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Coolies and Cane

Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation

Moon-Ho Jung

Publication Year: 2006

How did thousands of Chinese migrants end up working alongside African Americans in Louisiana after the Civil War? With the stories of these workers, Coolies and Cane advances an interpretation of emancipation that moves beyond U.S. borders and the black-white racial dynamic. Tracing American ideas of Asian labor to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, Moon-Ho Jung argues that the racial formation of "coolies" in American culture and law played a pivotal role in reconstructing concepts of race, nation, and citizenship in the United States. Jung examines how coolies appeared in major U.S. political debates on race, labor, and immigration between the 1830s and 1880s. He finds that racial notions of coolies were articulated in many, often contradictory, ways. They could mark the progress of freedom; they could also symbolize the barbarism of slavery. Welcomed and rejected as neither black nor white, coolies emerged recurrently as both the salvation of the fracturing and reuniting nation and the scourge of American civilization. Based on extensive archival research, this study makes sense of these contradictions to reveal how American impulses to recruit and exclude coolies enabled and justified a series of historical transitions: from slave-trade laws to racially coded immigration laws, from a slaveholding nation to a "nation of immigrants," and from a continental empire of manifest destiny to a liberating empire across the seas. Combining political, cultural, and social history, Coolies and Cane is a compelling study of race, Reconstruction, and Asian American history.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

I could not have finished this project without the generous support of numerous institutions. Fellowships and travel grants from Cornell University and an Albert J. Beveridge Grant from the American Historical Association helped me complete my dissertation, the book’s foundation. The University of Washington has nurtured the transformation of an unwieldy dissertation into this...

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pp. 1-10

Tye Kim Orr’s circuitous migration to the United States in 1867 had little to do with the California Gold Rush or the building of the transcontinental railroad, the signal events that usually mark the beginnings of Asian American history. An ethnic Chinese born and raised in the British colony of Straits Settlements in Southeast Asia (the present nation-states of Malaysia and Singapore),...

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1 Outlawing Coolies

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pp. 11-38

A vote for Chinese exclusion would mean a vote against slavery, against “cooly importation,” a California senator warned in 1882. “An adverse vote now is to commission under the broad seal of the United States, all the speculators in human labor, all the importers of human muscle, all the traffickers in human flesh, to ply their infamous trade without impediment under the protection of...

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2 Envisioning Freedoms

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pp. 39-72

William J. Minor, the owner of three large sugar plantations in Louisiana, expressed his vision of freedom to a federal commission immediately after the Civil War. “The only certain remedy that we know of is, to take us back under the Constitution & establish things as they were,” he explained in April 1865, “but perhaps under some other name.” Asked if he meant the retention of...

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3 Demanding Coolies

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pp. 73-106

In April 1861, Raphael Semmes arrived in New Orleans to assume the command of CSS Sumter, the first naval vessel to fly the flag of the Confederate States of America. After converting to “war purposes” the packet ship, which formerly plied between New Orleans and Havana, Semmes and his crew made their way down the Mississippi River toward the Union blockade in the Gulf of...

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4 Domesticating Labor

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pp. 107-145

Southern planters’ swaggering pronouncements on race and labor captured the nation’s attention in the summer of 1869, a moment when the nation itself was being redefined. In a speech delivered in Boston, Frederick Douglass, the former slave and eminent abolitionist, disparaged the “Southern gentlemen wholed in the late rebellion” for “they believed in slavery and they believe in it...

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5 Redeeming White Supremacy

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pp. 146-180

Long before Congress voted to prevent Asians from acquiring U.S. citizenship, Hinton Rowan Helper issued similar admonitions on the ruinous effects of slavery and Chinese migration. In his infamous antislavery treatise The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), this son of a North Carolina yeoman farmer bewailed the plight of the South’s silent majority-nonslaveholding whites. Slavery and...

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6 Resisting Coolies

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pp. 181-220

By 1874, bitter struggles over wage rates had become commonplace on Louisiana’s plantations, but the devastated money and sugar markets invigorated planters and merchants to reduce production costs as never before. On December 23,1873, St. Mary Parish planters resolved to contract no laborer for more than fifteen dollars per month in the upcoming season, setting a limit that neighbors...

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pp. 221-225

Seventy years ago, historian W. E. B. Du Bois characterized Reconstruction as a “splendid failure” because “it did not fail where it was expected to fail.” To him, the age of emancipation was defined by a violent confrontation between capital and labor, always in articulation with the ideology of white supremacy. Reconstruction’s demise in the United States, he...


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pp. 227-263

A Note on Primary Sources

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pp. 265-266


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pp. 267-275

E-ISBN-13: 9780801888762
E-ISBN-10: 080188876X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801890826
Print-ISBN-10: 0801890829

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 9 halftones, 6 line drawings
Publication Year: 2006