Abstract: Consul General Ferguson and the Ethics of the Chinese Coolie Trade, 1850s-1890s

Ferry de Goey


The British Anti-Slavery Campaign led to a growing demand for contract laborers from India and China. This paper focuses on the Chinese coolies and attempts of the Dutch authorities to enable the free emigration of Chinese laborers to tobacco plantations and mines in the Dutch East Indies. These efforts were frustrated by Chinese authorities who at first outlawed the emigration of Chinese and next tried to regulate it. Chinese middlemen (known as coolie brokers) and their main partners, the British traders and shipping companies, also prevented the Dutch from establishing a direct migration of free Chinese laborers to Sumatra. The Dutch planters successfully lobbied their government to appoint a consul general to protect their interests in China. The selected consul, J. H. Ferguson, despised the coolie trade as a new kind of slavery. This led to confrontation between, on the one hand, the planters and the Dutch government and on the other hand, Ferguson. Using mainly archival sources from the Dutch National Archive in The Hague, I will argue, in contrast to other authors, that Ferguson did not oppose the coolie trade as such, but only the (many) negative features of the trade. Ferguson wanted to modernize and civilize the coolie trade; he pleaded for active government involvement in the trade.