Most coolies were not able to save money to return to China and were often forced to sign second contracts. The following is a sample second contract:
Chinese organize: having served first and second contracts, very few coolies were free from indenture, and still suffered under the current plantation system. To help support one another they began to form associations. An important document found in the collection shows the bylaws of one of these associations in Cuba.
The author’s translation of the Association Bylaws is a preprinted appendix of a working article: Margaret Mih Tillman, “Laboring Between Empires: Coolie Solidarity and the Limits of the Chinese Civic Association in Havana, 1872,” to be published in Verge: Global Asias 2.2 (Fall 2016).
background image actual Association Bylaws.
The rationale of establishing the Association was originally a plan for long-term peace. No matter one’s age, all people of reason have the right to discuss [these matters] collectively.
It is unnecessary to discuss those Chinese who have already gained manumission after fulfilling their contracts of eight years. If one has not gained manumission, he may tell the board members [of the Association]. If a man has not redeemed himself, he may tell the board members, and he needs to pay eight and a half pesos for the executive board to draw up the paperwork on his behalf, in order to avoid any problems with fake documentation.
When Chinese people without registration numbers are arrested, they may be re-contracted. After the establishment of the Association, the board members will report to the Spanish officials to release that man, and handle the paperwork on his behalf. The man himself pays the expenses of eight and a half pesos for the board members to draw up the documentation for him. Even if the man does not have a centavo to his name, the Association will advance the fees for him. Every month, two and a half pesos will be deducted from his salary [to reimburse the Association]. The man will not be allowed to find an excuse to renege on the debt, and after four months, it will be repaid in full.
From now on, those who have not yet been released from their contracts, upon fulfilling the terms of their contracts, [will have the option of allowing] the board members to handle documentation on their behalf, so they need not worry.
All we Chinese people should abide by the law, and should not steal other people’s property. Upon discovery of such crimes, [the Association will] send [those criminals] to the authorities to be tried and punished.
One should not protect or hide fugitives. According to public consensus, those [who do] will be fined seventeen pesos exactly. There is no room for further discussion.
As to the aforementioned monthly contribution, every shop–no matter large or small–needs to contribute exactly two pesos every month. Each peddler contributes exactly one peso every month. Those who have already fulfilled their contracts must donate half a peso every month, but those who have not yet fulfilled their contracts must only pay 8 centavos.
Recently, [two missing characters] the expenses [to process paperwork for legal residency] have become exorbitant; everyone should try his best to donate and to contribute to accomplish this great deed collectively.
If any board member incurs expenses or financial discrepancies, [he] must disclose [the discrepancy] to settle it properly. One should not act arbitrarily, but should clearly note the monetary amounts within the association records in order to attain the public good and selfless altruism.
1874: the ending of indenture. 1886: the ending of slavery in Cuba.
“The written and oral testimonies from the Chinese coolies collected by the Commission constituted a scathing indictment of the Cuban sugar planters and the Spanish authorities on the island. Based on 1,176 individual testimonies made by the coolies, the Commission argued that the employment contracts were virtually meaningless because neither the Spanish authorities nor the Cuban business owners complied with the terms allegedly agreed upon. Almost 90 percent of the Chinese coolies testified that they had been sent to Cuba without their consent. Additionally, upon termination of the contract, the coolies were not freed or provided a means of returning to China; instead, they were held with the assistance of the local Spanish authorities and continued to work in Cuba. Without hope of ever returning to China or gaining their freedom in Cuba, many coolies committed suicide. As a result of these circumstances, less than 2 percent of all Chinese coolies ever saw their homes in China again. With their stacks of documents, the Commission headed back to Washington D.C. to compile and translate its final report.”
61. Cuba Commission Report, 3.
62. Evelyn Hu-Dehart, “Chinese Coolie Labor in Cuba in the Nineteenth Century,” Contributions in Black Studies 12 (1994): 3; Cuba Commission Report, 150–151.
The Chinese Commission to Cuba (1874): Reexamining International Relations in the Nineteenth Century from a Transcultural Perspective