World History 2 161 - 10.4.2 Asian Exodus

In the nineteenth century, many people of East Asia and India left home to seek work abroad, just as many Europeans did. Most who left China were escaping poverty. Primarily men, they came largely from the southern provinces, especially Fujian, where the quality of the land had always made agriculture difficult, and Guangdong. In the middle of the nineteenth century, many Chinese people fled hardships occasioned by the deadliest civil war in the history of the world. From 1850 to 1864, more than twenty million Chinese people died in the Taiping Rebellion, an uprising led by Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be “God’s Chinese son” and sought to impose a new moral order on society. The war’s destruction of towns, farms, livestock, and crops left millions dead or dying from famine.

The Chinese diaspora in the nineteenth century was perhaps the widest of any ethnic group, dispersing emigrants around the globe. Chinese laborers came to the Kingdom of Hawaii to work on sugarcane plantations. They sought work in the United States building railroads, mining, and working as agricultural laborers and in service occupations. Thousands of Chinese people performed similar jobs in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Chinese people also immigrated to Europe, primarily Britain, as well as to Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and South Africa. They were hired as contract laborers in South African gold mines when the owners realized they would work longer hours for lower wages than would native Africans, who often left the mines after a few years.

Link to Learning

Most people have heard of Ellis Island, the immigration station in the New York City harbor that welcomed millions of European immigrants to the United States. Less well known was Angel Island in San Francisco Bay that served as the station through which most Asian immigrants were processed while they awaited permission to enter the United States or were returned to their home countries. Today, it is a national historic landmark.

Large numbers of Chinese people also sought opportunities in South America and the Caribbean. In Peru, the abolition of slavery in 1854 left the country desperate for workers, and the government subsidized the importation of laborers. Approximately 100,000 Chinese people immigrated as contract laborers between 1849 and 1874 to fill the need for workers to mine guano (bird and bat excrement used as fertilizer), build railroads, and toil on sugarcane and cotton plantations. Their contracts typically bound them to work for four to eight years. During that time, they were subjected to harsh punishments, including whipping and confinement in plantation jails. When their contracts ended, those who did not find themselves trapped in debt bondage often moved to the cities.

Chinese people emigrated to other places in Latin America and the Caribbean as well. Many built railroads in the Spanish colony of Cuba; concerned that they were being mistreated, China signed a treaty with Spain in 1896 to end all labor contracts that bound Chinese laborers. In the 1870s, Mexico’s president Porfirio Diaz encouraged Chinese people to immigrate to Mexico and settle in the northern part of the country. Diaz had first invited European and White U.S. settlers to Mexico to build railroads as part of a plan to “civilize” the northern part of the country, with its largely Native American and mestizo (biracial European and Native American) population. When these laborers found life in the desert undesirable, Diaz invited the Chinese to settle instead.

In Japan, economic depression also led many young men and women to seek their fortunes abroad. Unable to pay their taxes or purchase food because of a decrease in the price of their rice, farmers were desperate. One response was to allow sons, and sometimes daughters, to go to the city to look for work that, if found, paid wages too low to live on, let alone send to families left behind in rural villages. In the eyes of many Japanese, leaving the country completely for a new life elsewhere made more sense. For families that had to sell their farms to pay their debts, it may have seemed the only choice.

The Japanese government encouraged emigration and entered into contractual agreements with other countries to provide labor. In 1885, it selected men and women most likely to promote Japan’s reputation as a respected, civilized nation and instructed them on how to behave when abroad. Japanese immigration was largely confined to the Pacific region and to the Americas. In 1868, Japanese contract laborers were sent to Guam and the Kingdom of Hawaii. Others went to Australia and the Philippines. Hawaii remained a major destination after it was annexed by the United States, because the owners of sugarcane plantations sought laborers. Many Japanese also settled on the West Coast of the United States and in the Canadian province of British Columbia (Figure 10.15).

This photograph shows a large number of Japanese men standing on the deck of a ship. Most men wear hats and western style suits.
Figure 10.15 In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Canada attracted many Japanese laborers. These men waiting to debark on Vancouver Island would most likely have sent for their wives to join them later. The marriages were arranged for them by their parents in Japan. (credit: “Passengers arriving in Vancouver” by UBC Library Digital Collections/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Like the Chinese emigrants, Japanese emigrants also went to South America in substantial numbers. Japanese immigration to Peru began in 1899. In 1907, Japan reached an agreement with the United States to limit the influx of Japanese people to that country. The Japanese government then signed an agreement with Brazil in 1908 allowing for the immigration of laborers to work on coffee plantations. Brazil had initially sought Italian laborers in an effort to make its population more White, much as Diaz had done in Mexico, but the Italians and other European workers found the wages too low and the living conditions too difficult. Many early Japanese immigrants to Brazil had sought to earn money and then return home, but they often found themselves trapped in debt bondage to their employers and so remained even after their contracts expired. In the twenty-first century, the largest concentrations of Japanese people outside Japan are in Brazil and Peru.

Indians also found their labor in high demand during the Second Industrial Revolution, and many were driven by poverty to become indentured laborers, primarily on plantations growing sugarcane. Some 3.5 million Indians worked on plantations in Africa. In East Africa, Indians also built railroads. They grew cash crops in South America and the Caribbean, to which they brought cannabis, called ganja, which they preferred to alcohol as a means for relaxation. They also became part of the labor force in other island nations. In 1879, the first Indian laborers entered Fiji to grow sugarcane; so many immigrated there that they now form a substantial portion of the country’s population.

The Past Meets the Present

Indians in Fiji

Indians first arrived in Fiji in the late nineteenth century to grow sugarcane. Both they and Fiji were transformed by the experience. The Indian immigrants came from a variety of regions, the Hindus among them were from a variety of castes, and men greatly outnumbered women. Because there were not enough Indians in the early years to form separate communities, they were forced to live together, which weakened adherence to the caste system. The skewed sex ratio also meant that members of different castes had to intermarry, which destroyed the caste system entirely. The need to live and work together led to the creation of a common language composed of elements of various Indian languages. It is now spoken by many indigenous Fiji Islanders as well.

At times, Fijians of Indian descent have comprised just as large a proportion of Fiji’s population as have Indigenous Fijians. Many members of the Indigenous population resent this development and have been reluctant to share political power with Fijians of Indian ancestry. In 1987 and 2000, strong nationalist sentiments among Indigenous Fijians led to coups aimed at depriving Indians of political rights. Anti-Indian violence caused many to leave the country where their families had lived for one hundred years. Only within the last few years have nationalist feelings died down and people of Indian ancestry become widely recognized as true Fijians.

  • How did immigration to Fiji end up destroying the caste system of Indian immigrants?
  • What effect(s) did the arrival of Indian immigrants have on Fijian culture and society?

Asian immigrants found themselves more unwelcome than European immigrants were. In 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the country. The Johnson-Reed Act banned all immigration from Asia, with the exception of people coming from U.S. territories in the Pacific. Although Canada did not ban Asian immigration, in 1885 it placed a tax of $50 on all Chinese people entering the country to work. Students, scientists, merchants, and government officials were exempt, but in subsequent years, the tax was raised.

Asian immigrants to South America also faced hostility. Violent attacks on Chinese people took place in Peru in the nineteenth century, as they had in the United States before Chinese immigration was banned. Portuguese-speaking Brazilians regarded the Japanese people, who resisted becoming bilingual and maintained schools and newspapers in their own language, as unassimilable, and in 1923 the government imposed a strict quota on immigrants from Japan.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Australia also wished to limit immigration to only Europeans. In the 1850s, it tried to discourage the entry of Chinese people by prohibiting the arrival of the families of those already in the country. It also imposed a tax on Chinese immigrants. At the urging of members of the working class, who believed the willingness of the Chinese people to work for low wages hurt them, Australia required that all furniture made by Chinese workers bear a label stating that fact. All this was part of the White Australia Policy, a movement to exclude Asians and Pacific Islanders from the country.

The White Australia Policy culminated in the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, excluding anyone who could not pass a dictation test administered in a European language. This specification automatically disadvantaged Asians and Pacific Islanders, which the Japanese people heartily protested. Since the law gave them the discretion, examiners were also careful to choose languages that test takers were unlikely to know.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax