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  • The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba
  • Philip A. Howard
The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba. By Lisa Yun . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. 336 pp. $56.50 (cloth); $26.95 (paper and e-book).

Employing the testimony of 2,841 Chinese workers initially recruited by British and American companies and later by Cuban traffickers of African slaves and indentured workers to labor in Cuba alongside African slaves, Lisa Yun provides a worthy examination of the lives of Asian immigrant laborers during the last half of the nineteenth century. Positing these workers within the context of the global economy and at a time when the economic growth and prosperity of the North Atlantic world were dependent on the exploitation and oppression of African slaves and East Indian and Chinese indentured workers, Yun demonstrates that employing coolie labor was critical to the shift away from slavery and toward the adoption of free wage labor in Cuba. Although these Chinese workers were theoretically free wage earners, the testimony that some Chinese coolie laborers gave in front of members of a commission sent by the Chinese government to determine their role, status, and treatment in Cuba illuminated the disturbing fact that the majority of them were held and treated in the same fashion as African slaves, argues Yun. As a result, Yun is able to "reexamine the liberal philosophies and assumptions regarding contracts and freedom," as well as the "very structures of a free society, a contractual society based upon the concepts of self-ownership."

After exploring the historiography on transitional laborers in the Americas in general, and Cuba specifically, Yun points out that much [End Page 615] of the literature written on the Chinese experience in Cuba underlined the fact that the production of certain commodities, such as sugar, as well as the laws that governed indentured servitude and known as the Chinese Codes transformed the majority of coolies into slaves. For example, the codes required Chinese indentured workers to obtain the permission of their masters to marry. The codes also declared that the status of any child born of a coolie originated from that of the mother. Finally after 1860, the codes denied freedom to any Chinese worker who completed his contract. The latter regulation, better known as "recontracting," tied the coolie to one owner or owners beyond the period of his initial contract.

Recontracting made the coolie trade profitable to British, American, and later Cuban commercial interests. As a result, between 1847 and 1877 some 142,000 Chinese arrived in Cuba. Interestingly, another 100,000 Chinese coolies landed in Peru during this time. Yun argues that the Cuban plantocracy sought coolie laborers for many reasons. Two of the most important causes were that they sought to reduce the intensity of the African slave trade to ensure that Cuban society would not resemble, at least demographically, Saint Domingue and experience that country's same violent fate after 1791. The fact that the cost of one coolie tended to be one-third to one-half less than that of an African slave drove demand among Cuban planters. The relatively lower cost of a Chinese indentured worker explains why after British and American companies started the coolie trade, the island's wealthiest African slaveholding families from Havana and Matanzas, particularly the Zulueta family, subsequently replaced them. By the 1860s, the most prominent Cuban slave owners became not only the principal investors in the Asian trade but also the largest holders of coolie workers.

To substantiate her thesis that Chinese coolies were held and treated similarly to the African slaves, Yun traced their experiences from the moment they were recruited in China and transported to Cuba. Their "middle passage" resembled that of the African slaves, according to Yun. Once they arrived, the contracts that they signed to work for an individual for a period of eight years were deceptive in nature. Although owners were obligated to pay their workers four pesos monthly, they immediately deducted from their workers' salaries the cost for their clothes and food as well as medical care and "lost-time." As a result, by the time that the contracts...