In 2013, collector James Melikian was going through a sales catalogue of an auction of African American history and came upon a single document different from the rest which related to the migration of thousands of Chinese to Cuba in the mid 19th century. It piqued his interest and he started buying everything he could on the topic. What he collected includes thousands of original documents, manuscripts and photos covering the migration of approximately 142,000 Chinese who “signed up” to be cheap labor in Cuba from 1847 during the indentured period, through free migration in the late 1800s, and continuing into the 1970s – recording the Chinese community in Cuba. This collection, very rich in original photographs as well as documents, is probably one of the largest such collections of its type in private hands. Melikian also teamed up with Dr. Ralph Gabbard at Arizona State University’s (ASU) Hayden Library to archive and store the digital collection there under the title, “The James and Ana Melikian Collection.” At present the collection contains over 1340 records and about 8,000-9,000 pages. Both the physical and digital archive continue to grow. Included in the collection and archive are ship manifests, certifications of entry, first and second contracts, lists of contracted Chinese workers, runaway workers, permanent residence documents, naturalization documents, identity records, passports, certifications of nationality, baptism, marriage and death records, financial records, court cases and many more record types. What is presented here in this web documentary is the history and contribution of the Chinese who came to Cuba through the narrative of this vast collection.
Since 1440 African and in smaller percentages other slaves were used throughout the world. In the Americas, especially in the Caribbean, African slaves often outnumbered the free population. It became evident that they could unite and rebel as they had in Haiti in 1804. In the mid 1800s the Spanish who occupied Cuba feared a slave uprising. They also did not want to pay the high price of black slaves. They therefore sought new means to acquire cheap labor.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Slaves being sold at public auction.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.
Approximately 142,000 Chinese were put on ships bound for Cuba. About 12% of them never made it to their destination. The countries that imported slaves, shifted interest to the coolie trade. Here are some samples of the percentages by country of coolies that were brought to Cuba.
“Coolies are very unceremoniously walked, or rather dragged on board – some of them, perhaps, expostulating against going on board at all, while others are crying, and in another quarter might be seen one boldly disputing the matter, even to resistance; but it is now too late. If the cane does not drive them on board, and the gangway-ladder is too narrow for the operation of dragging, a rope is thrown from the ship, and no alternative remains but to walk quietly along, or he will forthwith be hoisted up like any other bale of merchandise.”
Coolie Traffic and Kidnapping, Don Aldus – McCorquodale, Oxford University – 1876
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Coolies Embarking At Macao.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1880 – 1905.
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Here you will find excerpts from Coolie Traffic and Kidnapping recounting the voyage of Don Aldus aboard an American ship dealing in the coolie trade, departing from Macao. This is a conversation between the author and Dr. F as they watched from the shores the ships coming in to pick up coolies for the trade.
I inquired what ship it was.
“That sir,” he replied, “is the clipper ship A___, one of the finest sailing ships afloat; she is destined for the Chinese slave-trade, alias Coolie traffic.”
“How can you make such traffic slavery?” I inquired, “as I have been informed that they are all shipped off voluntarily, and under a time agreement.”
“Well sir, I believe there is some such farce as you refer to gone through; but I am assured upon reliable authority that two-thirds of the poor things are decoyed from home and sold into the ‘barracoons,’ after getting inside the gates of which the curtain drops over the victims.” (13)
Don Aldus, now on board the coolie ship observes:
We will now witness their examination, which has a twofold purpose. It was done under the supervision of the first doctor and chief officer – the former functionary being employed to decide that each bag of living bones is sound in every corner, and free from contagious disease, while the latter is watching that no knives or iron implements of any description be hid about their persons, to the endangering of their own lives, or the lives of those around them; and also to see that no opium be secreted under their arms or both their garments, the unrestrained use of which is considered highly injuries to the physical system.
Now Don Aldus has been on board for a few weeks, while coolies are being brought to the ship. On this day a European and a Chinaman approach the ship and come on board. The Chinaman in great distress:
“I have lost my son. I have lost my son. I have been searching the last two days amongst the other ships, and have not found him. This, “ he continued, “is the only one that remains to be gone through, so kindly render every facility in the search to recover my only child.”… (86)
The coolies were brought on deck, but his son was not among them.
The countenance on the poor man actually collapsed, as with tottering steps and tears rolling down his cheeks, he descended to the hold to satisfy himself that his son was not there. (87)
As he lamented the loss of his son there came a noise. They beheld someone crawling around in the darkness.
…the interpreter ordered the man to come forth… the father rushed up to him and with tears of affection, threw his arms around the youth’s neck, uttering the words, “My son.” then fainted in the young man’s arms. (87)
The son was so embarrassed and ashamed that he had allowed himself to be tricked by his entrapment that he did not want to face his father. He tells his father that he was invited into the home of a well-dressed Chinaman, who offered drinks of wine and asked him to come to Macao with him. The young man, intoxicated, agreed. He was brought to a fine house and asked to accompany the servant to another apartment, which he did.
“I felt myself in a Chinese ‘man-trap’ where I well knew expostulation to be of no avail. Away from home, without money, and in a strange place… I resigned myself to my fate as philosophically as I could.” “But,” said the father, “why is your name not among the list of emigrants?” “They compel the captured man, in many instances, to change his name, adopting in lieu what we should call a coolie name, so as to prevent as far as possible the discover of his whereabouts.” … “If you desire me to accompany you to shore, you will, I am told, be required to pay a ransom of seventy or more dollars.” (89)
Sampling of first contracts.
Hundreds of documents in the James and Ana Melikian Collection verify the large numbers of coolies that were brought to Cuba. When they arrived in the harbors, their first contracts were sold to the plantation owners and the coolies were treated no better than slaves, working long hours under unbearable conditions, beaten and tortured. Most of the coolies were sent to the sugar plantations, as Cuba’s largest crop produced more sugar than anywhere else in the world during this period.
From 1830s to the 1870s Cuba’s output of sugar increased from 105,000 to 703,000 tons. With the British consuming one third of the world’s sugar. (13)
paraphrased from The Coolie Speaks, Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, Lisa Yun – Temple University Press, Philadelphia – 2008