There is an early unconfirmed account which claims that five Chinese sailors landed in Trinidad in 1796, the year before the British capture of the island from the Spanish and that one of them remained. However the earliest record attempts at introducing Chinese immigrants into the Caribbean region began with a solitary experiment in the 1800’s while slavery and the slave trade was officially in force, and Chinese immigration to the Western Hemisphere generally non-existent. The original motivation for the idea of a Chinese settlement stemmed from a need to populate an island which was a newly acquired British colony and to find a substitute for the African slave trade which was on its last legs within the British Empire.
Trinidad was a fertile but uncultivated island with a small population and no one in Britain wanted it developed into a traditional slave economy not the British abolititionist movement nor the West Indian lobby representing in the British Parliament but other colonial planters terrified of cheap competition. Captain William Layman of the Royal Navy, having served in both East and West Indies had seen how Chinese settlers had transformed Penang. He proposed to the Colonial Office that Trinidad should be developed with free workers imported from China. These men from China were ideally suited for the job because there were ‘inured to a hot climate and habitually industrious, sober, peaceable and frugal and eminently skilled in the culture and preparation of every article of tropical produce.’ Indeed, so industrious were the Chinese that you could charge them high interest rates and they would still make profits.
In 1803 Kenneth Macqueen, who was experienced with the Chinese was to establish a post at Penang, unknown to the Chinese or Batavian governments, to attract Chinese from Malacca, Batavia or China. He was also to be supplied with up the twenty thousand pounds of goods for Trinidad. Macqueen proposed a few men to be taken out for two years and returned home to spread the word of Trinidad’s fertility and the government’s desire for free, prosperous people. It was Macqueen that collected his 147 Chinese men (no women) in December 1805, left Penang and in early February arrived in Calcutta. There they recruited 53 Chinese men and in May boarded the Fortitude bound for Trinidad. By the time the Fortitude reached St. Helena six of the 200 Chinese has died and when it arrived in Trinidad on the 12th October 1806, there were 192 on board meaning that it was a voyage of relatively low mortality. The Chinese landed and were placed in Port of Spain.
Five days after they landed the Chinese headmen asked the council for permission to hire themselves out as labourers. They were allowed because there were no farmlands near the city to seek jobs from ‘respectable’ folk, provided they worked in groups of at least six dollars a month, the sum paid to them by the council of they didn’t work. The Chinese who chose not to work alongside slaves on the plantations were settled at the Surveillance Estate Cocorite where their huts were erected. They were provided with a fishing boat as well as a surgeon and a free mulatto nurse who was appointed to see after their health. By March 1807 seven had died and most of the rest including all four headmen settled on Cocorite. One Chinese was known to have worked as a shoemaker while another worked at the Botanical Gardens in Port of Spain. The enthusiasm of the Chinese and colonist declined, sixty one Chinese left with the Fortitude July 1807. By October 1807 seventeen of them had died including Ayo, the headman in charge of fishing. A year later most was leaving by whatever means they could or had died. By 1809 there were fewer than 30 left. The 1810 census identified a ‘colony of 22 Chinese males who lived in misery in Cocorite, making their living selling charcoal, oysters and crabs.
Count Lopinot thought the Chinese were too lazy and fond of rum but most people agreed the Chinese men were industrious and blamed their lack of productivity on a lack of agricultural experience. These explanations ignored the awfulness of the slave condition and obvious fact that the Chinese would not want to enter the lowest occupations which were badly paid despised and distant from the Cocorite community. Local commentators thought the Chinese were a good buffer between the classes; they even recommended bringing more but with women. It is true that the Chinese preferred Chinese women because culture and language barriers had to be breached, however there were example of Chinese assimilation into Trinidad society on the early nineteen century. Awa a headman had a son, Jean Paul Awa while another Aho lived with a Mr. Clements slave, Eliza. E.L Joseph noted that they were good fathers and committed to upholding family obligations. Aho bequeathed to Eliza his furniture clothes and $350 to purchase her freedom. Awa transferred his two domestic slaves Mary Cepio Fastim and her son, to his son John Paul. Awa became the ‘wealthiest Chinese immigrant in Trinidad and was the only one with slaved, a domestic and a labourer.
Awa did not rise to his ‘wealthy’ status on his own, the Chinese helped one another financially, lending money and contributing to capital funds. They were fishermen and fish vendors, butchers and pork vendors. They learnt Spanish and English but maintained their traditional dress and shaved their heads except for a part from which hair grew long. Some converted and were baptized Catholic on the Diego Martin parish where they acquired Irish named and the small Chinese community which had remained in Trinidad had declined. By 1824 there were only around a dozen Chinese left and according to E.L Joseph only seven in 1834. After that the community disappears from the historical record. Kim Johnson argues that the experiment was not so much a failure but merely a ‘stillbirth’ that became obvious that a hard working, pragmatic community made no sense in a lazy irrational slave society, that a business-minded group has no place in an economy without cash. This first Chinese community was never supplemented and as such was bound to disappear through mortality and genetic dilution. Only when slavery was abolished fully when we see the introduction of a new Chinese experiment that the society could accommodate.
Sources: [Look Lai, Walton “Essays in the Chinese Diaspora in the Caribbean” University of the West Indies Press, 2006.]
[Millette, Trevor “The Chinese in Trinidad” Imprint Caribbean, 1993]