Una identità in movimento

Cuba and the coolie trade

Eugenio Chang Rodríguez

The revolutionary fervor for independence from Spain which swept Latin America at the turn of the nineteenth century did not crystallize into open rebellion in Cuba, partly because of the strong position of the Spanish armed forces. Simón Bolívar the Liberator (1783-1830), contemplated sending an expedition to free the island, but this was never accomplished due to United States opposition. In spite of the work of the precursors of Cuban independence, such as José Maria Heredia (1803-39), the open struggle for independence did not begin until the middle of the nineteenth century. This movement was then backed and helped by American citizens.

Although Cuba was still a Spanish colony during this period, economic conditions were similar to those of the independent Latin American countries, with an added disadvantage. The Indian population no longer existed, since it had been completely wiped out in the time of the conquistadores. The Negro and mulatto population could not satisfy the labor demand of the ever-expanding sugar industry. As Cuba was shaping its monocultural economy, the growth of the sugar industry was rapid. Notwithstanding the charged atmosphere of rebellion, the island was progressing to some extent, largely because of the patriotic activities of Cubans forming the Sociedad Económica Amigos del País. All these activities demanded more and more labor.

After the promulgation of the law of 1845 suppressing the slave trade in Cuba, the Spanish Junta de Fomento or official board of agriculture in Havana, decided to send an agent to China to contract for Chinese colonos. The Spanish agent in China used the same subterfuges later employed by Peruvian agents in obtaining the contract labor destined to South America. The first shipload of male Chinese arrived in Cuba in 1847. The contract bound these Chinese to service for a term of eight years. They were to receive twenty to thirty cents a day, plus 1½ pounds of salted or jerked beef and 1½ pounds of potatoes or other farinaceous food. Each was to receive a blanket and medical attendance(1). During 1847 a total of 800 Chinese were induced to go to Cuba under contract.

The trade languished after 1847 because, in the first cargo, twenty-eight per cent of the coolies died from the effects of the voyage, from poor and inadequate food and from hard labor and inhuman working conditions. Some Chinese committed suicide in the belief that after death they would be miraculously returned to their homes in China and end the martyrdom of their adventure in Cuba. The first experiment of Chinese immigration failed because of the inhuman working conditions to which the coolies were subjected from the very first contact with the unscrupulous subagent until their distribution and work on the plantations.

In 1853 the movement was revived by the importation of 5,150 Chinese, of whom 843 or near 11 per cent died on the voyage. On March 22, 1854, a royal decree was issued promulgating regulations for the importation and management of "colonists" from Spain, China and Yucatán. The abuses arising from the application of this decree gave rise to protests by humanitarians, among whom we should mention Lord Howden, English Minister to Spain, who, in a letter to Sr. Pacheco, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, remind the Spanish government of British opposition to international slave trade. In this letter, dated October 6, 1854, Minister Howden pointed out that contracts under the 1854 decree meant slavery for the Chinese, as they did not provide for the humanization of conditions of securing, transporting and distributing Chinese, and that contracts under this decree did not stipulate the period of service(2). On June 6, 1860 another royal decree intended to regulate the immigration of Chinese was promulgated(3). The decree was designed to protect the Chinese against personal abuse, privation or cruelty. However, Paragraph VII made them apprentices, or slaves, as long as they remained in the island, unless they were able to ransom themselves. This was utterly impossible, considering the conditions imposed. On October 10, 1864, exactly four years before the second proclamation of Cuban Independence, a treaty between China and Spain was signed at Tientsin. In this treaty emigration between these two countries was regulated, as well as the employment of the subjects of one state by those of the other signatory power. It is important to note that Articles IV and X of the treaty permitted Chinese and their families to embark from any open port of China. Prior to this time, embarkation of coolies for Latin America had been restricted mainly to very few ports. From 1848 to 1852 Canton was a very important center of emigration; later Macao became the most important port of exit in the traffic of human cargo. Since in the drafting of the treaty the possibility of Chinese contractors importing Cuban or Spanish workers into China was not contemplated, the terms of the contract were all in favor of the master as against the so-called apprentice.

Between 1853 and 1873, 132,435 Chinese were shipped from China to Cuba; of this number 13 per cent died en route or shortly after their arrival(4). This great loss of human lives, the large number of fugitives and their participation in the war of independence on the side of the Cuban patriots(5), the willingness of the free Negroes to work, the importation of workers from other areas and the continuation of the slave trade, all conspired to stop Chinese immigration in 1873.

During the first nine years after the traffic had commenced, the Chinese laws prohibiting emigration had been almost totally ignored by foreigners and their Chinese aids. It was not till 1856 that an ordinance was introduced by the local governments on the Chinese side for the purpose of regulating the terms of the contract concluded between the Chinese coolie and the foreign agent. Chinese authorities were trying to ameliorate the suffering of the Chinese workers, whose fate was similar to that of African slaves. In 1859, the Canton viceroy officially sanctioned the trade in order to regulate it. One of the least cooperative governments in the regulation and humanization of the traffic was that of Portugal. In 1865 the Chinese government drafted a new code of regulations. The following year France and Britain signed an emigration convention with China which abrogated prohibition of emigration, made kidnapping punishable by death, reduced the contract to a five-year period, assured the coolies free return passage and permitted emigration only from ports where joint supervision was possible. The Emigration Convention was later approved by the United States, Russia, and Prussia but Britain and France did not ratify the convention. Joint pressure by Britain, France, the United States, Prussia and China induced Portugal to prohibit the coolie trade at Macao on March 27, 1874. This was the reason why during that time the port of Macao was closed to the coolie traffic, Spaniards, Cubans and Peruvians protested this act. But in spite of foreign protest, pressure and indirectly implied threats against the Chinese already in Latin America, the trade was not immediately revived.

At this time China and Spain were engaged in an acrimonious controversy over a treaty which was to govern the relations between the two countries and control the coolie traffic. The Chinese government complained of the harsh treatment of the Chinese in Cuba. The Spanish minister denied the accusations. Dr. S. Wells 'Williams, U. S. charge d'affaires in Peking, suggested to the Chinese Foreign Office that the best way to learn of the true contentions of the Chinese coolies in Cuba was to send a commission to investigate(6). Spain reluctantly accepted the visit of the commission which was formed by Chan Lan-pin, who at the time of his appointment was in the United States in charge of Chinese students abroad, A. Macpherson, commissioner of customs at Hankow, and A. Huber, commissioner of customs at Tintsin. The commission arrived in Cuba on March 17, 1874, and remained there until May 8, visiting many plantations where the coolies worked(7). The commission questioned them, took their depositions and received their petitions. More than 2,500 Chinese were interviewed. By May 8 they had 1,176 depositions, 85 petitions and 1,655 signatures. The report of the commission confirmed the accounts of inhuman treatment that had reached China. It indicated that of the 40,413 Chinese in Cuba at that time, 80 per cent bad been kidnapped or decoyed! The report further revealed that relatively a very small number of coolies in Cuba ever managed to return to China. Another cold fact, that of the 114,081 who had been sent to the island between 1847 and 1867 only 53,502 escaped life servitude. The report was published in 1874 and shocked the world(8).

Notwithstanding the revealing findings of the Commission the Chinese government negotiated a treaty with Peru in 1874 and on November 17, 1877, a convention between China and Spain was signed at Peking. Under this convention the emigration of Chinese subjects under contract as authorized in Article X of the treaty of 1864 was discontinued, and the emigration of Chinese into Cuba or elsewhere was declared free. The convention further stipulated that Chinese subjects in Cuba were to be treated as subjects of the most favored nation, thus permitting them to leave the island unless under judicial supervision. Spain agreed to expatriate, at her own expense, all Chinese who formerly had literary occupations or an official position in China, along with their families, old men unable to work, and Chinese orphan girls. Three years later, on October 15, 1878, the Captain General of Cuba issued a decree requiring all Chinese whose contracts had been terminated either to recontract or leave the island within two months(9).

Many reasons have been advanced for the gradual disappearance of the Chinese migratory movement to Cuba, but the following merit particular emphasis:

  1. The suppression of slavery, resulting in large measure from the efforts of humanitarians and the opposition of Britain to international slave trade.
  2. The willingness to work on the part of a large number of free black and colored Cubans.
  3. The better physical resistance of the Negro worker to the tropical climate.
  4. The frequent insurrections due to abuses.
  5. The inhuman working conditions and innumerable abuses.
  6. Participation by thousands of Chinese in the Cuban wars of independence, particularly in the Ten Years' War.
  7. The racial prejudice against Chinese by Spanish authorities.
  8. The small number of Chinese women in Cuba, due both to the restrictions on leaving China and landing in Cuba.

The number of 6,709 indentured laborers departed from Macao for Cuba in 1873. It was the last significant number of coolies shipped to the island. Considerably less Chinese arrived in Cuba during the following years. On December 31, 1877, there were 43,811 coolies on the island(10). Probably this was the highest number of Chinese in Cuba in any given year. By 1899 the number dropped to 14,863. Since few Chinese returned to their homes in China, the reduction in their number may be attributed to the high mortality resulting from excessively hard work.

The picture of the migratory movement is summarized in the following table taken from Imré Ferenczi's International Migrations (I, 926-928).

Chinese Emigration From Macao To Havana
































    (1) U.S. War Department, Report of the Census of Cuba, 1899 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900), p. 69. The first recorded shipment of coolies to the American continent left Amoy in 1847 and landed in Cuba the same year.

    (2) Idem, p. 70.

    (3) Idem.

    (4) This estimate is given by the U. S. War Department in its Report of the Census of Cuba, 1899, on page 71.

    (5) When the war for the Cuban independence started, thousands of Chinese joined the revolutionary armies and helped proclaim Cuba's second declaration of independence, which by coincidence was to be on the same day and month (October 10, 1868) as the proclamation of Chinese independence from Manchu rule (October 10, 1911). Under Cuban patriot Carlos Manuel Céspedes, many Chinese soldiers gained high rank and esteem in the Liberation Army fighting the Ten Years War (1868-1878). Cubans remember gratefully Chinese officers with Spanish names: Francisco Moreno, Juan Díaz, Crispinico, Pablo Jiménez, Tancredo, Bartolo Fernández, etc., and men like Siam J. Tolón and Anelay, among the Chinese warriors who hispanized their names. For more information on this see my Spanish translation of "Cuba y la Colonia China", by King Chau-mui, Chinese Minister at Havana, in Oriental (Lima, Peru, September, 1947). In Anotaciones históricas de los chinos en Cuba by Captain Bartolo Fernández, we have detailed information about the Chinese armies led by Chinese officers, and the participation of Chinese military advisers with vast experience in China, all of whom fought heroically in the wars of independence of Cuba to whom that grateful nation has erected a monument.

    (6) Diplomatic Despatches, China, 35 (Williams to the Chinese Foreign Office, August 1, 1873, enclosure number 4 with Despatch number 8).

    (7) There was no exaggeration in the findings of the commission as can be proved through information from other sources, such as the writings of the contemporary authority on Chinese affairs, Dr. S. Wells Williams, of the American Legation in China. See for example his dispatch to the Secretary of State, in Legation Archives, Williams, 1865-1866, XXXIII (Peking, April 3, 1866), no. 27, pp. 471-477. The Peruvian Newspaper, La Patria, in its editorial of March 17, 1874, denounced the cruel treatment of the Chinese and affirmed that at least 80 percent of the Asiatics who arrived at Paita and Callao had been victims of the most cruel deception.

    (8) The report was published in Shanghai in 1874 under the title, Chinese Emigration: Report of the Commission Sent by China to Ascertain the Condition of Chinese Coolies in Cuba. The report may also be found in the State Department National Archives; Legation Archives, Miscellany. LXXVII (No. 247), pp. 329-733.

    (9) U.S. War Department, op. cit., p. 71.

    (10) Idem.

From: EUGENIO CHANG RODRÍGUEZ, "Chinese labor migration into Latin America in the Nineteenth Century", in Revista de Historia de América, México, número 46, diciembre 1958, pp. 375-397

Cuba. Una identità in movimento

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