Back to WHKMLA Main Index . WHKMLA, Students' Papers Main Page . WHKMLA, Students' Papers, 12th Wave Index Page

History of Indian and Chinese Coolies and their Descendants

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Si-eun
Term Paper, AP European History Class, October 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction / Historical Background
I.1 Introduction
I.2 Historical Background
II. History of the coolies and their descendants
II.1 History of Indian coolies and their descendants
II.1.1 Recruitment
II.1.2 The Beginnings of the Indian Coolie Trade
II.1.3 The Exportation of Indian Coolies
II.1.4 The Situation of Indian Coolies in Colonies
II.1.5 Abuse of the Indenture System
II.1.6 Descendants of Indian Coolies
II.1.6.1 Indo-Fijians
II.1.6.2 Hindoestanen in Suriname
II.1.6.3 Indo-Mauritians
II.2 History of Chinese coolies and their descendants
II.2.1 Recruitment
II.2.2 The Exportation of Chinese Coolies
II.2.3 Chinese coolies in their respective destinations of emigration
II.2.3.1 The United States
II.2.3.2 Peru and Cuba
II.2.4 Abuse of Chinese coolies and end of the coolie trade
II.2.5 Descendants of Chinese coolies
II.2.5.1 Chinese Americans
II.2.5.2 Chinese Peruvians
II.2.5.3 Chinese Cubans
III. Conclusion

I. Introduction / Historical Background

I.1 Introduction
            The term coolie refers refers to a group of mostly unskilled, indentured manual labourers from various parts of Asia during the 19th century to early 20th century, around the age of colonialism. They were sent to areas such as the Americas, the Pacific Islands, Oceania and Africa, mainly to work in plantations, mines and on railways. They could be sold or bought by their "masters", or the people they worked for, and their mass exportation and other such practices were similar to those of slave trade; hence the term "coolie trade."
            By law coolies were better off than slaves, supposed to receive a certain amount of wages, and not treated like property. In reality, however, coolies were in many ways mistreated badly, treated like chattels, and reminded people of slavery. The question was raised whether if coolie trade was just a new form of slavery. Nonetheless, large numbers of coolies managed to survive these harsh conditions and integrated into the societies of their new homes; descendants of these coolies comprise a significantly large population of those lands today.

I.2 Historical Background
            Coolies can mainly be seen as substitutes filling in the absence of freed slaves. Slavery had been widespread a few years before the coolie trade began, but first in the British Empire, social and political pressure led to its abolition by the Slave Trade Act 1807. Other European nations began one by one to abolish slavery, the United States following suit in 1863. It consequently brought about a lack of manpower in highly intensive labour sites such as sugar cane,cotton plantations, mines and railways in European colonies and the United States, and led to the recruitment of men(mostly Asian) either voluntarily or by trickery and kidnapping.
            This paper will focus on Indian and Chinese coolies, as they were the main subjects of the coolie trade, and were perceived to be the most ideal workers able to withstand harsh working conditions. Moreover, it is necessary to note that the destinations of the coolies discussed in the paper are not the only places they were sent to; they were sent to many other areas. This paper will discuss those places that are deemed most significant.

II. History of Coolies and their Descendants

II.1 History of Indian Coolies and their Descendants

II.1.1 Recruitment
            The exact time of the beginning of coolie recruitment is vague, but it mainly started around the 1820s. Coolies, in a large number of cases, enlisted to go abroad voluntarily due to dire conditions in their home countries. Europeans often took advantage of certain situations which would help recruit cheap manpower.
            Indian coolies were recruited by the British for British colonies - Mauritius, Fiji, Natal, and British East Africa, and the Dutch to Suriname, and Java. The British often used colonial agents who would travel to India and gather potential workers there with the help of recruiters who knew where to find people likely to enlist for indentured labour. Indians from the Indo-Gangetic plain comprised most of the recruited population, and smaller numbers of skilled labourers came from Tamil and Telugu-speaking areas of Southern India.
            These Indians were often deceived by the recruiters, as recruiters would often embellish their stories about the plantations to make them seem more appealing. Many Indians would have found the suggestion attractive, since India at the time was suffering from a national crisis involving British colonization. A desire to leave and begin a new life elsewhere must have seemed like a great opportunity to the impoverished. Many who were recruited were not fully aware of the terms of the contract, as they were supposed to. Most of the time they agreed to the false stories recruiters told.
            The French also made frequent illegal attempts to recruit men in British India to work in their sugar colony of R?union, and the secret trade went on until tens of thousands of workers had been transported. The French, in fact, did not even have permission from the British government until July 25, 1860, when they were at last allowed by the British to import 6,000 Indians annually to R?union. A year later, the French would be permitted to import free labourers into other colonies such as Martinique and Guadeloupe. They would only be allowed to import indentured labourers on the condition that a governor-general would suspend emigration into French colonies on the occasion that an abuse of the system was found.

II.1.2 The Beginnings of the Indian Coolie Trade
            The first attempt at Indian coolie trade was the made 1826 by the Government of the French Indian Ocean Island of R?union, proposing a five-year service in return for pay and rations. These men were each required to state in front of a magistrate that he was going voluntarily. (1) By 1830, the government of R?union had succeeded in transporting 3,012 labourers from mostly Hindi-speaking, northern parts of India. In 1829, an unsuccessful attempt was made at importing Indian labourers into the British East African colony of Mauritius, but by 1838 as many as 25,000 labourers had found their way into Mauritius.

II.1.3 The Exportation of Indian Coolies
            The dispatch of Indian coolies and the conditions in which they would be leaving were strictly regulated by the British government. Colonial British Indian Government Regulations of 1837 laid these rules down, and they consisted of four conditions:
      1. The intending emigrant and the emigration agent were required to appear before an officer designated by the Colonial British Government of India with a written statement of the terms of the contract.
      2. The length of service was to be of five years, renewable for further five-year terms.
      3. The emigrant was to be returned at the end of service to the port of departure.
      4. The vessel taking the emigrants was required to conform to certain standards of space, diet etc. and carry a medical officer. (2)
            First set in Calcutta, these regulations were extended further on to Bombay and Madras. What these conditions illustrate is that coolies were indentured workers; after the five-year period their contract required them to work, they were to be sent back to their home countries. What does not appear in these regulations are the conditions in which these coolies were sent abroad; most vessels were unbearably crowded with coolies, and many coolies died from malnutrition and disease. Apparently, frequent abuse of the system took place, which eventually led to a temporary ban in the export of Indian labour May 1839, and further attempts to purge abuse later on.
            Indian coolies were exported into mainly British colonies such as Mauritius, the Caribbean colonies - Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Demerara - , the Pacific Island of Fiji, along with some French islands such as R?union, Guadeloupe, Martinique and so on. Mauritius in particular received the majority of its workers from India, and was the first colony to officially receive Indian coolies. There were so much workers being transplanted into Mauritius that it soon alarmed the British government, and some began to criticize the practice as being similar to slavery. A campaign against coolie trade was initiated August 1838, and the British Government temporarily banned the practice in May 1839 to look into the abuses of the system.
            In 1842, however, the ban was soon removed, as the retaliation from planters of Mauritius was too great. Under a new regulating act, the Indian government allowed emigration from Calcutta, Bombay and Madras to Mauritius. The new regulating act appointed emigration agents at Indian ports, and set penalties for abuse of the system. After the lift of the ban, almost 35,000 men and women entered Mauritius in just one year.
            The emigration of Indian coolies to some West Indies colonies, Jamaica, Trinidad and Demerara, was legalized by the Indian government on November 16th, 1844. The rules that applied in West Indies colonies were very similar to that of Mauritius, each only slightly modified to suit the situation of the colony. One of the differences was that twelve percent of the emigrants to the West Indies must be women. (3) These colonies also had required coolies for their sugar cane, cotton and tobacco plantations. Consequently, the coolie trade of the West Indies flourished, and soon these islands were literally packed with these foreign labourers.
            Since the exportation of coolies was legalized, the number of coolies leaving India for labour remained steady, until the frequent and often brutal abuses of the system led to scandals in contemporary international media, public outrage in Britain and consequently end of the coolie trade in 1916.

II.1.4 The Situation of Indian Coolies in Colonies
            The condition in which Indian coolies lived and worked can be universally considered harsh and unfavorable. In Mauritius as well as West Indies colonies, coolies were sent mainly to British sugar fields to work. Indians proved to be very ideal workers, being well suited to the climate, docile and hardworking. However, they suffered from bad conditions from the very beginning of their trip; the mortality rate of coolies being transported was extremely high. Moreover, these Indian coolies were only paid about 45 dollars a year, along with food and clothing.
            There was undoubtably much effort on the part of the British government to protect these coolies from ill-treatment. Coolies were inspected by health officers and immigration agents before he was sent to his/her respective workplace, so that it could be decided whether he/she was in a fit enough condition to work. Family life was also respected in a way ? children under 15 were not to be parted from their parents.
            Although there was no large scandal over the treatment Indian coolies were given, it is apparent that coolies were often subject to forced indenture. A statistic states that the number of coolies exported to the West Indies colonies of Jamaica, Demerara, Trinidad, St.Vincent and Grenada until 1872 was 161,539, of which only 16,938 have returned to their homelands. (4) Conditions and situations were manipulated so that coolies would become inevitably dependent and tied to the planter. It would become almost impossible for the coolie to become independent even after his/her contract expired. Laws were devised by colonies so that they could exert more and more control over coolies, for instance the pass system of Mauritius that required coolies to carry passes so that would be possible to track them down.
            Coolies were often mistreated in British colonies, but even more so in French colonies. Indian coolies in French colonies were technically in foreign dominions and often became victims of oppression. Especially in R?union, Guadaloupe, and Martinique, coolies were said to be "systematically overworked" (5), even without the planter¡¯s intention of doing so. Statistical evidence suggests that the mortality rate for some of these coolies working in mines was abnormally high in some colonies.

II.1.5 Abuse of the Indenture System
            Abuse of the Indian indenture system appeared most often during recruitment. Although many labourers voluntarily emigrated to work, they were often deceived by recruiters. Recruiters often told fabricated and untrue stories of life on the plantations to attract coolies. When Indians seemed unwilling to leave their homeland for faraway places, recruiters often made their destination seem just over the horizon, when in reality it was thousands of miles away. Other recruiters did not even attempt deception; they resorted to outright kidnapping.
            The terms of the contract between labourers and the government was set very early in the beginnings of the trade. It included regulations on certain environments that must be provided by coolies who were travelling on board, such as a decent diet and an appropriate number of people. However, these rules were obviously violated, and coolies often had to travel in extremely packed vessels, often catching diseases and dying even before they reached their workplaces. In some severe cases, not even half of the recruited coolies survived the trip.
            Such abuse occurred all throughout the decades the indenture system was effective, leading to frequent bans and outbursts against the system, the British population condemning it as merely a new form of slavery. Bans and re-legalizations continued on and off until the 1840s, when the trade stabilized, but abuse was nevertheless rampant, and the British frequently were pressured to monitor the trade.

II.1.6 Descendants of Indian coolies
            The descendants of Indian coolies have integrated into the societies of the respective colonies first-generation coolies emigrated to. However, the native peoples of these colonies do not necessarily welcome these immigrants, as their numbers are extremely large; as a consequence many nationwide problems emerge, especially in Fiji and Suriname. An exception is Mauritius, in which Indians make up the majority of the entire population and thus have dominated Mauritius politically and culturally throught history. This paper will mainly discuss coolie descendants in these three nations.

II.1.6.1 Indo-Fijians
            Indo-Fijians are Fijians who trace their ancestry to India (6). Indo-Fijians use a form of Hindi called Fiji Hindi, formed from Hindi dialects of Awadhi and Bhojpuri of Northern India. (7) Most Fijians have assimilated into Fijian society, and have lost their sense of Indian origin.
            Indian coolies had come to Fiji as early as 1879, when they were transported from their original workplace at Reunion, to New Caledonia and finally to Fiji. These workers were, after the expiration of their initial contract, given a choice of whether to stay in Fiji or return to India. Most chose to stay, and leased land for small farmlets of sugar cane, cotton or rice cultivation. Others started small businesses in new towns. By the time indenture was abolished, they had rooted deeper into society and diversified, becoming private servants, shopkeepers and so on.
            Due to the vast number of Indo-Fijians, political conflict on a national scale has frequently occurred between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. By 1940, Indo-Fijians outnumbered indigenous Fijians and they fought for equal citizenship. Three decades later in the 1970s, Indo-Fijians were relatively protected under the Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who promoted multiracialism, but the increasing number of Indo-Fijians in leading positions of administration and economy was perceived by indigenous Fijians as an Indian dominance, and nationalists demanded that Indians be repatriated. (8) In the 1980s the Fiji Labour Party, promoting social reform, attracted Indo-Fijians. In 1987 a Indo-Fijian National Federation Party won the election, and the government was dominated by Indians. A military coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka soon overthrew the government and later in the 1990s a new constitution was wrought, giving most political authority to indigenous Fijians. Soon enough Rabuka became prime minister, but was pressured to review the constitution and remove racially based clauses; a fairer constitution was declared in 1997. Further in 1999, an Indo-Fijian and head of the Fiji Labour Party, Mahendra Chaudry, became prime minister. However, his ministership also did not last long and soon was overthrown in yet another military coup led by George Speight. The military appointed an interim government that was purely indigenous, and large numbers of Indo-Fijians, tired of being deprived of their rights, left the country. Nevertheless, those who remained fought for their rights once again, taking the government to court, challenging the 1997 constitution, and winning the case.
            This incessant series of conflict between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians occurred mainly due to the insecurities of the indigenous population. They feared that such a large population of a people of nonnative origin would try to dominate; however, such fear gave rise to outrageously racist laws and only made way for conflict that may not have existed.

II.1.6.2 Hindoestanen in Suriname
            Hindoestanen, meaning "people of Indian origin" (9), are descendants of Indian coolies mostly from the present province of Bihar. Suriname was a Dutch colony; the Dutch only abolished slavery in 1863, and coolie trade began a few years later in 1870. Between 1870 and 1916, about 35,000 Indians emigrated to Suriname. The Dutch government attempted to prevent these labourers from returning to India, and offered free settlement rights on state-run plantations and a hundred Dutch guilders. (10) About 23,000 Hindoestanen decided to stay, and made their living purely on agriculture.
            Later in the 20th century, Hindoestanen began searching for other areas of work such as trade. Many looked for education and emigrated to European countries to enter university. When these people returned, they became involved in much broader ranges of professions, and eventually into politics. Hindoestanen and the Javanese established the HJPP (Hindostans-Javanese Politieke Partij), allied themselves with Muslim and Hindu parties and turned into the United Hindustani Party. They pursued policies such as legitimizing Hindi and Muslim marriage and burial rights, declaring Indian holidays as national holidays, and overall becoming actively engaged in political affairs. (11) Soon enough, they became an eyesore to the Creoles and Afro-Surinamese and was resented. The United Hindustani Party did not participate actively in gaining independence from the Dutch in 1975, but rather the NPK party, which was mostly Creole.

II.1.6.3 Indo-Mauritians
            Indo-Mauritians make up not only a large percent but the majority (68 percent, according to July 2007 statistics) (12) of the entire Mauritian population. Therefore they have not necessarily conflicted with indigenous Mauritians but rather peacefully dominated; Indian holidays are national holidays, and many prominent figures, such as the current Prime Minister of Mauritius, Navin Ramgoolam, are Indo-Mauritian. Indo-Mauritians, in contrast to Indo-Fijians, still maintain a sense of their Indian origin, and their customs still greatly remain. Indo-Mauritians speak mostly Creole, in addition to Hindi, Tamil and other Indian languages.

II.2 History of Chinese Coolies and their Descendants

II.2.1 Recruitment
            An extremely large number of Chinese coolies were recruited and emigrated to foreign lands such as the United States, Peru, Cuba, Islands of the West Indies such as Jamaica, and other British colonies. Chinese coolies were also considered ideal workers as the Indians were; although they seemed weak and unable to withstand the harsh working conditions and immense workload, they worked very efficiently and became the most sought-after labourers in various areas.
            Chinese coolies, like the Indians, were facing difficult times in their homeland following the First Opium War. Around 1845 after the end of the First Opium War, an emigration centre was established at Shantou to transport Chinese labourers from various provinces such as Guangdong, Amoy and Macau(then a Portuguese colony) to the Americas ? most prominently the silver mines in Peru and sugar plantations in Cuba and other islands of the Carribean. The British colony of Guiana began encouraging Chinese emigration, and Peruvian planters also began to seek substitutes for negroes. Peruvians made an exceptional effort to recruit coolies, sending agents with consular commissions to Chinese ports. Although most of the recruited population (however tricked they were) voluntarily emigrated, an extraordinary number of Chinese labourers were kidnapped into indenture. The majority of the abductions took place in the province of Guangdong, and later Macau.
            Chinese coolies were deceived much more often and more badly than the Indian coolies were, and their relatively high rate of voluntary emigration is a direct consequence. Fraudulent promises of profitable employment and good working conditions was only too common among especially Peruvian and Cuban recruiters.

II.2.2 The Exportation of Chinese Coolies
            The first experimentation of sending Chinese coolies to foreign lands was carried out by the British in 1806, when they sent 200 Chinese men to its colony Trinidad. Later in 1847, following Peru¡¯s example of directly gathering coolies at Chinese ports, Cuba sent its first two ships to Amoy (Xiamen), each ship bringing back to Havana 350 and 629 coolies - this is regarded as the beginning of Chinese coolie trade. Chinese coolies were sent to British colonies such as Jamaica, Trinidad and British Guyana. Australia also imported coolies for a certain period of time starting 1848, and the United States first "shanghai'ed" Chinese coolies into California 1847, and later around 1865 imported the second wave of coolies to work on the transcontinental railways and highways. (13)
            The terms of the contract of these Chinese labourers were mostly similar to those of Indian coolies. Each coolie was to be bound to the planter for whom he would work for a period of about seven to eight years; he was to be paid a small salary each month,along with food, clothing and lodging. Chinese coolies in the Western Indies, Cuba and Peru mostly worked in plantations (and in Peru¡¯s case, guano pits), and in the United States gold mines and railroad construction sites.
            From about 1847 to 1854 the trade went on without much scandal. However, beginning from 1854 on, reports of extreme abuse began to reach the British government, which had protected the interests of Amoy since the Nanking Treaty 1842. The abuse and abduction of coolies was more intense than anything that had been reported of Indian coolies, and the site of shipping coolies to Peru and Cuba was forced to be relocated to the Portuguese colony of Macau. From 1847 to 1875, 99,149 out of 150,000 Chinese coolies sold to Cuba departed from Macau. However, the relocation did not help in alleviating the severe problem of abuse, especially in the workplaces themselves, and the British eventually had to take charge and put an end to coolie trade.
            The Chinese coolie trade ended much earlier than did the Indian coolie trade, because of the outrageously brutal and cruel abuse of the system and the coolies themselves resulted in great uprisings. The British government was forced to interfere in the atrocities taking place in coolie shipping sites such as Macau and prohibited the coolie trade in 1874. During the twenty-five year period from 1847 to 1874, an immense population of Chinese coolies were exported, numbering at least 250,000 and possibly reaching 500,000.

II.2.3 Chinese Coolies in their Respective Destinations of Emigration
            Chinese coolies were sent to such a diverse range of areas, that it is pointless to try to discuss them as one group. Discussing them by their respective destinations of emigration (the United States, Peru, Cuba, and so on) makes their situation clearer. Other than the countries listed here, Chinese coolies were also sent to other areas; Australia and British colonies such as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana and Malaya.

II.2.3.1 The United States
            Most Chinese emigration to the United States was voluntary. Chinese labourers dominated the workplaces in which intense labour was necessary, most prominently railroad construction sites. The first wave of Chinese coolies emigrated into the United States during the California Gold Rush 1849, working mostly in gold mines. Later, Chinese emigration which had been mostly barred in the United States was repealed in the Burlingame Treaty 1868; a considerably large influx of Chinese coolies resulted, and from then on the full-scale import of Chinese coolies by the United States, most notably California, began to take place. Chinese coolies helped build the Central Pacific Railroad starting around 1863, and played a significant role in the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, aiding the construction of the Panama Railway. They were mostly given very dangerous tasks such as clearing areas and laying tracks, some perishing in the process.
            At first overseers doubted that the Chinese would be sufficient labourers because they were small, ¡°ate only rice¡±, and seemed weak, but changed their minds immediately after the immense workload they could take on and the efficiency with which they worked. Chinese coolies were the ones to lay the tracks that first connected the east and west coasts. In 1868, the task of laying the final ten miles of track which would connect two railroads and finish the construction, was given to the Chinese, who finished the job in only 12 hours.
            Apart from railroad construction, Chinese coolies in the 1870s began to play a great role in the construction of a whole network of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta despite the measures being applied by the United States such as the Anti-coolie Act to disencourage Chinese labour from dominating would-be work sites for the whites.
            The sudden influx of such a large number of a foreign people created fear amongst the whites - Chinese coolies were not at all welcomed by white labourers, as they proved to be serious competition. Often, the majority of the workforce consisted of coolies and whites were pushed out of jobs. Moreover, as gold became less plentiful in mines, the sense of competition heightened. A racist, anti-coolie sentiment gradually developed ever since the beginning of Chinese coolie trade in 1847, and the Anti-coolie Act was passed in California 1862. It put taxes on all Chinese labourers, attempting to limit their emigration to California. After six years, the Burlingame Treaty was ratified and encouraged Chinese immigration into the United States; in 1882, the treaty was reversed in the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6, 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act limited the number of Chinese immigrants in one year from 30,000 to only 105. (14)

II.2.3.2 Peru and Cuba
            Peruvians had been some of the first to import coolies. Peru passed its law for importing Chinese coolies in Nov 1849. (15) About eighty percent were allocated to sugar and cotton plantations to work, and the remainder to the less favourable railroad construction sites and guano pits, along about a thirty-year period starting in the 1840s. From the 1850s to 1870, about 6,000 coolies left China each year for Peru, and a total number of about 91,000 coolies in all emigrated to Peru despite the official ban on coolie trade issued by the Peruvian government in 1856. About 42,000 more arrived from 1870 to 1874. The Chinese were often coerced to emigrate, or in cases where they volunteered, very much deceived. The reason Peruvians had imported these foreign men was that they would be easier to exert control upon; consequently coolies were extremely ill-treated and abused, falling into a state that resembled that of the slaves. Suicides and rebellions, escapes were quite common. (16)
            In the guano pits of Peruvian islands (the Chincha Islands), the majority of the labourers were Chinese. Guano is in short just piles of bird feces, which are considered the best organic fertilizer in the world; the time of the importation of Chinese coolies on the whole coincided with the short-lived guano boom, beginning in the 1840s. Coolies were forced to stay on the islands and dig up the stuff, enduring the harsh working conditions caused by the intense heat and clouds of guano dust. These conditions were often deleterious on coolies¡¯ health, and resulted in significantly shorter life expectancies. Basically they had to labour virtually as any slave would.
            Perhaps the largest number of Chinese coolies were sent to Cuba; up to 125,000 out of possibly 500,000 coolies were sent to Cuba alone from 1847 to 1874. Coolies were first sent to Havana, where later the largest Chinatown in Latin America developed. These coolies were more or less all sent to sugar cane plantations, and worked alongside Africans. In Cuba, coolies were in similar situations to those in Peru; severely abused and often being treated as, if not worse than, slaves. Coolies received practically no medical care, insufficient amounts of food, and unnecessarily frequent floggings and other such physical torture.
            Contrary to coolies in the United States who mostly just had to endure tedious, tiring work and at times racist sentiment, Peruvian and Cuban coolies were extremely overworked and mistreated. Such abuse was so severe yet common in Peru and Cuba that even the Chinese government, which had disapproved of coolies leaving their home country for labour, took a stand and carried out a promulgation of laws to relieve their conditions. The international scandal caused by reports of abuse caused Peru to illegalize coolie trade as early as 1856. In 1877, Sino-Spanish treaty provided that all Chinese coolies under contract had their contracts made void; Chinese consuls were also sent to Cuba to protect coolies there. (17)

II.2.4 Abuse of Chinese Coolies and the End of the Coolie Trade
            On the whole, there were larger numbers of reported abuse of Chinese coolies than Indian coolies, and the level of abuse was also extremely high. This abuse caused the Chinese coolie trade to end several years earlier than Indian coolie trade.
            Abuse began with recruitment and transport. Chinese men were very often tricked into voluntary emigration, lied to about what kind of places they would be working in, the terms of the contract and so on. Men were simply decoyed into emigration depots in cities such as Amoy, Canton and Macau. There they were kept basically imprisoned until they would be transported. Kidnapping was rampant especially in the provinces of Guangdong and Macau; eight-tenths of Chinese coolies examined by British commissioners in 1875 declared that they had been abducted. The transport of these coolies was equally deplorable; it reminded people of all the horrors of the "middle passage" during the times of the African slave trade, with its unimaginably packed vessels. Mutinies frequently happened on board as well. The mortality rate was extremely high, due to diseases and harsh conditions; in one case, a ship of 600 Chinese coolies on board arrived at its destination with only 100 alive. Technically an inquiry could be made if the mortality rate on these ships exceeded six percent, but usually nothing of the sort happened.
            The abuse of Chinese coolies especially in Peru and Cuba were enough to cause worldwide outbursts against this "neo-slavery." Chinese coolies, when they arrived at their destinations, from then on were treated very much like slaves; they were driven to markets by drivers with whips, stripped to determine whether they were fit for labour, and sold in auctions to the highest bidder. The people who purchased these coolies were basically able to hold onto them for first seven to eight years. Although the terms of the contract claimed coolies were free to choose to work anywhere else once their first contract expired, their employers often forcefully renewed their contracts and coerced them to work for longer periods. During their period of service, coolies were often subject to cruel treatment such as chaining, flogging and confinement. Excessive work hours were often forced upon them as well, reaching up to twenty-one hours out of twenty-four. The most extreme cases occurred in the guano pits of the Chincha Islands; there coolies were placed in groups of five to work, under the supervision of an overseer armed with lashes more than an inch thick. (18) Those who were sick seldom received medical care, but instead were flogged as medicine. It was reported that of the 4,000 coolies who had been assigned to these guano pits, no one survived in 1860. Many had committed suicide by poisoning themselves with opium or drowning themselves in the sea.
            Inhumane treatment of the coolies soon aroused international attention, and these atrocities were exposed to the public via media such as newspapers. Countries such as Peru officially banned the trade as early as 1856, although illegal trade persisted. Then steps were taken by the British, French and Chinese government to stop the abuse via new and more stringent regulations. After a series of unsuccessful attempts at mitigating abuse, in March 1866 they enacted a convention that required traders to provide money to the coolies for return passage ? the West Indian colonies objected and declined to accept emigrants on the terms; therefore the legalized trade between the West Indies and China was officially extinguished. (19)

II.2.5 Descendants of Chinese Coolies

II.2.5.1 Chinese Americans
            Chinese Americans, along with other Asian immigrants, make up a significantly large percentage ? about twenty percent ? of the population in the United States. They have mostly blended into society, but first-generation immigrants have tried to maintain traditional Chinese culture. Chinese Americans often formed small communities of their own, but did not exclude themselves completely from society. They established Chinatowns ? urban sectors with large numbers of Chinese people ? the largest being located in San Francisco, California.
            Chinese coolies and their descendants, for a time, were the victims of racist sentiment; the Yellow Peril (or Yellow Terror) is an example of such sentiment. The phrase "Yellow Peril" alludes to the Asians¡¯ skin color; while at first the Yellow Peril started out as Anti-Chinese sentiment caused by the large number of Chinese coolies dominating the labour sites, it was soon extended to all non-citizens of Asian origin. Whites claimed that their immigration into the United States basically threatened the balance of American society, as these people from the east overwhelmed westerners. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 can be considered a manifestation of the Yellow Peril, when the Chinese were disencouraged and barred from freely immigrating into the United States. The Geary Act in 1892 and several other measures extended the Exclusion Act even further. The Chinese coolies who had already emigrated to the United States were also affected by the Act; they were kept from acquiring U.S. citizenship and were alienated from society. Some states even prohibited the marriage of Caucasian women to Chinese men. The Chinese also faced discrimination in several occupations, and resorted to setting up laundry businesses to earn a living. (20) As these businesses prospered, however, the whites came up with ways to interfere with the business, such as requiring Chinese laundrymen to pay higher taxes, or establishing Anti-Chinese associations.
            The situation for the Chinese began to ameliorate in the 1940s, when the United States and China became allies in World War II. The restrictions placed on mixed marriage and naturalizations slowly loosened, and in 1943 Chinese immigration into the U.S. was permitted, and former acts officially repealed. Thus the official racial discrimination against the Chinese in the U.S. ended. After World War II, Americans¡¯ general image of Asians began to improve, and soon mass immigrations of Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese) into the U.S. began. These immigrants soon assimilated successfully into American society, though they tended to maintain their traditions. Today, many Chinese Americans born in the United States regard themselves as Americans rather than Chinese.

II.2.5.2 Chinese Peruvians
            Chinese Peruvians make up less than three percent of the Peruvian population. Mostly they have assimilated into Peruvian society and succeeded; for instance, several members of congress are of Chinese descent. Because most coolies were men, the Chinese married Peruvian women. A large number of Chinese Peruvians today are of mixed descent. They speak mostly two dialects of Chinese ? Cantonese and Mandarin ? along with Spanish or English. One of the earliest Chinatowns in Latin America, called Barrio Chino de Lima, is located in Lima, Peru, established by the coolies, their descendants, and later immigrants.
            Coolies, after their contracts expired, adopted the last names of their patrons. They mostly established small businesses in Peru, one such business being chifas (Chinese-Peruvian restaurants). They also peddled their wares and set up small shops, where they retailed products they had produced themselves. (21) The Chinese also made a great contribution to the Amazonian development in Peru, where they tapped rubber trees, washed gold, cultivated rice, and traded with the Indians. (22) They also produced frequently unavailable consumer items such as clothing. (23) Second-generation Chinese Peruvians were better off, working in the manufacturing areas of the economy since the mid-20th century.

II.2.5.3 Chinese Cubans
            Chinese Cubans, who number at least 110,000 today, are very natural members of the Cuban society. Some Chinese Cubans are very prominent, large numbers even entering the show business as models and actors. They speak Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese. The Barrio Chino de La Havana is also one of the earliest Chinatowns in Latin America. Havana is the region where most of the Chinese coolies were first received from China, and at first the Chinese population was concentrated there; later many underwent the process of assimilation and left, leaving only about 500 living in the Barrio Chino today. (24)
            After the expiration of their contracts, most coolies, despite their desire to return to China, permanently settled in Cuba. They also set up small shops, laundries, farms and restaurants with the money they had earned during indenture. They concentrated in certain areas such as Barrio Chino de La Havana. They married Spanish and Afro-Cubans, perhaps also due to the lack of female coolies. Chinese fought with the Cubans in the Spanish-American war 1898 to achieve independence from Spain, which was taking one step in their being racially accepted by the rest of the Cuban population. After a period of integration and assimilation that followed, the Chinese confronted a difficulty; the socialist government of Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, and many Chinese grocery store owners had their property expropriated for the dissolution of private enterprise. Many of them left for the United States, Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, contributing partly to the reduced Chinese population in Barrio Chino de La Havana.
            The Chinese Cubans have in some aspects lost their tradition and culture, and there is ongoing effort to revive that culture. In 1993, the Escuela de la Lengua y Artes China, or the Chinese Language and Arts School was founded to teach Chinese Cubans of their language. In the Barrio Chino de La Havana, many old businesses the first generation Chinese had set up such as beauty parlors and grocery stores were reopened, both for the purpose of reviving Chinese culture and promoting tourism. Chinese architecture has also been applied to buildings in the Barrio Chino, and the community is gradually gaining visibility. (25)

III. Conclusion
            The history of the coolies and their descendants is often a sad history of racial discrimination and abuse, and help illustrate the situation of the people being colonized by the Europeans and Americans during the age of imperialism, and how the Europeans and Americans had manifested their notions of the white and Caucasian race being "superior". However, there are some positive viewpoints to take on the issue; the coolie trade represents a transition from slavery to free labour. Moreover, the emigrants largely set the bases for the settlement of an Asian population in various areas, giving rise to the flourishing Asian communities of today.


(1)      Article: Indian indenture system, from Wikipedia
(2)      ibid.
(3)      ibid.
(4)      Article: Coolie, from 1902encyclopedia
(5)      ibid.
(6)      Article: Indians in Fiji, from Wikipedia
(7)      ibid.
(8)      Jane's Oceania : Indo-Fijian History and Culture
(9)      Article: Hindoestanen, from Wikipedia
(10)      Indian Diaspora : Suriname
(11)      ibid.
(12)      Article: Indo-Mauritian, from Wikipedia
(13) : Trade and Trafficking in Chinese Coolies
(14)      Article: Yellow Peril, from Wikipedia
(15) : Trade and Trafficking in Chinese Coolies
(16)      Crowder, 2004
(17)      Global REM : Coolie Trade in the 19th Century
(18)      Article: Coolie, from 1902encyclopedia
(19)      ibid.
(20)      National Park Service : A History of Chinese Americans in California: the 1870s
(21)      Lesser, Asians in South America
(22)      Article: Chinese Peruvian, from Wikipedia
(23)      Lesser, Asians in South America
(24)      The Chinese Historical and Cultural Project : Barrio Chino : Chinatown in the Caribbean
(25)      Article: Chinese Cuban, from Wikipedia


Note : websites quoted below were visited in October-November 2008.
1.      Article : Chinese emigration, from :Wikipedia
2.      Article : Chinese immigration to the United States, from : Wikipedia
3.      Article : Chinese Peruvian, from :
4.      Article : Chinese Peruvian, from: Wikipedia
5.      Chinese-American Contribution to Transcontinental Railroad, from: Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum
6.      Article : Coolie, from: 1902encyclopedia (Online version of the 1902 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica)
7.      Article : Coolie, from : SpeeedyLook
8.      Article : Coolie, from :Wikipedia
9.      Article : Coolie labor, from:
10.      Article : Coolie labor, from : Infoplease
11.      Indo-Fijian History and Culture, from: Jane's Oceania
12.      A History of Chinese Americans in California: the 1850s, from: National Park Service
13.      A History of Chinese Americans in California: the 1860s, from: National Park Service
14.      A History of Chinese Americans in California: the 1870s, from: National Park Service
15.      A History of Chinese Americans in California: the 1880s, from: National Park Service
16.      Coolie Trade in the 19th Century, from: Global REM
17.      Article : Hindoestanen, from : Wikipedia
18.      Mauritius, from : Indian Diaspora
19.      Suriname, from : Indian Diaspora
20.      Article : Indentured servant, from : Wikipedia
21.      Indentured Indian Migration, from : Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts
22.      Indentured Systems of Labour Migration, from : Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts
23.      Recruitment of Indians, from : Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts
24.      Article: Indian indenture system, from : Wikipedia
25.      Article : Indian migration to Suriname, from : Wikipedia
26.      Article : Indians in Fiji, from : Wikipedia
27.      Francis C. Assisi. Diaspora: Setting the Stage for Indian Coolies Abroad, from: INDOlink
28.      Article : Indo-Mauritian, from : Wikipedia
29.      Coolie Labor, from: Harpweek
30.      Indentured Labor and the Indian Diaspora in the Caribbean, from: Manas: The Indian Diaspora
31.      Article : Mauritius, from : Wikipedia
32.      Article : Suriname, from : Wikipedia
33.      The Indian Diaspora, from : Alternate History Travel Guides
34.      The Transcontinental Railroad, from :
35.      Article : Colonial Fiji, from : Wikipedia
36.      Trade and Trafficking in Chinese Coolies, from:
37.      Article : Yellow Peril, from : Wikipedia
38.      Nicholas Crowder. Chinese in Peru, 2004, from : Latin America Links
39.      Jeffrey Lesser . Asians in South America, from :
40.      Article : Chinese Cuban, from : Wikipedia
41.      Barrio Chino : Chinatown in the Caribbean, from : The Chinese Historical and Cultural Project
42.      Article : Chinatown, from :Wikipedia
43.      Article : Demographics of Peru, from : Wikipedia
44.      Chinese Coolies in Cuba.; The Horrors of Modern Slavery., Anonymous, The New York Times, July 16th, 1876
45.      The British Coolie Trade., Anonymous, The New York Times, March 30th, 1860
46.      Ong Jin Hui. Chinese indentured labour: coolies and colonies. The Cambridge Survey of World Migration, Ed.Robin Cohen. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1995. 51-56.
47.      Steven Vertovec. Indian indentured migration to the Caribbean. The Cambridge Survey of World Migration, Ed.Robin Cohen. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1995. 57-62.
48.      Ravinder K. Thiara. Indian indentured workers in Mauritius, Natal and Fiji. The Cambridge Survey of World Migration, Ed.Robin Cohen. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1995. 63-68.

Back to WHKMLA Main Index . WHKMLA, Students' Papers Main Page . WHKMLA, Students' Papers, 12th Wave Index Page