys were greatly interested to hear the efforts of the latter to speak English. They had already heard the same kind of thing during their movements in China, but had not paid much attention to it in consequence of their occupation with other matters. Now, however, they had some leisure for investigation, and Fred suggested that they had better take a glance at the Chinese language.

A few glances were all they wanted, as Frank was not long in ascertaining that it would require years of study to acquaint himself with enough of the language to be able to converse in it. Fred learned, about the same time, that there was a written language and a spoken one, and the two were so unlike that a man can read and write Chinese without being able to speak it, and can speak without being able to read and write. They found that very few foreigners who came to China to stay for years ever troubled themselves to learn the language, but were contented with "pidgin English." Then the question very naturally arose, "What is pidgin English?"

In a small book entitled "John, or Our Chinese Relations," Frank found something relating to pidgin English, which he copied into his notebook for future reference. When he had done with the volume, it was borrowed by Fred for the same purpose, and the boys gave a vote of thanks to the author for saving them the trouble to hunt up the information by asking questions of their friends. What they selected was as follows:

Pidgin English is business English, and is the language of commerce at the open ports of China, or wherever else the native and foreigner come in contact. A pidgin French has made its appearance in Saigon and at other places, and is steadily increasing as French commerce has increased. On the frontier line between Russia and China there is an important trading-point, Kiachta, where the commerce of the two empires was exclusively conducted for a century and a half. A pidgin Russian exists there, and is the medium of commercial transactions between the Russian and Chinese merchants.

"Long ago the Portuguese at Macao had a corresponding jargon for their discussions with the Chinese: and it may be safely stated that wherever the Chinese have established permanent relations with any country, a language of trade has immediately sprung into existence, and is developed as time rolls on and its necessities multiply.

"The decline in Portuguese trade with China was accompanied with a corresponding decline in the language, but it left its impress upon the more recent pidgin English, which contains many Portuguese words. Pidgin English is a language by itself, with very little inflection either in noun, pronoun, or verb, and with a few words doing duty for many. The Chinese learn it readily, as they have no grammatical giants to wrestle within mastering it, and the foreigners are quite ready to meet them on the road and adapt their phraseology to its requirements. The Chinese has only to commit to memory a few hundred words and know their meaning. The foreigner (if he be English-speaking) has less than a hundred foreign words to learn, together with the peculiar construction of phrases. The Chinese have printed vocabularies in which the foreign word and its meaning are set forth in Chinese characters, and thus they have no occasion to trouble themselves with the alphabet of the stranger. These books are especially intended for the use of compradores and servants in foreign employ, and are so small that they can be readily carried in the pocket.

"In pidgin English the pronouns he, she, it, and they are generally expressed by the single pronoun he. All the forms of the first person are included in my, and those of the second person in you. When we come to the verbs, we find that action, intention, existence, and kindred conditions are covered by hab, belongey, and can do. Various forms of possession are expressed by catchee (catch), while can do is particularly applied to ability or power, and is also used to imply affirmation or negation.

"But does every Chinese person who goes to a foreign country understand how to talk pidgin English?" Frank asked of Doctor Bronson.

"Not by any means," was the reply. "Thousands of them are not able to speak a word when they go abroad, but they gradually pick up the language of the country to which they go. Not all of them go to America or other English-speaking lands. Many have gone to Cuba, Peru, and Brazil, where there was no need of a knowledge of English. Spanish and Portuguese are the only tongues in use there, and many an emigrant never took the trouble to learn a word of them."
Barracoons at Macao

Their old acquaintance "the Mystery" had joined the party while the conversation just recorded was going on. When the Doctor alluded to the emigration to Cuba and Peru, "the Mystery" opened his eyes a little wider than was his custom, and said he was well aware that many had gone to those countries who knew nothing but Chinese, and never learned a word of any other language. As the boys showed a desire to hear more on the subject, he proposed to tell them something about the indentured servant trade, and it was arranged that they should assemble in the smoking saloon after dinner, where they could talk at their leisure.

After dinner they met as agreed, and "the Mystery" seated himself comfortably for the story he was about to tell.

"The indentured servant trade," said he, "does not exist anymore. It was very much like the slave trade, of which you have read. In fact, it was nothing more than the slave trade with the form changed a little. In the African slave trade the slaves were bought as one might buy sheep and cattle. In the indentured servant-traffic the men were hired for a term of years at certain stipulated wages, and were to be returned to their homes at the end of that term, provided all their debts had been discharged. The plan was all right on its face, but it was not carried out. When the period for which he was engaged was up, the indentured servant was always made to be in debt to his employer, and, no matter how hard he might work, he was not allowed to free himself. He was a slave to his employer, and not one indentured servant in a thousand ever saw his native land again.

"Not only were the men hired on contracts that they could never cancel, but they were stolen, just as slaves are stolen in Africa. Boats were sent up the rivers in the southern part of China to bring back loads of indentured servants. They would land an armed party at a village, seize all the men in the place, and bring them to the port, where they would be transferred to the dealers, who would send them to the places where their labor was needed. Macao was the great port for the indentured servant trade, and the Portuguese had large sheds there, which they called barracoons, for holding the indentured servants in prison until they were ready to ship them away. These barracoons were sometimes so crowded that thousands of indentured servants died there in the course of a single year. The natives called them 'chu-tze-kuan,' or 'pig-pens,' and the conditions in which they were kept were so filthy and inhumane that the terms were sadly appropriate.

"Indentured servants belong properly to a tribe of natives on the northern coast of Africa, but the name it is applied to a laborer of any part of the East, and this is its meaning in Japan and China.
Indentured Servants Embarking at Macao

"The laborers who were to be taken to Cuba or Peru were received on board the ships, and counted as they came over the side, like so many boxes or bales of merchandise. In fact, they were nothing but merchandise, and the receipts were made out for a certain number of indentured servants without the least record of their names and residences. I was once in a ship that took a cargo of these people to Peru, and I don't believe that anybody on board felt otherwise than if he had been in the slave trade. And we had a narrow escape from having our throats cut by our cargo and our bodies thrown into the sea."

"Please tell us about that," said Fred. Frank echoed the request, and their informer nodded his consent.

"The ship had taken its cargo at Macao, and we went out to sea with a fine breeze. We had over a thousand 'passengers' in the hold, and only a small number were to be allowed on deck at one time, as several ships had been captured by the servants, and we did not intend to be taken if we could help it. Two days after we started there was trouble among the servants, and several of them ran about the space below deck and threatened to set the ship on fire. They did build a fire of some of the dry boards used for making their sleeping berths, but we covered the hatches with tarpaulins, and held the smoke down there, so that the servants were nearly smothered and compelled to put the fire out themselves.

"The hatchways were covered with gratings to admit of a free circulation of air, and they were so firmly fastened that the servants could not disturb them. Several men were on deck when the trouble began, and one of them tried to get through the grating to join his companions. He managed to squeeze his body through the opening, and then discovered too late that he had a fall of nearly thirty feet before him, as the hatch of the lower deck was open. He struggled a moment, then dropped to the lower hold, and was killed by the fall.

"It became necessary to fire on the mutineers, and for this we raised the tarpaulins over one of the hatches. The smoke poured out in a dense mass and almost smothered us, and we could only see the forms of the men very dimly, like a ship in a fog. We fired, and continued to fire until several of them had been shot down, and all their efforts to get at us were of no avail. There were about sixty men in the crew, and, as we had over a thousand servants on board, we had numbers against us fearfully. But they had no firearms, while we had a good supply of rifles and pistols, with plenty of ammunition. At the time of the outbreak there were not far from a hundred servants on deck, but we drove them forward, and kept so large a guard over them that they could not have done anything to help their friends below if they had been disposed to do so.

"We got out of water, and the only way to reach what we had on board was by going down through the hold. Of course, anybody who ventured there would be killed instantly, but we had the consolation of knowing that they could not get water any more than we could, as the place where it was stowed was fastened too securely for the servants to open it with any tools they had on hand. We had a small condenser in the cook's galley, and with this we procured enough water to save us from death by thirst, but we refused to give a drop to the mutineers.

"They held out for two days, and during all that time hardly a man of us slept more than a few minutes at a stretch. Many of the servants were suffering terribly with thirst and hunger, and they asked to have their wants supplied while they were making negotiations for peace. The captain refused anything but the most unconditional surrender, and the only concession he would grant was to have the dead bodies passed up to be thrown overboard. Of course, the servants were very glad of this, as they were suffering from the fearful condition of the narrow space where they were confined. When this work was completed, they asked for half an hour's time to make a proposal for surrender, which was allowed them.
The Interpreters

"Looking through the hatch, we could see them grouped together and engaged in earnest conversation. Two were dead or dying, and from one of them there was a stream of blood slowly oozing. An indentured servant who appeared to be a ringleader among them dipped his pen in the blood and wrote on a sheet of paper:

"'We want three hundred servants to be allowed on deck at a time. The ship must go back to the coast, and allow us to land at Whampoa, below Guangzhou. We promise to make no trouble if this be done, but will burn the ship at once unless the captain agrees to it.'

"We knew that any promise they made would not amount to anything when they were once in possession of the deck, and, besides, to go back to China would be a complete surrender of the voyage. The captain did not hesitate a moment in his answer to this demand.

"He opened one of the hatches just enough to allow one man to descend at a time, and through this hole he compelled all the servants who were then on deck to pass. Then he told the interpreters to say that they might burn the ship as soon as they liked, and the crew would leave in the boats. The boats were made ready for lowering, and, as we were not far from the coast, and the wind was fair, there was not much doubt of our getting safe to Hong Kong. Not an indentured servant would escape, and we should take good care that the fire would be so far advanced before we left that it could not be put out.

"In an hour we received another message, written in blood, like the first. It promised to deliver the ringleaders of the mutiny, to be kept in irons until we arrived at our destination, and also promised that there should be no more attempts to set fire to the ship. The captain was to fix the number of men to be on deck at one time, and they were to obey his orders without question. In fact, the surrender was complete.

"We had no trouble after that, but we only allowed fifty men on deck at one time, and those under a strong guard. You can be sure we were in a hurry to finish the voyage, which we did without accident. I had had all I wanted of the indentured servant trade, and never went on another voyage like that."

    The Boy Travelers - Japan and China by Thomas W. Knox The Boy Travelers by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 29: From Shanghai to Hong Kong—The Indentured Servant Trade


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Indentured Servant: A debt bondage worker who is under contract of an employer for a specified period of time, in exchange for transportation, food, drink, clothing, lodging and other necessities.
Pidgin: A combination of two disparate languages, used by two populations having no common language as a lingua franca to communicate with each other, lacking formalized grammar and having a small, utilitarian vocabulary and no native speakers.
Jargon: A technical terminology unique to a particular subject.
Comprador: A native of a colonized country who acts as the agent of the colonizer.
Slave: A person who is the property of another person and whose labor and life are subject to the owner's volition.
Barracoon: The temporary cage for slaves and indentured servants in the Louisiana Territory and French colonial Africa.
Mutineer: Someone who participates in an organized rebellion against a legally constituted authority, especially by seamen against their officers.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine the chapter setting in modern times: The city of Hong Kong, China.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

  • Find the country of China on the map of the world.
  • Find the city of Guangzhou, mentioned in the chapter.
  • Trace the boys' journey from Shanghai to Hong Kong on the map of China.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.