Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

28 December 2012

Chinese Refugees in Georgian Britain

In September 1804, John Reeves, the head of the Aliens Office responsible for foreigners within Britain approached the Home Secretary, Lord Hawkesbury seeking direction on an unusual problem. Nine Chinese sailors had been employed by the Königlich Preußische Asiatische Compagnie in Emden nach Canton und China on board one of their ships from Canton to Emden. On their arrival they were discharged from the vessel and unsuccessfully attempted to find an outward bound vessel for China.

View of Emden from the sea, 1845

View of Emden from the sea, 1845 ©De Agostini/The British Library Board  Images Online

Stranded in Europe during the early stages of the Napoleonic Wars, the Chinese men made their way to England in the hope of obtaining employment on an outward bound East Indiaman to Canton. However arriving at Gravesend, the East India Company’s Agent for the Indian mariners employed on the ships refused to take charge of them and the nine sailors consequently fell under the cognisance of the Aliens Office as refugees. With no resources to get them home, the Home Secretary recommended that John Reeves seek assistance from the Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India, the government department then responsible for overseeing the East India Company’s territorial, revenue, military and political activities in India.

The President of the Board, Viscount Castlereagh, took the case up, instructing the Board’s Secretary to approach the Company and suggest that the men should be provided with support in returning home. As the British Government was also keen on establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Emperor of China in this period, Castlereagh also recommended that the case “should be fully stated to the Chinese Government in order that they may justly appreciate the attention which the British East India Company pay to subjects of the Chinese Empire who have sought asylum in England after being abandoned by States in whose employment they have been drawn from their Native Country.” The Directors referred the case to their Committee of Shipping but as these records don’t survive it is not possible to find out what happened.  

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/2/30 pp. 216-217: Letter from George Holford in Whitehall to William Ramsay, 9 Oct 1804.
IOR/F/1/3 pp. 43-44: Minutes of the Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India, 9 Oct 1804.
IOR/B/139 pp. 869-870: Minutes of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, 10 Oct 1804.



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