Column T.W. Paterson: ‘We generally give him a clip on the ear…’

“I felt round and the first thing that came to my hand was a piece of coal.” —miner Alex Macdonald.

Coal mining conditions were far from ideal in the early days, and even more difficult if you were a Chinese miner. (file photo)

“I felt round and the first thing that came to my hand was a piece of coal.” —miner Alex Macdonald.

The law, it’s been said, grinds slowly but finely. It can equivocate finely, too, as shown 130 years ago when Alex Macdonald was charged with having assaulted a fellow worker in the main slope of Nanaimo’s No. 1 Mine.

The object of his anger that day, Ah Hee, was Chinese, which makes his and Macdonald’s further confrontation in a courtroom quite out of the ordinary.

Overseer David Morgan, first to take the stand, testified it was Macdonald’s duty to look after the coal cars and Chinese labourers, “including any that I send down”. On Wednesday and Thursday, Morgan instructed Ah Hee to bale water from a pool in the slope, there being no pump available. As it happened, the pump was available and Macdonald ordered Ah Hee to use it. But Hee, who usually worked in another area of the mine and didn’t know Macdonald, or that he had Morgan’s authority to give him orders, balked.

Macdonald, upon taking the stand and being asked by W.H. Mason, the Crown prosecutor, how miners usually dealt with insubordination, replied, “If a Chinaman refuses to do what he is told we generally give him a clip on the ear or send him up out of the shaft.”

He then described the events leading up to his being charged with assault: “Ah Hee came down the slope on Thursday. He went to the face and baled the water out. I did not go down to see if the water was out but he was baling for half an hour there and I know by what water was there that he was long enough to bale it out. When he came up he was standing alongside the full cars. I told him three or four times to go inside and pump the water out that was lying there over our shoes.

“He stood there as if he wasn’t intending to go so I caught hold of him and pulled him from behind the cars and gave him a tap on the cheek. [I] didn’t hit him very hard. He fell over some sticks that were there — great big junks [sic] of sticks. At that, he grabbed for a piece of stick and was going to go for me. He was about four yards off. I felt round and the first thing that came to my hand was a piece of coal. He was turned around as if he was going away and [I] fired the coal at him to scare him. He was in the dark at the time.”

Not so dark that Macdonald missed the mark, however, the coal glancing off Ah Hee’s temple and drawing blood.

Through an interpreter, Ah Hee denied having grabbed up a “piece of stick” and explained that he’d been instructed by Morgan to bale the water with a bucket, that he’d done so, and that he “no savee” Macdonald or the pump.

Prosecutor Mason then argued that even the slap on the face sustained the charge of assault, while the blow “with the coal causing a cut on the head could not be justified as having been done in self-defence as it was altogether excessive and itself amounted to an assault”. But he wasn’t prosecuting for assault with a weapon, merely “common” assault warranting a sentence just sufficient to discourage the underground practice of manhandling Chinese workers.

Magistrate J.P. Planta concurred, the charge having been sustained by Macdonald’s own testimony. It was unfortunate, he said, that Morgan hadn’t been informed that the pump had been repaired and was available, rather than his having put Ah Hee to work with a bucket. Morgan, he thought, should also have made it plain to Ah Hee that he was to take directions from Macdonald when working in the slope. Planta accepted Macdonald’s testimony that Ah Hee had “idled his time by standing still while there was work to be done in the shift of eight hours during which everyone was expected to be actively employed”.

He instructed the interpreter to make this clear to Ah Hee and his friends in the audience. As for Macdonald, Planta didn’t think that he meant to harm Ah Hee with the lump of coal, but he had. The magistrate reminded those present that all were equal before the law and entitled to the same protection from the law. But, as he felt there was fault on both sides in this case, he fined Macdonald just $1 and costs.

What makes this trial, brief as it was, and questionable though its conclusion may be, historically significant is the fact that Ah Hee stood up for his rights. By refusing to accept Macdonald as his superior on faith, by showing resistance after being cuffed, by charging him with assault, he’d spoken up for his many countrymen and co-workers who, for the most part, suffered in silence.

Ah Hee may not have been a willing worker but, in his own small way, deep in the recesses of the No. 1 Mine, he helped to advance the cause of equality.

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