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Reviewed by:
  • Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation by Moon-Ho Jung
  • Kathleen López
Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. By Moon-Ho Jung. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

In this well-researched study, Moon-Ho Jung argues that debates on Asian coolies were integral to the construction of race and citizenship in the U.S. nation-state that emerged during the age of emancipation. Through congressional debates, diplomatic correspondence from China and Cuba, newspapers and periodicals, and plantation records, Jung offers insights into the national, regional, and class dynamics that can produce sharply divergent images of a particular migrant group; in this case, Chinese coolies who were recruited for work on Louisiana sugar estates. Jung states, “In a nation struggling to define slavery and freedom, coolies seemed to fall under neither yet both; they were viewed as a natural advancement from chattel slavery and a means to maintain slavery’s worst features.” (6) Ultimately, as the United States made the transition to a “nation of immigrants” and promoted a self-image of benevolent empire sowing the seeds of civilization and liberty abroad, Chinese were portrayed as inassimilable and unfit to be citizens.

Jung contextualizes this particular chapter of Asian American history within a larger story of “European colonization of Asia and the Americas, planters’ demands for labor in the Caribbean and Louisiana, and workers’ struggles within and against systems of migrant labor.” (9) British colonization of India and occupation of Chinese port cities after the Opium War had facilitated the recruitment and shipment of Asian laborers to its Caribbean sugar plantations after emancipation. Indeed, the seemingly well-regulated indentured labor system provided a model for Louisiana planters, who now faced similar circumstances. Since 1847, U.S. firms had been heavily involved in the international business of transporting thousands of Chinese to the Spanish colony of Cuba, still under slavery. As news spread of the kidnapping, deception, rampant abuses, and high mortality rates associated with the Chinese indentured labor system in Cuba and Peru, Republicans equated coolies in the Caribbean with slave labor and in 1862 passed a federal law prohibiting American ships from participating in the trade. Despite the regulation, former slaveholders in the U.S. South clamored for imported Asian workers. Louisiana planters, who were particularly plagued by uncontrollable sugar prices and global labor markets, pinned their hopes on coolies from Cuba after the Civil War (and had even experimented with them in the antebellum era). To justify the new imports of Chinese contract labor while upholding an anti-slavery stance, federal policies, albeit hesitantly, “recast coolies as potentially free immigrants in American culture.” (40) Coolies in Louisiana, like those in the West Indies, were officially portrayed as representing a crucial step toward a free labor system.

As they increased their demand for coolies during the postwar and Reconstruction era, planters “confronted a widening movement for multiracial democracy and class struggle.” (108) African American workers and leaders, supported by Radical Republicans, denounced imported Chinese contract labor as detrimental to the U.S. working class. Planters also faced pressure from white farmers who had not been part of the slaveholding elite and maintained their own vision for postbellum agriculture, one that included small farms and white immigrants and excluded Chinese coolies, who they associated with estate slavery. Although whites were temporarily divided, the movement against Chinese eventually contributed to the development of “a white national identity across regional and class divisions.” (223) Jung captures the sentiment behind this movement: “Unlike coolies, hailed and reviled as permanent plantation laborers who would remain aliens in race and culture, immigrants, if afforded kind treatment as temporary plantation laborers, represented the region’s permanent population, the future of the white race.” (177)

As planters and officials debated whether or not Asian migrants to New Orleans were coolies, different kinds of struggles took shape on the ground. The Chinese recruited from Cuba, in particular, had fled an abusive indenture system and were quick to recognize oppressive tactics among planters and overseers in their new setting. Although initially described as a docile, hardworking labor force, they rebelled, resisted corporal punishment...

Additional Information

ISSN
1532-5768
Launched on MUSE
2007-09-19
Open Access
No
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