The Coolie Trade

Chinese indentured servant ("Coolie") being whipped aboard ship
Chinese “Coolie” being whipped on a transport ship (Harper’s Magazine, June 1864)

I want to continue yesterday’s discussion of the slave trade. Both excerpts from Southern papers mentioned the “coolie-trade” as a result of restrictions on African slavery; by this they’re referring to the export of indentured servants from China, nominally to work a set number of years before being freed. As a letter to the New York Times from August 16, 1860 states, many of these laborers were shanghaied against their will. Other authorities make it clear that they often were not freed at the end of their period of indenture.

Some official “Correspondence respecting Emigration from Canton” has been laid before Parliament, which shows the abominable character of the coolie-trade, carried on at Canton and Whampoa. Foreign vessels arriving there to engage and embark emigrant laborers, have sought the assistance of native brokers, who, in their turn, have employed crimps (also Chinese) to collect coolies for them. Thirty dollars a-head or more were being paid last year for coolies delivered on board; arrived at Havana, the “contracts” could be sold at $400 a-head. An iniquitous system was thus created, which grew until not only men were inveigled on board receiving ships on false pretexts, such as promises of work, but force also was used, and no man could leave his house in open day without danger of of being hustled, under false pretences of debt or delinquency, and carried off by the crimps to be put on board ship and taken to sea, never again to be heard of.

The New York Tribune, on August 17, 1860, was also reporting on the new system of Chinese emigration to Cuba:

Some official correspondence has recently been laid before the British Parliament, in relation to the traffic in coolies, which confirms all that has ever been said in relation to the abominable character of that trade, as carried out in the ports of China. It shows the system to have been one of kidnapping, either by force or fraud, for the purpose of selling the poor wretches who were inveigled or forced on board the receiving-ships, into slavery in Cuba. And so exasperated had the Chinese at length become by the barbarities which were practiced upon the unsuspecting and the ignorant of their people, that there was some fear, a year ago, that their indignation would find vent in a popular rising. The exigency of the case was met by Laou, the acting Governor General of the Two Kwang, by substituting a system of free emigration.

The “coolie trade” grew as British, French, and American navies blockaded West Africa, limiting the export of slaves to Cuba to work on the sugar cane plantations. Chinese laborers were nominally indentured servants, to work for a period of from 5 to 8 years to pay for their passage, and afterward to be freed. In practice, they either failed to survive that long or were not freed at that time. As reported above, the British and Chinese governments attempted to regulate this trade and improve the conditions of workers. At the same time, the queen of Spain, Isabella II, imposed new restrictions on the coolie trade in Cuba, to the consternation of the planters there, as reported in the Times of August 20, 1860:

We learn from Havana, by the Quaker City, whose arrival is elsewhere reported, that a new decree has been issued by the Spanish Government upon the subject of Chinese immigration. There are eighty-four articles in the decree, and a plan for regulating the introduction of Chinese laborers is elaborately drawn out. The reforms established by the new law are chiefly in favor of the laborer, and a form of protection is extended to him while under contract of service. His position is at least so far ameliorated that he will be permitted to complain of ill-treatment, and at the expiration of the term of his indenture he will be permitted to go free.

Small as these concessions to common justice are, the Cuban proprietors violently oppose them. Every newspaper in Havana complains of the new law. That law has been undoubtedly enacted by Spain at the instigation of Great Britain, and it remains to be seen whether she will be able to enforce it in defiance of public opinion. The issue at least is extremely doubtful. Even the Diario de la Marina, the Government organ, prophesies that if the obnoxious articles are not repealed, the agricultural prosperity of Cuba will be fatally arrested.

Southerners used the “coolie-trade” as an argument to support the position that the restriction on the African slave-trade led to more inhumane conditions, as reported yesterday. It is a bit difficult from the distance of 150 years to see why the Chinese trade, inhumane as it clearly was, would have been considered so much more objectionable than the African slave trade. I would suggest that the difference is in the relative lightness of the skin color of the Chinese; enslaving Chinese people was too close to enslaving whites, even if the Chinese were universally (i.e. by Europeans) acknowledged as a race inferior to the Europeans.

In 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order to outlaw the coolie trade. The Portuguese followed in the 1870s, and it appears that after that time it went into decline. If anyone knows more about this, I’d be interested to hear it. It’s a little-discussed chapter in the history of slavery.

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One Response to The Coolie Trade

  1. Pingback: Comparing Africans and “Coolies” | Seven Score and Ten

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