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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.2 (2001) 99-122

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Chinese Coolies and African Slaves in Cuba, 1847-74

Lisa Yun and Ricardo René Laremont


Chinese labor in Cuba in the nineteenth century was slavery in every social aspect except the name.

--Franklin Knight, 19701

The Significance of Chinese Coolies to Cuba

In 1874, a New York Herald correspondent in Cuba, James O'Kelly, observed that a Chinese coolie "contrary to the representations made about the traffic in Asiatics was treated in every respect the same way as his sable companions in misfortune." 2 O'Kelly was one of many observers of that period who recorded similar assessments; later, Cuban historians came to the same conclusion. While American scholars debate whether the Chinese coolies of Cuba should be called "slaves," the authoritative scholars of Chinese labor in Cuba, Juan Jiménez Pastrana and Juan Pérez de la Riva, substantiated the horrific conditions of Chinese coolies in Cuba and unreservedly stated that coolies were slaves in all but name. What were the conditions of Chinese coolie labor in Cuba and how is this related to our present understanding of labor's legacy in Asian American studies? Such questions become critical as we assess our present narratives of human experience, with the "coolie" having become a major figure in the study of Asian migration to the Americas. The coolie has figured into our diasporic history, literary narratives, ethnographic studies, and perhaps [End Page 99] most importantly, in communal memories and constructions of ancestral heritage.

How we understand the "coolie" era of the 1800s and shape its narratives has profound significance. In Cuba, the Chinese coolie occupied a role of exploited laborer who transformed into the freedom fighter in nationalist history and memory of war. Cuban poet and literary critic Nancy Morejon wrote in 1993 that "the Chinese, brought to the New World in a supposedly 'new' coo1ie concept of slavery, soon felt the opprobrium of slave exploitation." 3 The Chinese were honored as freedom fighters in the independence struggle. A marble monument to their struggle stands in Havana. In Asian American historiography, the coolie is a distant figure of indentured labor. However, a revisiting and excavation of "coolie" historiography, in all its forms, may be relevant for the ways in which we imagine labor formations and narratives today. There are historians who have laid groundwork for the study of coolies to Latin America and Caribbean, including Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Walton Look Lai, and Denise Helly. In this article, we will address particular questions of colonial political economy and the "new coolie concept of slavery."

When O'Kelly made his observation in 1874, Chinese coolie traffic to Cuba was being curtailed by a weak but indignant Chinese government after it received an official report entitled The Cuba Commission Report that documented Chinese being tricked or kidnapped to Cuba against their will and their subsequent inhumane treatment in Cuba. The exhaustive Report was submitted to the government with supporting documents and over a thousand depositions to support its conclusions. In another report, Robert Porter, special commissioner for the United States to Cuba, wrote in 1899: "[The Chinese] were virtually slaves until the Chinese government intervened on their behalf." 4 The conditions of coolie labor in nearby Jamaica or in Guyana, however, were not necessarily the same. What emerges from the nineteenth century is a widely varied picture of what "coolie" and "coolie history" means. The history of the Americas, with its Spanish, English, French, and American colonial legacies, cannot be homogenized. Likewise, the role and condition of Asian coolie labor in the Americas--both Indian and Chinese--cannot be oversimplified. The definition of "coolie" and the contexts and consequences of coolie labor varied widely. The term coolie generalizes Asian laborers in a [End Page 100] wide spectrum of ethnic histories, material conditions, and political contexts. The terms "coolie" or "indentured laborer" are generic assignations that classify the economic utility of coolies. However, these terms obfuscate the very political and experiential nature of coolies. Coolie labor...