Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Anti-Catholic Riot of 1851.

This is my 3rd and last installment of the stories relating to the old cemetery at Chestnut Drive.
Previously I mentioned how the church of St Joseph and the cemetery came about and of how it was established by the early French missionaries.
After finding the old gravestones of the early pioneers of the church, I felt I had to tell their story.
A story of their zeal for conversions, their fortitude in hardship and deprivation, and their heroism against all odd in the jungles of Bukit Timah.

Historical records showed that even as Stamford Raffles signed the treaty with Sultan Hussein on 6 Feb 1819, there were already a number of gambier and pepper plantations on the island of Singapore.
Early Chinese farmers had migrated initially to Bintan and to the Riau Islands and later to Singapore to start gambier plantations. These were located mostly around the coastal areas that were then controlled by the Sultan of Johore under the kangchu system.
After Raffles established Singapore as a trading port, more Chinese learning of the new opportunities, and in desperation from the conflicts in China at the time, migrated to Singapore. By the 1840s, it was estimated that there were already 600 plantations all over the island. Most immigrants were indentured labourers and were under the control of clan associates. These clan associations started benevolently to help their fellow countrymen but criminal elements led to many becoming secret societies. The farmers and plantations were soon under the oppression of these secret societies, especially the most notorious Ghee Hin Huay.
There were some Teochew farmers who settled around the Kranji and Serangoon areas. Amongst these farmers were some that stood out from the rest. The reason being that they were Christians who had converted in China.
When the Catholic Church found out that there were Catholics at the gambier farms,  Fr Anatole Mauduit, a Chinese speaking French missionary, was dispatched to Kranji to minister to them.
The year was 1846. Getting to Kranji was by boat via the coastal route.

The route that was to become Bukit Timah Road was just mapped out the previous year.
However, this was not a road as you would imagine it today. It was still merely beaten tracks in most parts, through rugged jungle terrain with danger from marauding tigers. It was a track just wide enough for horses or bullocks, especially in the interior. *(The first recorded trans-island passage via Bukit Timah Road was undertaken by JT Thomson and Dr Robert Little. It took them 4 days by horseback)
As Kranji was 12 miles away from the city, Fr Mauduit chose to live near the plantations. He set up a chapel in the busiest settlement at Kranji. This was a village called BokoKang, located at the head of a tributary of the Kranji River. The location of BoKo Kang today would be somewhere in the Sungei Kadutold Yew Tee village area.
Map of northern Singapore in 1852  shows Bou Ko Kang (Bokokang) at the head of Sungei Kranji.
Leem Chu Kang plantation would be where Tengah Airbase lies today.
Chu Chu Kang village was resettled in the 1980s. Today Choa Chu Kang HDB estate is built upon it.
Lau Chu Kang was where the Singapore Turf Club at Kranji now lies.
Tan Chu Kang plantation was where today's Woodlands Garden up to the Customs building is located (Marsiling).
Fr Mauduit and his assistant, Fr Adolf Issaly, were true missionaries in ministering to their flock. They were so successful that their community grew from an initial 100 to 300 members by 1851. However, their success led to increasing tension between the church and the secret societies.
The clan huays saw it as an infringement into their domain. This was more so because the Catholic farmers did not take part in the clan temple ceremonies and would not contribute tithes to these.
The increasing defections from the clans by converts to the church angered the huays. They felt the conversions were tantamount to a loss of their control and influence over the farmers. The secret societies were determined to stop further defections from their clans and to reduce the missionaries’ influence.
All these simmering tension finally came to a head on 15 February 1851, when mobs from the secret societies went on the rampage to burn and ravage all the Catholic farms. Looting, theft and robberies were widespread and the Catholic farmers had to flee for safety. Some farmers fought back to defend their farms but most fled for safety to the city.
This incident which lasted for 5 days is known as the Anti-Catholic Riot of 1851.
In all, about 30 farms were destroyed, including non-Catholic farms that were torched during the fight. The riot did not only affect the Catholic farms at Kranji and Bukit Timah but spread to other parts of Singapore, notably in the Serangoon (Hougang) area, as well.

The Empire Strikes back.
A little known fact as to why the attacks took place on 15 Feb 1851 was that Fr Mauduit was away in France on sick leave, leaving Fr Issaly in charge. On the day of commencement of the attacks, Fr Issaly was called to attend to a sick parishioner’s wife at Sungei Benoi in Jurong.  Both being absent from their station was the impetus that led the huays to begin their pillage on the Catholic farmers.
Fr Issaly, on learning about the attacks at Kranji, took refuge for a day in Jurong. He learnt that there was a price placed on his head by the secret society. Fr Issaly through the help of Catholics in Jurong managed to secure a boatman who ferried him down the coast to the city.
Together with the refugee farmers, Fr Issaly applied for twenty-two warrants from the Police. Thus, the authorities had no choice but to enter the fray to enforce the warrants to recover the Catholic farms.
Up till then, the local British government were want to interfere into the affairs of the ethnic locals, especially of those outside of the city. 
Reinforcement for the Police, including a gunboat with 12 men, were sent to Kranji. The police force faced running battles with armed secret society fighters and there were killings and mayhem on both sides although the exact numbers were not known. It took 5 days before a truce was worked out between the government and the clan associations.
It was an uneasy peace as the secret societies had a number of fighters arrested and they refused to negotiate, not wanting to recognise the authority of the ‘foreigners’. It took clan and community leaders like Seah Eu Chin to finally make all come to a compromise. The government insisted on some convictions to show their authority with a few gang members ‘transported’ to India to serve their sentence. Other charges would be dropped in favour of a $1,500 compensation to the affected farmers. The farmers were unsatisfied with the paltry monetary compensation.

The myth of the 500 martyrs.
There is a long running story that 500 Catholics were slaughtered during this riot of 1851.
Many Catholics would like to believe that because if it were true, they would be the 1st known local martyrs, having died for their faith.
However, a detailed reading of the facts will show that the number is greatly exaggerated.
In 1851, the Catholic community in Singapore only numbered a few hundreds.
It was known that Kranji had about 300. Therefore, having 500 slaughtered for the faith cannot be plausibly reconciled. It would mean decimation for the local flock and yet not a single report was made to this effect. Even Bishop Bocho never mentioned any great loss to his congregation at this time in any of his records.
In fact, the Overland Free Press reported on 5th March 1851 that only ‘ten to a dozen’ people were killed, and this was the count from the Police side firing their muskets!
There were also no reports in the Singapore Free Press at the time about any massacre of these numbers. Therefore, the story of the 500 martyrs remains implausibe and should be debunked.
There may possibly be some Catholic farmers who were killed during the riots but there has been no official record of any of these anywhere.
The story of the 500 martyrs probably arose because of a confusion with another incident around the time. It was actually the Hokkien-Teochew Riot of 1854 that a great number of Chinese were killed.
Said to be between 200-300 (some reports did mention 500 killed) during 2 weeks of intense violence.

This other event in the later years was a much bigger incident starting from the city and spreading throughout the entire island of Singapore. It involved several thousand rioters fighting over dialectic territories. This incident is also known as the Five Catties of Rice Riots.
This is probably the source* and mix-up for the myth of the 500 martyrs as it occurred around the same time. Compared to the widespread Hokkien-Teochew Riot of 1854, the Anti-Catholic Riot of 1851 was considered only a localised incident, i.e. between the Church and the secret societies, and did not involve the majority of the Chinese community at that time.

*See comments below

The French Missionaries today.
The French mission of which Fr Mauduit and Fr Issaly belonged, the  Missions Etrangere De Paris or MEP, still exists today and are still running their mission in Singapore. They have been in existence since 1658 and together with the Franciscans and Jesuits were responsible for bringing Christianity to Asia, notably in China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

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  1. Hi Mr James Tann,
    I am a Catholic from Queenstown and I have also heard the story of the 500 Catholic martyrs of Singapore. But not as detailed as what you wrote above. Thank you for giving so much more information about it. What we have heard so far is simply that there were these martyrs in the early days of Singapore and nothing much more than that.
    From what you say then, it is just a myth and the 500 are actually not Catholics who were martyred for the faith. How do you think this confusion lasted for so long? I have read some history books on Singapore (CM Turnbull) and it did mention the 500.

  2. Hello ES,
    My own belief and from the reasons I gave above tells me that the '500 martyrs of Singapore' is a myth.

    I too have read the 'rumoured' claim in CM Turnbull's history. She appears to have taken it from CB Buckley who quoted JAF Fraser about the 500 martyrs. JAF Fraser was an Englishman who was sent to the Straits Settlement in 1859 to do a survey on Penang, Malacca and Singapore. He was later the Superintendent of Prisons in the colony of Singapore. It was here that he 'heard' from his prison staff, an Indian warder, that 500 people were killed during the riots. I believe that Fraser confused the major riot of 1854 with that of the Catholic Riot of 1851 based on hearsay. Fraser was not a witness to either riots but his report was picked up by historians following that.
    You can read the Straits Settlement survey report which is on microfilm at the National Library Lee Kong Chian reference Section.

  3. Errata: In my haste to reply to E.S., I quoted the name JAF Fraser in haste from memory without checking. The actual person I should be referring to is J F A McNair. Apologies.

  4. Thank you James for enlightening me on a piece of Singapore history that I was not even aware about. Our history books in school never mention this tragic event. And nobody told me me about it.

    Eric Lim

  5. Hi James, could you help quote your sources for this article? I'm researching into this topic and would appreciate your help. Thanks!

    1. HI Manic,
      For these kind of requests, I'd appreciate if you would pm me with a brief intro?
      Thanks for visiting my blog.