The Chinese on the Plantations
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On arrival in Guyana, the Chinese immigrants agreed to the following terms of employment:
1. Payment was at the same rate as an indentured labourer - $4 a month - with sufficient food.
2. The working period would be seven and a half hours per day, except Sundays and holidays.
3. Free housing and medicines would be provided by the estate owner.
4. One dollar per month would be deducted from the wages for monetary advances made in China.
5. Every immigrant could terminate his contract at the end of a year, on payment, for each unexpired year of the contract, of a sum equal to one-fifth of the amount of the passage money.
6. Every female Chinese immigrant was required to live on the same estate with her husband, or with her father if she was single, and would not work unless she agreed.
These terms were discussed with the Chinese immigrants who signed agreements with the recruiting agents in China before they departed for Guyana.
The first batch of Chinese were assigned to Plantation Blankenberg, West Coast Demerara, and to other estates on the West Bank Demerara. Those who arrived later were distributed to other estates, including to a few in Berbice and Essequibo.
Working conditions were relatively good on most of the estates, but some Chinese labourers complained from time to time of ill-treatment.
The Chinese came from many regions and they spoke different dialects.
They also had varying skills and religious beliefs. Many of them were social outcasts picked up from the streets while others emigrated to escape misery and war. But they were concerned about maintaining their language and forms of their culture, and some of them, who had a relatively good level of education, organised night schools on the sugar plantations to teach the boys writing and singing.
A labourer who completed his contract was offered the option of renewing it, or a sum of $50 as a partial payment for a return passage to China. Very few Chinese opted to leave Guyana, but those who did so travelled on the ships that transported back to India those Indians who decided to leave Guyana on the completion of their indenture. Those Chinese who left were not only agriculturalists; some of them had worked as doctors.
There were also some Chinese immigrants who were not interested in working as sugar cane farmers because they felt the pace of work was too demanding. In May 1860 several of them left their estate (near to Georgetown) and marched to the city to protest their working conditions to James Crosby, the Immigration Agent General. At La Penitance they were stopped by mounted police who beat them with their staffs and forced them to turn back.
Those who did not want to work on the plantations had the options of buying their way out of their contract, escaping from the estates, or committing suicide. The first option was expensive since the labourers were earning only $4 a month.
There were many cases of Chinese who escaped from the estates. Many of them managed to reach Charlestown which was becoming the local "Chinatown", but they were eventually caught and imprisoned for 30 days and returned to their places of work from where they usually escaped again.
There was also an unusually high rate of suicides among Chinese men but it could not be determined if a dislike of plantation work was the cause.
The immigrants' traditional food, rice, was imported but it was very expensive. Plantains soon became a chief source of food. There were many incidents of Chinese labourers stealing plantains from farms owned by Portuguese and Africans, and those who were caught were brought before the court and punished by flogging. Later, some Chinese planted rice on small plots, but since Indians who were already cultivating rice expanded their production, the Chinese resorted to purchasing their supplies from them.
The Chinese, like many Indians, used their savings to purchase land from African landowners. They were also astute businessmen and, by the 1880s, had established themselves in business, particularly in operating grocery stores in the rural villages and also in Georgetown and New Amsterdam. They also established laundries and restaurants in the two towns.