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Colonial Cases

Chain Gang editorial, 1872


Editorial on the Chain Gang

Source: The North-China Herald, 25 May 1872



WE have always regretted the abandonment of the chain-gang system, which was established in the early days of the Mixed Court, and proved so efficient a means of punishing thievish coolies and peculative house-boys.  Chinese modes of punishment are, as a rule, very unsatisfactory.  You are never sure that a sentence of imprisonment will be carried out, but feel a lurking suspicion that the very dollars of which you have been robbed, will enable a thief to bribe his way to liberty.

Yet a Chinese prison is something so horrible, that a commutation which frees a human being from so much filth, disease and starvation, is hardly regrettable.  Flogging with the light bamboo is ridiculously inadequate as a punishment for theft, and flogging with the heavy bamboo is cruel, because it lacerates and causes permanent injury.  The cangue is more efficacious; coolies, beggars and professional thieves m ay not c are for it very much'; but men who have held any respectable position, feel the exposure keenly.  Neither of these punishments however can compare with the chain-gang.

The same publicity was secured as by the cangue; and the very efficient punishment of work was added.  It used to be rather amusing, sometimes, to see the prisoners start for their day's labour smoking cigarettes, or pulling the municipal rollers sheltered by umbrellas; but it was eminently satisfactory to see the polite native who had stolen your favourite studs, and whose long fingernails had truly expressed his antipathy to work for his ample wages - to see this individual wheeling a municipal wheelbarrow, in chains, or breaking municipal stones under the stern eye of a road inspector.

People used to think the terms of sentence in the chain-gang were short, but experience showed that even a short sentence affected the culprits very severely. It is generally through dissipation, that a respectable Chinese comes to grief; and even the light work imposed used to tell severely on the opium smoking shroff or the delicately nurtured "boy."  One thing a Chinaman dreads, is "losing face"; and exposure in the chain gang was shameful in the last degree; the thing [he] dislikes - that is, the "well-bred" Chinaman - is manual labour; and he was made to work, in the chain-gang.  The labour could easily be made heavier or lighter, according to his strength or feebleness.

How the system fell through, was never made very clear; the Council declared the Mixed Court ceased to send criminals, the Mixed Court said the Council ceased to receive them.  Probably the real cause was, relaxation in the conduct of the Mixed Court.  In any case, successive Councils have expressed their regret at the abandonment of the system; and we have reason to believe that thr Mixed Court magistrate would willingly see it re-established.  He has no gaol, and perhaps he feels the same uncertainty that foreigners do, about the fate of prisoners consigned to the city; whereas culprits sentenced to the chain-gang fell into the hands of the foreign police, and found shelter in the Municipal cells.  Even in their last report, for the year just ended, the outgoing Council took occasion to "unanimously endorse the opinions expressed by their predecessors; and, in retiring from office, strongly urge the re-introduction of the hard labour system, which has been allowed to fall into disuse."

Would it not be well to make an effort, now, to secure this object?  If our information is correct, no great opposition is to be anticipated from the Chinese authorities; the Mixed Court Magistrate is willing; the Taotai is an intelligent and persuasible man.  And we may be sure that the foreign Consuls share the conviction of their countrymen; notable, it was under the influence of H.B.M.'s Acting Consul, that the chain-gang system was inaugurated.  We would suggest that the Municipal Council write formally to the senior Consul, asking that negociations be opened with the Chinese authorities, with a view to its re-establishment.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School