Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | December 8, 2011

The Other Slavery: Chinese Coolies in Latin America

The Other Slavery: Chinese Coolies in Latin America

Michele C. Dávila Gonçalves, Department of Foreign Languages

“Coolie (variously spelled Cooli, Cooly, Kuli, Quli, Koelie etc.) is a historical term for manual laborers or slaves from Asia, particularly China, India, and the Philippines during the 19th century and early 20th century. It is also a contemporary racial slur or ethnic nickname for people of Asian descent, including people from India, Central Asia, etc, particularly in South Africa.”

When we think about slavery in the Americas we are typically thinking about the African slave trade that went on for three centuries. When the African trafficking was abolished in the Americas it needed to be replaced by a different type of labor force, and that is the reason so many Chinese and Indians, often referred to as “coolies” in English, a word which can be traced to two different Urdu words meaning laborer and slave—were brought over to our continent as indentured servants.

Coolie laborer circa 1900 in Zhenjiang, China. Source: Wikipedia

The Portuguese and the British started this human trafficking with people from the Far East, or the Orient, as it used to be called. Many ‘coolies’ were forced (sometimes literally kidnapped) or deceived into going to the Americas. Others were sold by their own people to coolie brokers and more sold themselves or were sold by family members to pay debts. The Chinese, mainly from the province of Guangdong, went to the west of the United States and Latin America. Indians, on the other hand, went mainly to the Caribbean basin especially to Trinidad Tobago and Guyana. As Ah Xiang states in the website, “From 1847 to 1875, 99,149 out of 150,000 Chinese coolies sold to Cuba departed from Macau” Additionally, “Portuguese specialized in selling Chinese women and Chinese girls overseas as sex slaves throughout the latter half of 19th century. Shanghai would follow next.” In fact, the name Shanghai literally alludes to this practice of involuntary servitude by captains of merchant ships that where in need of crewmen.

In the United States the Chinese labor helped to build the first Transcontinental Railroad, and in western Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Still, Chinese settlements were strongly discouraged. In 1862 California approved an “Anti-Coolie Act,” to protect white laborers while taxing Chinese business entrepreneurs; and in 1882 the US federal government approved the “Chinese Exclusion Act”, by which Chinese immigration to the United States was suspended for 10 years, but it lasted almost 60 years until it was repealed in 1943. Of the Chinese already in the United States, some stayed and many just went south of the border to Mexico, especially to Baja California where they settled in Mexicali which has nowadays the biggest Chinatown in Mexico.

Many of the Chinese coolies went to Cuba. From 1847 to 1862 about 600,000 per year went there on American vessels. In addition to going to work on Cuban sugar plantations they also went to work in the Peruvian guano pits. Conditions on board these ships were the same as the well known conditions in the ships that came from Africa: overcrowded, unsanitary, and brutal. The mortality rate was around 15% for the Cuba voyage and 30-40% for the Peruvian one. Few of these workers managed to return to China and the Chinese government itself became concerned with their citizens and brought forth the elimination of the coolie trade in 1874.

In Cuba indentured Chinese labored in the sugarcane fields well after 1884, the official date for the abolition of slavery in that country, and they were slaves in all but name after that, although their legal status separated them from Africans and their descendants. Havana‘s Chinatown (Barrio Chino de La Habana) is one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in Latin America. Many used their savings to open small grocery stores or restaurants, and married into the larger Spanish, mulatto and Afro-Cuban populations. In the 1920s an additional 30,000 Cantonese arrived, only male, and they intermarried with the white, black and mulatto populations. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, many Chinese grocery store owners had their properties expropriated. These mostly left Cuba and settled in different countries, but especially in the Caribbean region, in places such as Florida, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. After the 1990s there has been a revitalization of Havana’s Chinatown and there are cultural groups that are helping Chinese-Cubans to strengthen their knowledge of the Chinese language and cultures.

Meanwhile in South America, Chinese indentured laborers (about 100,000 people) worked in Peru’s silver mines, as well as the guano, sugar, and cotton industries from the 1850s to the 1870s. Nowadays the Chinatown in Lima (Barrio Chino), has over 6,000 Chinese restaurants called “chifas“ where they serve a type of Chinese food which has a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian ingredients. Maybe next time we order Chinese food we will remember how everything got started.


  1. Any Coolie labor in the banana fields?

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