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The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba

Lisa Yun

Publication Year: 2008

Introducing radical counter-visions of race and slavery, and probing the legal and philosophical questions raised by indenture, The Coolie Speaks offers the first critical reading of a massive testimony case from Cuba in 1874. From this case, Yun traces the emergence of a "coolie narrative" that forms a counterpart to the "slave narrative." The written and oral testimonies of nearly 3,000 Chinese laborers in Cuba, who toiled alongside African slaves, offer a rare glimpse into the nature of bondage and the tortuous transition to freedom. Trapped in one of the last standing systems of slavery in the Americas, the Chinese described their hopes and struggles, and their unrelenting quest for freedom.

Yun argues that the testimonies from this case suggest radical critiques of the "contract" institution, the basis for free modern society. The example of Cuba, she suggests, constitutes the early experiment and forerunner of new contract slavery, in which the contract itself, taken to its extreme, was wielded as a most potent form of enslavement and complicity. Yun further considers the communal biography of a next-generation Afro-Chinese Cuban author and raises timely theoretical questions regarding race, diaspora, transnationalism, and globalization.

Published by: Temple University Press

Front Matter

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

I am indebted to many who have helped me bring this to fruition. I will first thank Gary Okihiro for encouraging me over several years. Without his support and the enthusiasm of David Palumbo-Liu, this book would not have materialized. My words are entirely inadequate to express my ...

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Introduction: Challenges of a Transnational History

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pp. xv-xxiii

In a critique of enlightened and liberal attitudes, Orwell once commented upon the ambivalence surrounding the subject of the coolie. In metropoles and colonies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African slave labor and Indian and Chinese coolie labor underwrote the ...

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1. Historical Context of Coolie Traffic to the Americas

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pp. 1-35

In 1874 there were 2,841 Chinese coolies who stepped forward to give written and oral testimonies of their experiences in Cuba. Of some quarter million Chinese sent to Cuba and Peru in bondage, this would be one instance of their mass protest via testimony. The perspectives of those such ...

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2. The Coolie Testimonies

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pp. 36-71

Remarkably, of the 125,000 Chinese who were trafficked to Cuba, there were 2,841 coolies who left behind an astounding body of written and oral testimonies that described their descent into a hellish system of bondage. One group came together to write a lengthy testimony of their experience, ...

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3. The Petitions: Writing as Resistance

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pp. 97-167

Edward Jenkins, a British barrister, noted that during a commission investigation into indenture in Guyana, he received petitions from Chinese that came in a variety of forms: “Besides the many deputation of Coolies [sic] from the estates, all persons who were in any way connected with the ...

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4. The Depositions

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pp. 143-182

In 1871 Julia Louisa M. Woodruff published her observations of her time in Cuba. Included was her visit to the Santa Sofía sugar plantation, where she encountered a recaptured coolie. Her description touched upon the power struggle inherent in domination and daily re sistance. “Half- dead and ...

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5. An Afro- Chinese Author and the Next Generation

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pp. 208-253

Richard Henry Dana, the prominent lawyer, abolitionist, and writer, posed a most vexing question regarding Chinese labor of the Americas: Would the Chinese mix with other races? After Dana’s trip in 1859, coolies continued to appear in “town and country” and indeed, they did ...

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Conclusion:Old and New Maps of Coolies

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pp. 229-241

In 1900–1901 Joseph Conrad wrote Typhoon, a short piece of fiction inspired partly by Conrad’s own experiences in the South China Sea. Regarded as one of the finest examples of maritime fiction in literary history, this novella has been appreciated with classic themes in mind: man versus ...

Addendum: Selected Petitions

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pp. 243-259


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pp. 261-276


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pp. 277-305


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pp. 307-311

E-ISBN-13: 9781592135837

Publication Year: 2008