Anti-Catholic Riots (1851)



The Anti-Catholic riots were the culmination of a series of disputes between members of the Chinese immigrant community who had converted to Roman Catholicism and those who had not. The disturbance began on 15 February 1851, when members of various Chinese secret societies attacked and burnt plantations owned by Chinese Christians. During the five days of rioting, an estimated 500 people were killed and 28 plantations burnt.1

Background

There were multiple causes of the conflict between Christian and non-Christian members of the Chinese immigrant community. One area of contention was the declining membership in secret societies. Many Chinese who had previously been members of the secret society known as Tan Tae Hoe (Heaven and Earth Society, also known as Ghee Hin Hoe) were attracted to the Catholic faith and converted to Catholicism. This eroded the membership of the secret society and challenged its power base, resulting in resentment against the Catholics.2

Control over gambier and pepper plantations was another area of disagreement. Because they did not belong to secret societies, Chinese Christian plantation owners were not part of the plantation networks controlled by the secret societies, and were perceived to be in competition with the interests of the societies. The Christians were also believed to have illicitly smuggled opium for use in their plantations. This infringed on the opium monopoly held by Chinese merchants who had links to the secret societies. Driven by these factors, the Tan Tae Hoe and other secret societies resorted to violent means to disrupt the economic livelihood of the Christian planters.3

Outburst of violence

Throughout the 1850, assaults by secret society members on Chinese Christian plantation owners were frequently reported, as instances of intimidation and violence against Christians became increasingly widespread. These occurrences culminated in a large-scale attack on Christian Chinese plantations on 15 February 1851, when a series of clashes at plantations around the Kranji and Bukit Timah areas quickly escalated into mass rioting at plantations throughout the island.4 In response to the assaults, groups of Chinese Christians fought back, while others fled to the city centre to seek refuge.5

When the colonial police force attempted to restore order by arresting several perpetrators, secret society members who were trying to free their comrades attacked the police instead.6 Contemporary observers also noted that Indian convicts were mobilised to scatter the rioters by chasing them into nearby jungles. Eventually, military troops had to be called in to quell the riots.7 The chaos lasted for five days, and when it ended, around 500 Chinese had been murdered, 28 plantations looted or burnt, and homes within the plantations pillaged.8

Resolution

Through the mediation of Chinese community leader and businessman Seah Eu Chin, a settlement was negotiated in which the non-Christian Chinese merchant community agreed to pay the affected Christian plantation owners a sum of $1,500 to compensate for damages incurred during the riots.9 As reported in The Singapore Free Press, this was in exchange for the dropping of legal proceedings against the  perpetrators of the riots.10 Meanwhile, several of the arrested rioters were sentenced in court, with jail terms ranging from seven to 14 years.11

After this incident, disputes between both groups continued to persist, albeit on a small scale, and minor complaints of territorial infringements continued to be heard.12 Despite the severity of the riot and constant requests from the jury to take action, then Governor of the Straits Settlements, William Butterworth, remained reluctant to introduce more stringent legislation to regulate the activities of the secret societies, as he had hope that the exemplary punishment meted out to the perpetrators would serve as a deterrent against future lawlessness.13



Author

Yong Chun Yuan



References
 
1. Trocki, C. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 109. (Call no.: RSING 305.89510595 TRO)
2. Blythe, W. (1969). The impact of Chinese secret societies in Malaya: A historical study. London: Oxford University Press, p. 70. (Call no.: RSEA 366.09595 BLY); Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 542–543. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Untitled. (1851, March 5). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835—1869), p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Trocki, C. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 108–109. (Call no.: RSING 305.89510595 TRO)
4. Blythe, W. (1969). The impact of Chinese secret societies in Malaya: A historical study. London: Oxford University Press, pp. 70–71. (Call no.: RSEA 366.09595 BLY); Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 543. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
5. Trocki, C. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 109. (Call no.: RSING 305.89510595 TRO); Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 543. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
6. Untitled. (1851, March 5). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835—1869), p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Blythe, W. (1969). The impact of Chinese secret societies in Malaya: A historical study. London: Oxford University Press, p. 71. (Call no.: RSEA 366.09595 BLY)
8. Trocki, C. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 109. (Call no.: RSING 305.89510595 TRO)
9. Trocki, C. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 110. (Call no.: RSING 305.89510595 TRO)
10. Untitled. (1851, March 28). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835—1869), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Blythe, W. (1969). The impact of Chinese secret societies in Malaya: A historical study. London: Oxford University Press, p. 71. (Call no.: RSEA 366.09595 BLY)
12. Trocki, C. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 110. (Call no.: RSING 305.89510595 TRO)
13. Blythe, W. (1969). The impact of Chinese secret societies in Malaya: A historical study. London: Oxford University Press, p. 71. (Call no.: RSEA 366.09595 BLY)



The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Social conflict--Singapore
Anti-Catholic Riots, Singapore, 1851
Riots--Singapore
Politics and Government>>National Security>>Civil Unrests>>Riots
Civil unrests
Social conflict--Religious aspects
People and communities>>Social conflict>>Riots