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Chinese in the Port of London
China, tea and opium
The arrival of the first Chinese seamen in London is linked to the growth of British trade with China, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. As the activities of the East India Company expanded, China became a hugely important and profitable market.
|Chinatown, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. © NMM|
The tea trade
Tea dominated the Anglo-Chinese trade as its consumption grew in Britain. The Company began to export opium from India to China, selling the drug to raise the money to buy shipments of tea.
|South west view off Canton' (1810). © NMM|
This was against the law and angered the Chinese authorities. In 1839, war broke out between Britain and China over the opium trade. Britain defeated China and under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Hong Kong became a British colony.
Chinese in the port of London
Chinese sailers were employed as Lascars on East India Company ships. Most Chinese seamen were engaged in the 'country trade' between China and the main Indian ports. Some did make it to London on East Indiamen.
|Macau inner harbour. © NMM|
Later in the 19th century as more ships - especially the fast tea clippers - sailed directly from China to Britain, the number of Chinese sailors in the port increased.
|Opium Ships at Lintin in China, 1824. © NMM|
The Keying visit
There was even a visit to London by a Chinese junk. The Keying reached Gravesend on 28 March 1848, after sailing from Canton to New York. This was the first Chinese vessel to enter the Port of London. Queen Victoria boarded it while moored in the Thames.
|The British Factory at Canton. © NMM|
Sailors' welfare in East London
For those unfortunate Chinese who were left destitute in East London there was some hope that they would be accepted into the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders. This place of safety was opened in 1857 in West India Dock Road.
|Medal Commemorating the Chinese Junk Keying. © NNM|
Research into local inquests has highlighted some maltreatment of Chinese crew. In one case, a Chinese Lascar called Chan arrived in London from Calucutta on the ship Norma. Chan, who was in a very weak condition, was found by two other Lascars who carried him to the Dreadnought hospital ship at Greenwich.
|Medal Commemorating the Chinese junk Keying. © NMM|
Almost as soon as he boarded the ship he collapsed and died. A coroners' examination showed that he had died from starvation. In 1860, a total of 47 Chinese were admitted to the Seamen’s Hospital.
|The home for Asiatics, Africans, South Sea Islanders and others at West India Dock Road. © NMM|
In 1863, two Chinese inmates who had been at the Strangers’ Home for a year retired to spend the rest of their days in London.
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|The East India Company
'The most illustrious and most flourishing commercial association that ever existed in any age or country'.