Comparing Africans and “Coolies”

Lord John Russell Lord John Russell

A letter to the editor of the New York Times on 8/24/1860 says that Lord Russell’s proposal to substitute Chinese labor for African slaves in Cuba is doomed to failure because the Cuban planters don’t want Chinese laborers.

The African is a patient, ignorant animal, who submits to hard work night and day, and to great injustice without a murmur. The Chinese, having great intelligence, revolts against injustice, and will only toil just so much as he feels inclined.

I’ve suggested earlier that whites in the nineteenth century found enslaving Chinese more reprehensible than enslaving Africans because of the “whiteness” of the Chinese. The author explicitly supports this:

…we would ask whether the making a Chinese a slave is not even a more heinous offence than placing an African in the same position? The Chinese is a white man, possessed of more or less intelligence, and therefore it appears to us that the taking him to Cuba, selling him like an ox or a horse, to the highest bidder, is a yet more grave crime than bringing “wild Africans ” to Cuba and selling them to the planters.

The racism of the nineteenth century is difficult for us to grasp today. While racism is obviously still with us, it’s are a great deal more subtle or at least surreptitious. In the 1860s, racism was blatant, and obviously accepted by the majority of whites. Even among abolitionists, relatively few whites saw Africans, or African-Americans, as social or intellectual equals.

BTW, Lord Russell, foreign secretary of Britain at the time, was the father of Bertrand Russell. In his defense, he wanted the African slave trade replaced by Chinese workers indentured for a definite period of time. In practice, though, there was apparently little difference, as I’ve noted elsewhere.

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