Anti-Catholic Riots (1851)

Singapore Infopedia

by Yong, Chun Yuan


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, robbed and burnt plantations owned by Chinese Christians.1


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 starting on 15 February 1851, with a series of attacks on a reported 27 plantations around the Kranji and Bukit Timah areas, and other parts of Singapore island.4 The attackers would rob the plantations, taking valuables and produce such as pepper and gambier from the bangsals (warehouses).5 What could not be taken away was destroyed. Some kidnappings were also reported.6 In response to these assaults, groups of Chinese Christians fled to Singapore Town seeking refuge.7

The police force stationed at Bukit Timah was reinforced and issued warrants to search and arrest the men accused of these attacks.8 A police party carried out their warrants in the village at Kranji but was attacked on their way back to Bukit Timah.9 Several of these attackers were killed.10 Further reinforced by Indian convicts and a detachment of the Madras Native Infantry, more warrants were executed with more prisoners taken though there were more attempted attacks on them by the Chinese.11 It was estimated that 10 to 12 of these Chinese attackers were killed.12 The initial trials in March saw three men convicted and sentenced to transportation to Bombay.13

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.14 As reported in The Singapore Free Press on 28 March 1851, this was in exchange for the dropping of legal proceedings against perpetrators of the riots who were yet to be arrested.15 Several more were tried in September as their cases were filed after the Criminal Sessions in March had closed.16

After the incident, disputes between both groups continued to persist, albeit on a small scale, and complaints of territorial infringements continued to heard.17 Despite the severity of the riot and the jury's constant requests to take action, then the 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 hoped that the exemplary punishment meted out to the perpetrators would serve as a deterrent against future lawlessness.18

Yong Chun Yuan

1. Carl A. Trocki, Opium and Empire: Chinese Society in Colonial Singapore, 1800–1910 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 109. (Call no. RSING 305.89510595 TRO)
2. Wilfred Blythe, The Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya: A Historical Study (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 70 (Call no. RSEA 366.09595 BLY); Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 542–43 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835—1869), 5 March 1851, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Trocki, Opium and Empire, 108–09. 
4. “Local,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 February 1851, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Local.”
6. “Local,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 28 February 1851, 2; “Untitled,” Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce, 4 March 1851, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Local.”
8. “Local.”
9. “Local.”
10. “Local.”
11. “Local”; “Untitled.”
12. “The Overland Free Press,” Overland Singapore Free Press, 5 March 1851, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Overland Free Press.”
14. Trocki, Opium and Empire, 110. 
15. “Singapore, Friday, 28th March, 1851, Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 28 March 1851, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Criminal Sessions,” Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce, 16 September 1851, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Trocki, Opium and Empire, 110. 
18. Blythe, Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya, 71.

The information in this article is valid as at August 2019 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.

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