The Coolie Trade The phenomenon of indentured labor, which followed upon the abolition of slavery, spread throughout the Western world in the latter two-thirds of the nineteenth century, appearing in such far-flung places as Mauritius, South Africa, Latin America, Australia, Malaya, and the Fiji Islands. Indentured labor, i.e., labor contracted under penal sanctions, was essentially a compulsory system of labor, which in practice differed little from slavery. Unlike slaves, indentured workers were supposed to receive a monthly wage, and their term of service, at least in principle, was for a fixed period of from five to eight years; but these provisions were not always adhered to, and in all other respects, indentured workers were no better off than the slaves they replaced. The widespread appearance of indentured labor is not adequately accounted for by either of the two major schools of thought in the controversy over the downfall of slavery. If the primary motivations for the abolition of slavery were humanitarian, then why did humanitarians look the other way when slave owners resorted to another form of forced labor in the system of indenture? If, on the other hand, the abolition of slavery was an economic consequence of the rise of industrialism and capitalism, as Eric Williams in his Capitalism and Slavery would have us believe, then why did the same factors, which rejected forced African labor, so easily accept forced Chinese and Indian labor? Did the principles of humanitarianism not also extend to the peoples of Asia? Or did some latent racism preclude �Asiatics� (as Chinese and Indians were called), or at least preclude them from being defended with the same vigor as Africans? Or, lulled into a false sense of security and accomplishment, were humanitarians taken in by the trappings of indenture�the written contract, the monthly wage, and the limitation on the period of service? The latter could be an out for the humanitarian interpretation of the abolition movement, but what of the economic determinism of the Williams school? Indenture�s camouflage might possibly have fooled the humanitarians, but the same could not be said of the economic forces of determinism. Perhaps the economic factors, like the humanitarian principles, did not have universal validity, but only applied to African slavery? The question must then be raised that perhaps indentured labor was an economically viable alternative both to slave and wage labor, at least in some areas of the world? And as such, was indenture a conscious hardnosed compromise between the proponents of slavery and the abolitionists? Else, how explain the fact that England, who led the fight against slavery and whose statesmen condemned slavery as the very antithesis of progress, also led the way in sanctioning indentured labor? It is the purpose of this work to present a comprehensive study of Chinese indentured labor in Latin America. In an attempt to place the coming of over 250,000 Chinese indentured laborers to the Caribbean and South America from 1847 to 1874 in some kind of historical perspective, this study traces the gradual rise and acceptance of the indentured system of labor in the Western world following upon the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the slaves. Conditions both in China and in Latin America, which triggered and sustained a flow of Chinese labor for over a quarter of a century, are examined. The transoceanic passages of the Chinese laborers is chronicled. Finally, the experience of Chinese indentured labor in the Caribbean and South America is explored. This work relies heavily upon (1) the correspondence of consuls and diplomats on the China coast and in Latin America contained in the archives of the British Public Record Office and in the British Parliamentary Papers; (2) the China coast newspapers of the nineteenth century, both English and Portuguese, including the official weekly publications of the Hong Kong and Macau governments; and (3) official correspondence between Macau and Lisbon contained in Lisbon�s Arquivo Historico Ultramarino. Though there are gaps in the historical record, which further research in Cuba, Peru, and the West Indies as well as in Portuguese and Spanish archives will help resolve, there is a great deal more information available on the movement of Chinese laborers to Latin America than the contemporary movement of Chinese to California. This is at least partially explained by the fact that the entire process of Chinese immigration to Latin America was in the hands of Westerners who tried to keep records of some kind, while immigration to California was in the hands of the Chinese themselves, who evidently chose not to do so. With the exceptions of Clementi and Campbell, who used the British archives in relation to the British West Indies, the above sources have been little used by studies of Chinese immigration to Latin America. What of Chinese sources? Chinese periodical literature developed in Hong Kong and the treaty ports under Protestant missionary auspices in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. By the 1860s and 1870s, there were major Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which carried reports on the �coolie-trade.� These have yet to be explored by historians. Chinese documentary material dealing with diplomatic questions arising out of emigration has, however, been studied by Irick, and sections of chapter VIII of the present work depend largely upon Irick�s study, Because of the evils associated with the nineteenth-century immigration of Chinese to Latin America, the movement was dubbed the �coolie trade,� a euphemism that echoes the �slave trade,� and was intended to be no less condemnatory. The term �coolie� would seem to have been of Indian origin and was first used to denote Tamil menial laborers from Madras. In British documents of the 1840s and 1850s, the term is exclusively reserved to designate Indian laborers. Later it came to be predicated of Chinese laborers and was used generally of any unskilled worker. Latin American plantation owners and exploiters of guano beds and nitrate fields, unsuccessful elsewhere, turned toward the teeming population of China for their manpower needs. Between 1847 and 1874, vessels of twenty Western nations transported over a quarter of a million largely involuntary male Chinese to the Caribbean and tropical South America This work is a comprehensive study of this migration, which was larger in scope and much more documented than the contemporary migration of Chinese to California. The Latin American experiment with Chinese labor demonstrates that indentured labor was an economically viable alternative both to slave and wage labor. In fact, it would seem that indenture was a conscious hardnosed compromise between the proponents of slavery and the abolitionists, which explains why England, which led the fight against slavery and whose statesmen condemned slavery as the very antithesis of progress, also led the way in sanctioning indentured labor. Chinese migration to Latin America was initiated and sustained, not by spontaneous action of free agents, but rather by the persuasion, deceit, and coercion of emigration recruiters in the employ of Western entrepreneurs. The voyage to the Americas was a prolonged battle for survival with the elements, disease, ruthless crews, and scheming fellow passengers that took the lives of approximately one emigrant in every eight. In Latin America, Chinese laborers, like the Negro slaves they replaced, were exploited, oppressed, and kept in varying degrees of dehumanizing bondage. However, Chinese labor meant the difference between prosperity and ruin for a large number of planters in Cuba and Peru, and to a lesser extent in the British West Indies. Without the Chinese, plantation agriculture would have languished if not collapsed, and the guano industry and railroad construction would have been seriously curtailed. The advent of the Chinese not only postponed an inevitable crisis for plantation agriculture, but facilitated its expansion. Furthermore, Chinese labor both slowed down the process of change from slave to wage labor and made the transition less than catastrophic for the slaveholder. The impact on China overshadowed whatever significance the movement had in the New World. Problems arising from the illegal recruitment of laborers on China�s southern coast not only forced the Chinese government to break with centuries of tradition and officially sanction emigration, but aroused China to take an active interest in her subjects abroad, which helped to draw her out of isolationism and promoted diplomatic contact with a new area of the globe�the South American continent. The reader should be advised of one further historiographical fact. Heretofore, the burden of responsibility for the abuses surrounding the �coolie trade� has been laid at the door of the Portuguese. If our understanding of the movement was confined to published British sources, particularly the Parliamentary Papers, it would be difficult not to do the same thing. But evidence from other sources clearly shows that responsibility for the evils perpetrated on the Chinese, if it is to be allotted, must be more evenly distributed among many Western nations, principally Great Britain, Spain, Peru, Portugal, France, and the United States. This is not to exonerate the Portuguese, but rather, to place responsibility where it properly belongs�in the lap of Western civilization, which was also responsible for the African slave trade. Like the Africans in the slave trade, the Chinese also bear some responsibility for the sufferings of their fellow countrymen. The author grew up in Ireland�s heartland and immigrated to the United States in 1957 when he was twenty-four years old. He got a PhD in Latin American history from the University of California, Davis Campus. For a short while, he taught history at the University of Houston, Clearlake campus; but for most of his career, he has worked in communications and proposal writing for the business world. He lives with his wife, Jackie Devlin, in Eufaula, Alabama. Journal of Chinese Overseas, May 2009, Book Review by Professor LI ANSHAN, School of International Studies, Peking University As China returns to the center of the world arena, Chinese studies have become a hot topic in academia. This �China frenzy� explains why, after more than 30 years, a Ph D dissertation on Chinese indentured labor completed in 1975 has �come out of the closet.� Chinese immigration, in its broad sense, is both the cause and product of globalization. As early as the late Qing dynasty, the Chinese were, willingly or otherwise, spread all over the world. The �coolie trade,� as �a new slavery disguised under the cloak of work contracts�, was an important part of the process and an unsavory chapter in human history. Dr. Arnold J. Meagher�s work, The Coolie Trade, The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America 1847-1874, is a masterpiece, which tries �to present a comprehensive study of Chinese indentured labor in Latin America�. The work is solid in its data. The author tries every means to use as much material from different sources as possible, as is often permitted in historical works. The data including government archives and various secondary sources are taken from both the origin and destination of the traffic. Moreover, the appendices include a reservoir of documents for the researcher and historian interested in the subject. The work is also comprehensive in its content. It deals with not only the historical international context, the recruitment of Chinese labor in the Chinese coastal regions and the ports of departure, and the voyages to the New World, but also with the mutinies which took place in the course of the voyages, and the life of Chinese indentured laborers in Latin America. What is more, the author devotes one chapter to studying world opinions on the subject and the termination of the �coolie trade.� History is regarded as a discipline of humanities as its writing inevitably involves sensibility and emotion, revealing the writer�s motivation and judgment. On the one hand, the author of this work objectively studies the process, mechanism and results of the coolie trade, and on the other hand, severely criticizes this abominable commerce in human life, initiated and sustained by persuasion, deceit and coercion. He fully sympathizes with the Chinese indentured laborers who suffered from exploitation and oppression and were kept in �varying degrees of dehumanizing bondage�. He offers a unique viewpoint on the nature of the Chinese indentured labor system: It is important to distinguish between the abstract legal system of indenture embodied in government decrees and written contracts, and the actual day-to-day life of the indentured worker. The book concludes that the indenture system should fall under the expanded definition of slavery adopted by the United Nations in the Supplementary Convention on Slavery at Geneva in 1956 (pp. 298-99). However, the book needs to be updated. In the 1980s, Chinese scholars such as Chen Hansheng, Chen Zexian, Peng Jiali and others collected and published historical data on overseas Chinese indentured labor in the compilation, Collection of Sources on Chinese Indentured Labor, (In Chinese?) which includes documents from government archives on Chinese indentured laborers in Cuba, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Panama, Chile, Guatemala, etc. Other Chinese scholars such as Wu Fengbin, Luo Rongqu, Zhang Kai, Xu Shicheng, Li Chunhui and Yang Shengmao, who began studying and writing about � also in the 1980s � Chinese immigrants in Latin America concentrating on indentured labor. All these works have added to the scholarship of the subject, yet they are not mentioned in this book based on the author�s Ph D dissertation dated 1975, when he had no opportunity to make use of the findings of the Chinese scholars. That explains why the work is a bit weak in certain aspects such as the Chinese government�s attitude toward the trade. Moreover, quite a few excellent works in other languages on indentured laborers have been published since the late 1970s, such as Denise Helly�s Id�ologie et Ethnicit�: les Chinois Macao � Cuba, 1847-1886 (1979), Walton Look Lai�s two prominent works on Chinese indentured labor, Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar (1993) and The Chinese in the West Indies, 1806-1995 (1998), Trev Sue-A-Quan�s Cane Teapers: Chinese Indentured Immigrants in Guyana (1999), Trevor Millett�s The Chinese in Trinidad (1993), and Humberto Rodriguez Pastor�s several important works on the Chinese in Peru. The above-mentioned studies could have been used to good purpose by the author in the revision of his work for publication. There are a few leaks, which may be mentioned in the present volume, such as a blank in footnote 42 on p. 35. Some works (such as by Chen Ta) appear in the text but cannot be found in the bibliography. In the final analysis, though, this work makes a good contribution to the scholarship of indentured labor and the understanding of this dehumanizing chapter in human history.
The author grew up in Ireland�s heartland and immigrated to the United States in 1957 when he was twenty-four years old. He got a PhD in Latin American History from the University of California, Davis Campus. For a short while, he taught history at the University of Houston, Clearlake campus; but for most of his career, he worked in communications and proposal writing for the business world. He is also the the author of "Ireland, My Ireland:Memories from the Heartland", published by Publishamerica.com. He lives with his wife, Jackie Devlin, in Eufaula, Alabama.