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Ria Stone

Labor Action Probes Behind the Headlines

The Chinese Sailors “Mutiny”

(April 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 17, 26 April 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The headlines shrieked the story April 12 about the mutiny of Chinese sailors against a British captain. A couple of days later, hidden on an inside page of the New York Times, there was a brief report of the claim by Chinese labor representatives that working conditions were at the root of the trouble. Through an exclusive interview, Labor Action is able to report what really lies behind the headlines.


The Chinese sailors working on the British ship were practically in a state of peonage, forced to work for wages lower than those on any other line. All the Chinese seamen received from the British line was $41 a month, including the four pounds war bonus, although wages on other lines run as high as $90 to $180 a month. Indeed, so low were the wages that British ships could not keep their seamen, and the story goes that captains are easier to get than seamen. It is also reliably reported that through political pressure the British are forcing the Dutch to keep seamen’s wages down in order that the British might be permitted to continue their exploitation of the men.

When the ship docked at New York last week, the seamen planned to agitate and perhaps strike for higher wages. With this in mind, they went to the captain, demanding their back pay, which in some cases was as high as $40 to $100 a person. The captain, fearing that the men would strike or go elsewhere if he paid them the money rightly due them, refused to give any man more than $10.

Who started the actual fighting is difficult to determine. The seamen claim that the captain drew his gun, pointing it at the sailor nearest him. The seaman thus threatened approached the captain to grapple with him. All the seamen realized that the captain would be ready to kill one of the men, probably the one nearest him, in order to intimidate the others.

Case Bashed Through

The captain claims that the men drew a spike and would have killed him had he not shot first. But the spike referred to is a small tool, used by sailors to tighten screws. It has a wooden handle and is not believed to be at all dangerous, except possibly in very close combat. The captain was not very close to the man he shot and killed. The seamen claim that he was almost ten feet away when he fired and that he was able to draw back two paces before he fired the actual shot.

For his killing of the Chinese seaman the captain was released and not indicted by the grand jury. The district attorney rushed through the case, producing no evidence to back up the testimony of the dead seaman’s companions, although such evidence could easily have been found.

The Chinese consulate in New York has attempted to use its power and prestige to prevent the complete whitewashing of the captain. So far, however, it has had no success. In fact, one Chinese official, moved to protest by the obviously prejudiced procedure, was threatened with legal retribution and forced to apologize.

Some may ask, why was this so, since the American government and the American press is continually pleading for us to “understand China and the Chinese people.” As a matter of fact, American officials were very much embarrassed, torn between their desire to antagonize neither the British nor the Chinese. But the class status of the British captain as compared with the class status of the common Chinese seaman proved decisive. The captain won, in other words, not merely because he was British or white, but because he represented the steamship company. And the Chinese seaman’s death goes unpunished because he was a mere worker.

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