Prior to the 1854 riots, a fleet of 22 war junks arrived from China carrying rebels of the Xiao Dao Hui (meaning Short Dagger Sect in Mandarin). After a failed political rebellion in Amoy, these rebels came to Singapore armed and inclined towards violence. Conflicts between the Hokkien and Teochew communities over the control of pepper and gambier plantations and revenue farms had already strained relations between these communities. When the local Hokkien community refused to help and donate to the mostly Teochew rebels, tensions rose. Meanwhile, a rice shortage in Singapore made the situation worse.
The riots began on 5 May 1854 and lasted for at least 10 days. They were sparked by a disagreement between a Hokkien shopkeeper and a Teochew buyer over the price of a catty of rice
The term originates from the Malay term kati. A catty weighs about 604.79 grams.
. As an argument ensued, bystanders began to take sides based on affiliations. A fight soon broke out, and people poured in from all sides to take part, using sticks, stones and knives on each other, with violence spreading to neighbouring streets. Several shops and houses were broken into and looted.
The Superintendent of Police, Thomas Dunman
Thomas Dunman came to Singapore around 1840 as a mercantile assistant in the firm of Martin, Dyce & Co. He became the Deputy Magistrate and the first Superintendent of Police in 1843, and the first Commissioner of Police in 1857.
, believed the military should be called in. However, Governor William J. Butterworth
William J. Butterworth was the Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1843 to 1855. Despite being known for his stiff and pompous personality, he managed to earn public goodwill due to improvements made during his term as governor. After a spate of riots among Chinese secret societies in May 1854, Butterworth supported the formation of the first volunteer defence force in the Straits Settlements—the Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps—and became its first colonel.
was sceptical of the magnitude of the situation and rode into town on horseback to investigate, only to be attacked by a mob. After the attack, Butterworth sent for troops, whose arrival caused a temporary lull in the fighting for the day.
The riots resumed the next morning. Hokkien minorities within Teochew villages were attacked and vice versa. Many houses and shops were looted and destroyed. No shops were opened that day, and the Oriental Bank as well as the godowns were closed. The military was called in again, and Marines from the ships HMS Sybille
marched through the worst-affected streets to maintain order. While this resulted in relative peace, attacks on passers-by in the streets still continued.
By noon, a meeting was called. Seventy Europeans, together with some commanders from merchant vessels, were sworn in as special constables. The Resident Councillor also asked 50 leading Chinese merchants to use their influence to restore order. However, this had little impact.
On the night of the second day, many Chinese arrived quietly from nearby jungles as well as junks in the harbour. They headed into town, presumably to start bigger and more violent fights on the morning of the third day. The colonial authorities began to protect vessels in the Singapore River, which became potential targets for plunder. The vessels were ordered into the middle of the river, while seven boats were kept rowing around them to prevent any attempt to board the vessels. With the troops on high alert, peace in the town was restored.
However, violence began to spread outside the town. Sepoy
soldiers and Malays were employed to quell the fighting and looting. There were fears that the violence might spread to Melaka and Johor. Fortunately, that did not occur. By the time the riots were suppressed, over 400 people were dead and 300 homes were destroyed.