Gone But Not Forgotten: The Overlooked Struggle of Chinese “Slaves”

By Nevin Coyne

The Untold Story of Asian Labor in Cuba

starting in 1847 and lasting until 1874, began a mass migration of Chinese laborers as both forced and willing participants were taken by ship to ports around Cuba and the Caribbean to replace the dwindling African slave labor. Of the 125,000 Chinese trafficked to Cuba, there were 2,841 who left behind testimonies that described their descent into a hellish system of bondage. One group came together to write a lengthy testimony of their experience, which opened with: “We are sinking in a strange place and living in a hell on earth” (Yun, 36). Many people forget or overlook that Chinese indentured laborers were essentially a replacement for African slave labor and were treated nearly identically. In Chinse in Cuba, historian Kathleen M. Lopez explains that the coolie system approximated a “new system of slavery. incorporating mechanisms of oppression and control inherited from over three centuries of African bonded labor” (Lopez, 36). In that regard, both the British occupation of Havana in 1762 and later the industrial mechanization of sugar plantations transformed Cuba from a “relatively mixed economy based on cattle-ranching, tobacco-growing, and the small-scale production of sugar” to the “dominance of plantation agriculture based on the large-scale production of sugar and coffee”(Moon-Ho, 11). As the Cuban plantation economy changed, so did its need for a cheap, consistent, and reliable source of laborers.

Indentured Servants or Free labor?

In the early nineteenth century, the British, who condemned slavery and pressured the French, Spanish and Portuguese to follow their lead in ending the African slave trade, also led the way to develop, sanction, and profit from this new system of forced, indentured labor. Facing the dilemma of ending slavery when the plantation economy flourished, Cubans and Peruvian planters quickly followed their example. They engaged in the infamous Coolie Trade, also known as the Trata Amarilla, referring to Chinese and East Indians who were contractually obligated to provide service for a set period of time. The contract was a legal agreement between a free individual and an employer that spelled out all parties’ specific responsibilities. The Coolie was to be paid during the contract period, usually a combination of wages and in-kind (food, clothing, lodging, and medical attention). After completing the term of indenture, the coolies were to regain their total freedom. However, from the very beginning of the Coolie trade there was an immense gap from the very beginning between theory and practice, which was unavoidable given the exploitative context in which the system developed. 

Dehart, Evelyn Hu. “Chinese Coolie Labor in Cuba in the Nineteenth Century: Free Labor of Neoslavery.” Contributions in Black Studies A Journal of African and Afro-American Studies, vol. 12, no. 5, 1994.

Coolies constituted a source of labor replenishment, delaying the crisis that would have set in with the end of the slave trade and making it possible for the plantation economy to continue to prosper. It is also noteworthy that, after 1875, when both the slave and the coolie trade had ended, sugar production displayed a pattern of general decline (see Table 1), a crisis brought on in large part by the shortage of available labor. In Chinese Coolie Labor in Cuba in the Nineteenth Century, Evelyn Hu DeHart examines the journey and treatment of Chinese indentured servants and how their journey was similar and different to slavery. As she explains: “Throughout the years of the trade, some basic terms remained consistent: the eight years of servitude almost never varied; the pay of 1 peso a week, or 4 a month, also remained constant; in addition to salary, coolies were paid in food and clothing – usually some specified amount of rice, meat or fish, yams or vegetables, as well as two changes of garment, one jacket and 1 blanket a year. In addition, the coolie was advanced 8 to 14 pesos at time of departure (for passage and a new change of clothing), which constituted a debt to the patrono to be repaid by deduction from his salary at the rate of 1 pesos a month.” It is easy to see the unfairness of this contract as the plantation boss had almost total authority over the contract’s stipulations and whether or not they would be honored. The contract was also designed to immediately put the Chinese laborers into debt and prolong their contract by eight to fourteen months. 

Coolies effect on Cuba 

If an individual only looks at the eight years of servitude that the Chinese coolies agreed to specifically, the working conditions; the actual physical treatment they faced at the hands of planters, supervisors, and overseers; the lack of personal freedom; and the development in close proximity to slavery, it is impossible to avoid the inference that the coolie trade was very similar to that of slavery. However, not all scholars accept that the Chinese coolie trade was similar to slavery because it had one key difference: Chinese indentured workers were paid a wage, although not much they were paid through wages, food, housing, and clothes. In her examination of Chinese in Cuba, DeHart dances a delicate line claiming that their treatment was equal to that of African slavery while also arguing that the provisions stipulated in the contract made them think of their labor differently despite its close relationship with slavery. DeHart explains that “regardless of how they were treated at work, the Chinese were keenly aware that they were free men under contract, very distinct from the slaves who were chattel for life” (Dehart, 14). Coolies had a system to complain and report abuse against plantation owners and local authorities they felt had violated their contract. A compilation of these reports is eventually what led to the international investigation in 1874 and the end of the Coolie trade. We can see through these depositions that the Chinese were deeply frustrated and understood that while they were legally free they were constantly mistreated by both plantation owners and the authorities tasked with protecting them. 

Continued Migration

Although indentured servant contracts came to an end in 1874, Chinese immigration to Cuba did not stop. Lui Fan, who also went by his western name Francisco Luis, was one of those who immigrated to Cuba in 1918 at age eighteen from his village in Xinhui County, Guangdong Province, and initially started working on a plantation to fulfill Cuba’s need for an increase of Sugar production during World War I. However, because indentured servant contracts no longer existed he was soon able to abandon the estate and began selling his own vegetables in the town of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Lui Fan (far right) with Lui villagers in Havana, Cuba, 1929. 

Unlike many other Chinese indentured laborers, Lui Fan was able to gain enough money after nearly a decade to return to his village in China. Upon returning, he built a home and married, throwing an extravagant party that the entire village came to attend. However, Lui Fan chose not to remain in  China and instead chose to return to Cuba where he worked to gain enough money to continue returning home to China and send remittance to his family.

Francisco Luis (Lui Fan) with his Cuban daughters, Lourdes and Violeta Luis, in Cienfuegos, Cuba, 1952. 

He returned to China just two other times in 1930 and 1932, having two daughters Baoqing and Mali, but never again returned to China, leaving his daughters to grow up without a father. Back in Cuba, Lui Fan had also entered a relationship with a Cuban woman who he also had two daughters with, Lourdes and Violeta, giving them the Chinese names, GuiGui and Guipo. Almost ironically, the Cuban mother abandoned the family after three years leaving Lui Fan to raise his Cuban daughters by himself. Lui Fan decided that he wanted to maintain both families and wanted both sets of his daughters to have a relationship having them correspond regularly. Liu Fan in addition to maintaining a transpacific family was able to maintain a transpacific nationality as he continued to read, support, and teach his daughters ideals and morals from both countries he identified with. Lui Fan was provided an opportunity that many indentured servants never had; the chance to pursue his dreams by abandoning his contract. Through his work in Cuba, he was able make decisions about his livelihood freedom and return to his homeland–choices about his life and residence that Coolies were never afforded. Unfortunately, Lui Fan is a rare case of what a Chinese laborer can accomplish if given the opportunity and tools necessary to succeed. The indentured servants that came before him experienced a drastically different Cuba than the one he lived in.          

Works Consulted:

The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, by Lisa Yun, Temple University Press, 2009, pp. 7–60. 

Dehart, Evelyn Hu. “Chinese Coolie Labor in Cuba in the Nineteenth Century: Free Labor of Neoslavery.” Contributions in Black Studies A Journal of African and Afro-American Studies, vol. 12, no. 5, 1994. 

Jung, Moon-Ho. Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 

López Kathleen M. Chinese Cubans: a Transnational History. The University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 

Additional Reading:

Tannenbaum, Ben. “Filling the Void: China’s Expanding Caribbean Presence.” COHA, 3 Apr. 2018, www.coha.org/filling-the-void-chinas-expanding-caribbean-presence/.

Stanley L Engerman, Economic change and contract labor in the British Caribbean: The end of slavery and the adjustment to emancipation, Explorations in Economic History, vol. 21, Issue 2, 1984, Pages 133-150, https://doi.org/10.1016/0014-4983(84)90021-4.

Dorsey, Joseph C. “Identity, Rebellion, and Social Justice Among Chinese Contract Workers in Nineteenth-Century Cuba.” Latin American Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 3, 2004, pp. 18–47., doi:10.1177/0094582×04264492. 

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