The coolies of Kasumasu speak – 1910

A group of coolies. This photo was taken c1910.
National Archives of Australia (NAA N29, 1 page 23 of 168)

It is an unfortunate fact that there is no first hand account, by the Chinese labourers (coolies), of those first early years on Christmas Island. Many of them came from impoverished circumstances with limited, if any, education. They were therefore unable to convey their experiences in a lasting form and thus their voices remain silent. This is a great shame as the coolies made up the majority group on Christmas Island. Yet it is not their voice that tells their story of those early times. Only the voices of others are heard and they often tell of the coolies from their own perspectives and prejudices.

However, in 1910 there is a letter that appears in The Straits Times and from a brief moment in Christmas Island’s early history, we manage to hear, just the once, the collective voice of the coolies. It is penned on their behalf with regards to the matter of Dr Allan leaving his position as medical officer on the Island.

There is a separate article on Dr James Cyril Dalmahoy Allan on this website and it is plain that he had a genuine affection for the coolies. Many would have suffered variously from disease, illness or suffer terrible accidents in the quarries. Dr Allan did his best to alleviate their suffering.

As a result of Dr Allan’s efforts during his time on the Island, these men wished to show their appreciation. The following is the 1910 Straits Times newspaper article in which the letter appears. The coolies of Kasumasu [Christmas] speak.

Chinese Appreciation of British Practitioner

The following tribute, somewhat quaintly worded, but obviously most kindly and sincere, is paid to Dr. Allan, who is about to retire from the medical service in Christmas Island. It has been sent to us by a correspondent with a request to publish:

“In our humble opinion, medical science is extremely profound, and involves interests of the greatest importance. The great wise men of olden times used herbs as the source of the medicines by which they treated the diseases of succeeding generations. Their knowledge was transmitted through numberless years until down to later times, half of the knowledge so handed down was of a very mediocre kind, and far removed from accuracy. In our Middle Kingdom there are numerous doctors : foreign countries also possess not a few. Yet, throughout the whole world, there are few men possessed of great cleverness in the healing art. At the present time we Chinese are living at a place called Phosphate Island otherwise Ka-su-ma su or, as the English call it, Christmas Island. There is a British doctor named Tuan Allan, who has been here some months. Some score of men suffering from various diseases have been treated by him. In one case, perhaps, the leg of a man accidentally broken by a fall, would be restored to its original condition and could be used as before. Then again, the eyes of a man injured by the glare of the sun, would be cured as soon as medicaments were applied. Still more praiseworthy is the surgical skill of Dr. Allan. With regard to the four sources of all disease, wind, cold, heat and damp, and all other diseases and ailments, we can really say that Fa To is born again and that there is now living another Pin Che.

“The Chinese on the Island, together with the Europeans, Malays and Bengalis, total to a thousand odd, and on anyone becoming ill, no sooner is he prescribed for, than he is cured.

“We Chinese, reflecting that we have nothing with which to requite Doctor Allan, desire to subscribe some sum of money, and have a gold medal struck, with the four characters Ch’ing Chua Chai, carved in the middle of one face, and with a gold and red silk ribbon attached, with the four characters Hau Yim Yü Shan written thereon. And further to inform the people everywhere, by publishing these facts in a newspaper, so that the fame of this doctor may be spread abroad.

“This respectful intimation is prepared by the Chinese of Phosphate Island (or Ka-su-ma-su) on the 2nd day of the tenth moon in the first year of Hsuan Th’ung.

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. “A Christmas Island doctor”, 7 January 1910, Page 8. Reprinted with permission