Coolie Trade in the 19th Century

June 16, 2015

This resource consists of historical documents about Chinese coolies imported to Cuba during the 19th century. Its goal is to highlight the human experience during the coolie trade and to encourage critical thinking about how the coolie trade and coolies were portrayed and discussed internationally.


The "coolie trade" refers to the importation of Asian contract laborers (especially Chinese and Indians) under force or deception during the 19th century. It emerged during the "gradual abolition" of slavery in the early 19th century, and coolies were exploited as substitutes for slave labor.

The British were the first to experiment with this infamous form of labor migration when they imported 200 Chinese to Trinidad in 1806, when the British ended the slave trade. By 1838, some 25,000 East Indians had been exported to the new British East African colony of Mauritius. While Indian coolies were mainly transported inside British colonies, 250,000 to 500,000 Chinese coolies were imported from 1847-1874 to various British, French, Dutch and Spanish colonies in the Americas, Africa and Southeast Asia. During this twenty-seven year period, about 125,000 Chinese coolies were sent to Cuba. They were predominantly men from southern China exported via Macao (then a Portuguese colony). Eighty percent or more were sent directly to sugar plantations.

Coolies worked and lived no better than slaves, having insufficient food, lacking promised medical care, working long hours, and suffering physical torture. The merciless coolie trade caused scandal in contemporary international media and was criticized as a new form of slavery. In 1855, England withdrew its ships carrying Chinese coolie laborers to Cuba and Peru. In 1856, Peru followed suit and made the coolie trade illegal. In 1862, the United States banned the coolie trade in a law issued by President Lincoln, while around 1874 the Portuguese also ended the coolie trade via Macao under international pressure. While having long viewed Chinese abroad as "abandoned people" and having been largely impotent in confronting western powers, the late Qing government took a rather firm stand after the mid-19th century to protect its overseas subjects. In 1877, a Sino-Spanish Treaty provided that the Chinese then under contract in Cuba had their contracts terminated, and Chinese consuls were named to protect Chinese residing in Cuba.


The following sources are about the experiences of Chinese coolie laborers in Cuba and how the coolie trade was discussed internationally.

  1. Excerpts from a report submitted by a Chinese commission sent to Cuba in 1874 to investigate the mistreatment of Chinese laborers. In less than two months, the Cuban Commission collected 1,176 depositions and 85 petitions supported by 1,665 signatures, all vividly demonstrating the miserable lives of Chinese coolies in Cuba.
    PDF iconThe Cuba Commission.pdf
    The Cuba Commission Report: A Hidden History of the Chinese in Cuba, The Original English-Language Text of 1876. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993.
  2. A New York Times article in 1860 that advocates for United States governmental actions against the coolie trade and compares the coolie trade with Chinese migration to the United States.
    PDF iconAmerican Coolie Trade Excerpts.pdf
    "The American Coolie-Trade." New York Times, April 21, 1860, sec. 4.

Discussion Questions

  1. According to their own testimonies, how did Chinese coolies come to Cuba? How were they treated in Cuba?
  2. According to the New York Times article, why should the United States act against the participation of United States merchants in the coolie trade?
  3. How did the New York Times article differentiate coolies to Cuba from Chinese immigrants in the US? After reading the two sources together, what can we see about the different portrayals and the ambiguous position of Chinese labor migrants in different local contexts (such as their racial status, interracial marriage, cultural characteristics and economic value)?

Suggested Readings

Christopher, Emma, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Buford Rediker. Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Hu-DeHart, Evelyn. "Chinese Coolie Labour in Cuba in the Nineteenth Century: Free Labour or Neo-slavery?" Slavery and Abolition 14, no.1 (April 1993): 67-83.

Irick, Robert L. Ch'ing Policy toward the Coolie Trade: 1847-1878. Taipei: Chinese Materials Center, 1982.

Jung, Moon-Ho. "Outlawing "Coolies": Race, Nation, and Empire in the Age of Emancipation." American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 677-701. 

Lai, Walton Look. Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.