Labour History

From Slavery to Freedom: Chinese Coolies on the Sugar Plantations of Nineteenth Century Cuba

Labour History (2017), 113, (1), 31–51.


To supplement a dwindling slave labour force on their sugar plantations, Cuban planters turned to south China’s Fujian and especially Guangdong provinces. From 1847 to 1874 they recruited 141,000 male labourers (125,000 of whom arrived in Cuba alive). Slave-like work and living conditions on plantations, with proximity to large numbers of slaves notwithstanding, Chinese coolies were not permanent or lifelong slaves. The main question asked is not whether Chinese coolies were slaves – a well-worn argument that is not re-hashed here – but whether as contract labourers they constituted the early stages of the transition from slave to free labour. The article examines the respective and divergent framing of the bilingual Spanish and Chinese contracts, and the series of regulations designed to control the Chinese workers. Based largely on these primary documents it follows the trajectory of their work history in Cuba from indenture to freedom by way of specific life experiences.

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*The author would like to thankLabour History’stwo anonymous referees. Google Scholar

1.If all East Indian labour migrants throughout the world, legal and unauthorised, from the entire nineteenth century to 1920 are included, Hugh Tinker estimates that at least one million, maybe as many as two million, people were involved.Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830–1920(:Oxford University Press, 1974), 114–15;Walton Look Lai, Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar, Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838–1918(:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). Google Scholar

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4.For instance:Pérez de la Riva, Los culíes chinos;Juan Jiménez Pastrana, Los chinos en la historia de Cuba, 1847–1930(:Ed Ciencias Sociales, 1983);Helly, Ideologie e etnicité;Liza Yun, The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba(:Temple University Press, 2008);Meagher, Coolie Trade;Kathleen López Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History(:University of North Carolina Press, 2013). Google Scholar

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10.The wordcolonois probably most often translated as “colonist.” In rendering the word as “settler,” I follow the example of the unknown translator of the great Cuban economic historian, Julio Le Riverend. SeeJulio Le Riverend, Economic History of Cuba(:Book Institute, 1967), 154. This translation was issued by the same publisher in the same year that the original text was published asHistoria Económica de Cuba.That the termcolonodid mean settler was borne out later in the century, when Spanish immigrants (many Gallegos and Canarios) arrived in Cuba. Many took up cane cultivation on small farms, sending the cut cane to large central factories –centrales– to process. These small Spanish immigrant cane farmers were also calledcolonos;Castro’s father, a Gallego immigrant, was acolono.See sample contract inThe Cuba Commission Report: A Hidden History of the Chinese in Cuba: The Original English Text of 1876(:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), Appendix. Google Scholar

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13.For these and other deceptive ruses used in recruiting hapless and clueless Chinese to work in Cuba, see thousands of testimonies inCuba Commission Report.In 1873, the newly established Tsungli Yamen (China’s first Ministry of Foreign Affairs) of the Qing government sent a commission to investigate conditions on the Cuban plantations and how its subjects were treated and abused. Almost 3,000 testimonies were gathered, orally in person, or submitted in writing. Google Scholar

14.The Chinese had no exact word for “emigrant” at this time; an approximation was the word and concept ofDongjia muhang(华侨) which Wang Gungwu defines as “sojourning,” that is, “temporary residence at a new place of abode (with the intention of returning)”;Wang Gungwu, The Chinese Overseas, 42. See alsoWang Gungwu, “The Origins of ‘Hua-ch’iao’ [huaqiao],”inWang Gungwu, Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia, and Australia(:Allen & Unwin, 1992), 1–10. Google Scholar

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17.Jiménez Pastrana, Los Chinos, 153–61. The word“indio”can be a bit tricky for the translator. In this context, it could mean “Indian” as in South Asian or East Indian, for the Cubans were aware of the British system of sending both Chinese and Indian indentured labour to the British West Indies. Cubans, however, did not attempt to contract East Indian workers, having no access to them. ButDongjia muhangcould also refer to indigenous people, although by this time in the mid-nineteenth century, all the original indios who had inhabited the island when Columbus arrived in the late fifteenth century had long perished from disease and abuse. In the 1850s, Cuban planters imported several thousand Mayan Indians from the Yucatán, Mexico. The labour contractors could have been thinking of native Filipinos whom they also labeledDongjia muhangWe know that in subsequent decades to the enactment of this regulation, some coolie ships were dispatched from Manila, and we also know that some “Filipinos” were found on the Cuban plantations, as a few of them gave testimony to the Chinese Commission. SeeCuba Commission Report. Google Scholar

18.Pérez de la Riva, “La situación legal.” Google Scholar

19.Over time, the Chinese themselves would become very sensitive about their racial status versus Afro-Cubans, slave or free. They appealed to local authorities to rule against unfavourable relationships with blacks that were forced on them. In 1864, a high administrative judge was asked to rule on the question “whether or not it is permitted to transferasiáticostopersonas de color(free black or mulatto).” The case involved a coolie named Ricardo who was detained by the police for brawling with themoreno(mulatto)Sebastian Sánchez, whose wife, la negraAntonia María, had bought Ricardo’s contract for 300 pesos from Don Gervasio Martínez Alarcón (white). The judge ruled that, given the coolie’s resistance, “because he considers himself superior by race to the black woman who owns him,” it was best to return him to his original white master, Don Gervasio. He reasoned that, in order to maintain social order, it was not convenient to allowedgente de colorto enjoy the same racial superiority over thecolono asiáticoas the whitepatrón.Consejo de Administración, 12 September 1864, File 8.605, Archivo Nacional de Cuba (ANC). Google Scholar

20.The 1854 regulations appeared to have been written for a broad and diverse group of immigrant workers here identified with the generic termcolono, including notably Spaniards. But only the Chinese coolie appeared to have come to Cuba with formal contracts. The document bore the long title of “Reglamento para la introducción y régimen de los colonos españoles, chinos o yucatecos en la isla de Cuba, Real Decreto de 22 de marzo de 1854.”“Yucateco”referred to the small number of Mayan Indians recruited from the Mexican Yucatan plantations for the Cuban plantations. The experiment faltered after importing 2,000 or 3,000 of them. The regulation is reproduced in its entirely in Jimenez Pastrana, Los Chinos, 161–74. Google Scholar

21.Actually, the practice ofcoartaciónwas known among coolies before 1854. The term“cohartación”was used by the judge in the 1852 case of“asiático Pablo,”who petitioned, unsuccessfully, to have his contract rescinded before expiration of the eight years. Archivo Nacional de Cuba contains numerous similar petitions, including a few from coolies who had won lotteries and actually had the means to buy their freedom. In these cases, the petition was usually granted. One very interesting case occurred in 1860, when Ah Nie won a lottery worth 12,500 pesos, changed his name to Don Antonio José María Gil (not only did he adopt a very proper Spanish name, he claimed the honorific title, Don, usually reserved for gentlemen of substance and property!), and bought out the remainder of his contract for 357 pesos. He received a residency permit(cédula de residencia), rented a room on Aguacate no. 55 in Havana, and began “living independently.” Gobierno Superior Civil, File 637/20195, ANC. For other petitions, see Gobierno Superior Civil, File 635/20078, ANC. Google Scholar

22.Records uncovered by historians in China, using Chinese records, reveal that from 1880 to 1885, a period when many of the coolies sent to Cuba and Peru during the height of the trade (also the last desperate thrust to import as many as possible before international pressure would force it to close down), from 1870–75, would have completed their original contract and likely some recontracts as well, only 1,887 of them had managed to make their way home.Zhang Kai, “Guba huaren yu Zhongguo jianjiao shimo” (古巴华人与中国建交始末 “Chinese Labour in Cuba and the Establishment of Sino-Cuban Diplomatic Relations”), Huaqiao huaren lishi yanjiu (Overseas Chinese History Review) 4(1988):3–11. Google Scholar

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25.See sample contract inCuba Commission Report, Appendix. Google Scholar

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29. Boletín de Colonización 1, no.8, (30 May1873). Google Scholar

30. Ibid. Google Scholar

31.Melikian199, Melikian745, Melikian1153. Google Scholar

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41.Ramón de la Sagra, Cuba en 1860(:n.p., 1862), 95. Google Scholar

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Author details

Hu-DeHart, Evelyn