The Chinese, like the Indians, were the workhorses of capitalist entrepreneurs all over the world and a web of circumstances determined who went where, and why, and how.
While volumes have been written on Indian and Chinese settlement all over the world, “a comparative study of the overseas Chinese and the overseas Indians is a subject yet to be explored by political sociologists,” wrote K.N.Ramachandran in 1979.
As it happened, it was the south Indians who were chosen for employment on the coffee plantations. In the last major census just before independence on 4 February 1948 there were 780,589 Indian Tamil on the plantation, while there were just 497 Chinese in towns, and most of them were engaged in retail trade, catering, or dentistry. Ceylon was thus unlike Malaya, where the Chinese were 45% of the population with the Indians being only 10%, while in Burma, the Chinese were second to the Indians of whom there were about one million.
The presence of Chinese in south East Asian countries was due more to circumstances that policy. “The infiltration of Chinese into south East Asian was in general a voluntary, instinctive movement which owned nothing to the direct encouragement of government; indeed there was an official ban on Chinese emigration until 1894,” wrote Brian Harrison. In Ceylon official policy at times seemed to fovour the import of Chinese labour although this did not materialies with the availability of south Indian labour so much closer at hand.
As in many aspects of economic policy, the Dutch due to their earliest presence, anticipated the British. It was during the period of Dutch supremacy in the Indian Ocean that an attempt was made to send Chinese from Batavia to Ceylon. The Chinese in Batavia had been law abiding, but UN the 1740’s there was some unemployment, crime and discontent. Fearing a possible revolt by the Chinese authorities decided to send those who did not possess passes certifying that they were legitimately employed to Ceylon and the cap of good hope. Some Chinese obtained such passes through bribery but others resorted to acts of violence. There was a rumour that those who were to be deported were really to be thrown overboard at sea, and this fuelled further violence. The Dutch panicked when the house of a Chinese governor went up in flames. The Dutch governor-general lost his head and did nothing to prevent a massacre of Chinese by the company’s troops. It is interesting to note that earlier when the Dutch governor at the cape suggested the import of Chinese labour from Batavia, Joan maetsuyker, who was then on the court of directors (heeren XVII) but who had earlier been governor of the Dutch “cinquests” in Ceylon, (1746-1750) described the Chinese as workers in glowing terms” with you, “he wrote to the Dutch governor at the cape” we are of the opinion that 25 good chinamen will better promote agriculture at the cape than50 of our present lazy and unwilling agriculturalists. “Maetsuyker regretted that he could not send any Chinese to the cape as they could not “be induced in a friendly way to proceed thither, apparently not liking the idea.”