Conditions in China in the later half of the 1800s were difficult. Increased foreign presence, over population, ethnic conflicts and the Taiping Rebellion fueled migration.
A Scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864, by Wu Youru, 1886.
background image


play icon

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:

The Abolitionist Movement’s strength and world-wide attention played a roll in the demise of slavery. In 1862 the United States, under President Lincoln, examined coolie trafficking, and along with Great Britain, formed an alliance to stop the trade on their respective ships. But Spain persistently brought coolies and continued to use slaves for labor in Cuba. Runaway slaves and runaway coolies were treated with equal punishment and documented equally as well. Some of these “cimarrones” joined forces in the western part of the island, but were not strong enough to complete a rebellion against Spain.
Slaves and Chinese work side by side on the sugar plantations.
background image

James and Ana Melikian Collection

camera icon
test icon
test icon

listen icon

play icon

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.

“Everyone says that officials have national regulations, and the people have [the right] to public discussion. Travelers far from home should have plans to guard against calamity. As sojourners in an unfamiliar land, [we] should prepare good strategies to protect ourselves, considering we Chinese have, for many years in this place, been bullied and insulted by the Spanish colonists to the extreme point that [we can] no longer bear the suffering and hardship. The reason all that has happened is because our Chinese people lack the heart to unite and furthermore because we lack leadership. Thinking back to September of last year, corrupt officials [issued a] cruel order to oppress the Chinese people. Within one night, everyone—the law-abiding and criminal alike—was arrested as quickly as a thunder-clap strikes, without time to cover the ears. At that time, although we called out to Heaven and Earth, it was of no use. Fortunately, thanks to august Heaven, a benevolent U.S. businessman witnessed these unjust events and strove to save and release [the Chinese prisoners]. The businessman approached the official colonial government to appeal and petition and finally obtained the release [of the Chinese prisoners]. But our laments for these insults, how could we forget? However, presently, although we are temporarily in a period of peace, we still worry about whether the previous calamity will occur again. We planned many strategies, and have failed each time. Recently, Heaven fortunately bestowed an extraordinary encounter with a U.S. benefactor, [‘Langluofu,’ 浪羅付 or Adolfo D. Straus], of renown and authority, who is furthermore extremely honest and upright, and was willing to act on behalf of us Chinese. With his backing, we are establishing the Chinese Civic Association to prepare against future misfortune. Already [he] has reported these matters for consideration and obtained approval from the barbarian [Spanish colonial] officials in order to rescue our people from [dying in] the waters and fire, and to save our people from utter misery. This truly is an unprecedented encounter, and if we pass it up, we will not find it again. A day ago, the barbarian [Spanish] officials already issued official documents to inform all Chinese and barbarian people [about this matter]. Now, we especially convene those who respect what is just and those with resources to lead in donating money to establish the association, to found a hospital, and furthermore, to petition Luzón [i.e. Spanish] officials for a permit to install a plaque [for the formal establishment of the Chinese Civic Association], and to collectively to strategize a plan for long-term tranquility. Now, we list below the following items [that arose from] public consensus.”

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.

Laboring Between Empires: Coolie Solidarity and the Limits of the Chinese Civic Association in Havana, 1872

Margaret Mih Tillman

First Article

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.

Second Article

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.

Third Article

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. 

Fourth Article

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.

Fifth Article

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. 

Sixth Article

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.

Seventh Article

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.

Eighth Article

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.

Ninth Article

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.

play icon
listen icon

“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.[61] 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.[62] 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

Rudolph Ng

St Catharine’s College, Cambridge – 2014