- The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba
Lisa Yun's The Coolie Speaks points to what might be called a new US "subaltern studies." The book yokes two interdependent strands of scholarly methodology into a very satisfying and original whole. The first is South Asian subaltern studies as exemplified by Ranajit Guha's groundbreaking Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), a book which helped to launch a global "history from below," as well as Gayatri Spivak's better known essay "Can the Subaltern Speak," to which the title of Yun's book alludes. The second is British and North American diaspora scholarship influenced by interethnic and comparative ethnicity study with particular attention to class formation and class struggle. One might look here to Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many Headed Hydra, or more directly relevant to Yun's study, the work of Ronald Takaki and Vijay Prashad, which has helped to unseal the historical and conceptual borders between members of the Black and Asian diasporas. The upshot and upsurge of these two waves of scholarship is that: 1) working people around the world have found numerous means to endure and battle their exploitation; and 2) in doing so they have forged new alliances across racial and ethnic lines seared by the experiences of colonialism, slavery, and capitalism.
The significance of Yun's work, however, lies beyond its methodological synergy: she has opened up a horrific oyster shell embedded in the reefs of the slave trade. The Coolie Speaks is a microhistory of the written and oral testimonies of 2,841 Chinese laborers in Cuba who stepped forward to provide testimony to a commission formed in 1874 to investigate the working conditions of Chinese coolies and, tangentially, African slaves. The mere recovery of these voices is a durable contribution to scholarship: Yun and teams of translators from the Spanish and Chinese have pored over commission transcripts in order to re-animate both the "voices" of coolies as well as the structures of social dominance, racial division, and capitalist exploitation that structured their work. The transcripts reveal a startlingly original story of agonistic struggle for human emancipation and strategic solidarity, on [End Page 224] one hand, while also providing a primary source manifest of nineteenth century global capitalism written on the Asian body. It is impossible to think any longer about the "Black Atlantic" slave trade devoid of the quarter million Chinese who made their way across it into the depths of primal scenes of forced labor.
Chinese coolies poured into Spanish Cuba from the 1840s to the 1870s. Labor demand was fed by Cuba's singular place as the world leader in sugar production, supplanting Haiti after that nation's successful revolution of 1791-1805. From 1830 to 1870, Cuban sugar production more than quintupled. Britain benefitted most, consuming almost one third of the world's sugar. British traffickers also helped to broker the transmission of nearly 150,000 Chinese coolies brought to Spanish-Cuban buyers on Havana-bound ships, though as Yun notes, French, American, Portugese, Danish, Chilean, even Russian carriers were among the national fleets that carried coolie cargo. Labor costs primarily dictated this trend. Between 1845 and 1875, Yun notes in one of her many helpful statistical tables, the cost of African slaves rose from 335 to 715 pesos per slave; Chinese coolies reached a maximum cost of 420 pesos per worker. Chinese coolies in turn suffered their own Middle Passage: between 1847 and 1873 more than 16,000 Chinese died in transit, averaging eleven percent of the total "tonnage" per year.
Throughout this period, Chinese coolie labor also remained a perverse index to debates about racialization, slavery as an institution, and even national identity in global context. For example, Yun points out that in the US, nation-builders like Henry Cabot Lodge saw American leadership in the coolie trade as symptomatic of American "conquest, colonization, and expansion unequalled by any people in the Nineteenth Century" (22). Conversely, US abolitionists like Willliam Reed argued that the...